OB Town Council urges more action on homelessness as group describes its efforts
Primed with $1.5 million in city funding, officials from People Assisting the Homeless sought to inspire hope at the Ocean Beach Town Council’s March meeting by presenting their approach to tackling the homelessness issue at the community level.
With the money to expand PATH’s outreach teams, one was established in Ocean Beach in early March, resulting in services (including basic needs such as food or clothes, ongoing case management or COVID-19 services) being provided to 17 people and four individuals being placed in permanent or temporary housing in the brief period since.
While welcoming the development, Town Council members questioned presenters at the March 24 meeting about details and expressed frustration with the perennial homelessness problem in OB.
“You can understand, in our community, there is an extreme interest and hunger for anything we can do to address the homeless issue in our community,” said OBTC President Mark Winkie. “We get an enormous amount of pressure from the homelessness, and it isn’t necessarily people that are looking for a roof over their head. There are a lot of other issues involved in the homelessness community in our beach towns.”
PATH, launched in Los Angeles in 1984 as an emergency shelter service, dedicated itself to housing the homeless 10 years ago and now operates across the state in 140 cities in six regions: Los Angeles, San Jose, Santa Barbara, Sacramento, Orange County and San Diego.
The group’s success is based on outreach teams assigned to particular communities in which specialists cultivate personal relationships over time to focus on overcoming a homeless individual’s root problems, according to Brian Gruters, associate director of outreach at PATH.
“We don’t start with a goal of getting somebody to one shelter or another shelter or some specific programs,” he said. “We go in thinking, ‘What is the quickest way to get a resolution for this person?’”
The process is painstaking, requiring team members to win the trust of people who often are suffering from trauma or mental health issues that might have led to their predicament in the first place, according to PATH regional director Hanan Scrapper.
“We may not even know their name six months later [after the initial contact],” Scrapper said. “We may know their nickname or their street name; how others refer to them. ... We believe it takes three to six months to actually build a rapport with someone.”
Town Council board member Cameron Reid asked if some homeless people live outdoors by choice and noted two people who have lived behind his home since Reid moved there.
“Boston Bob,” he said. “Great guy. But he pees in my parking lot and trashes it. ... He said he’s chosen to live on the street for almost 20 years.”
Scrapper said chronic homelessness has led to an erroneous assumption in society that it can be a preference.
“We don’t believe anyone chooses to be homeless” she said. “[In] our persistent engagement and really working with them and talking with them, over time we’ve seen tremendous change and people even beginning to believe the idea of them being in a home. So it’s really instilling that hope in them and not giving up on them.”
Board member Corey Bruins asked for guidance in addressing the grievances of residents who feel intimidated by homeless people, particularly those engaging in antisocial behavior.
“As we experience our community and the people that live outside, it’s hard for us to engage the nuance, as community members,” Bruins said. “Over Christmas, we got so much communication about folks near the tree ... where it was like, ‘We’re scared to bring our kids down because of X, Y and Z.’”
Scrapper sympathized and found optimism in the fact that OB residents are constantly striving to better their neighborhood, an ambition that PATH shares.
“This is really hard because you also see your community being trashed,” Scrapper said. “You do want to have a thriving and safe community. So I think the goal is the same. We want to see that for Ocean Beach.”
Bruins countered that the community needs reassurances that the homelessness issue is being handled, if not necessarily resolved.
“As an organization, we would love to split the difference and make sure that we’re representing our citizens well and make sure that we’re also holding space for the reality of the folks who are calling OB home, whether they live inside or outside and no matter what their behavior is,” Bruins said.
PATH officials offered regular updates to show progress being made, and Gruters said that with more resources on the way, the long-term homelessness issue is finally being addressed.
“I think when you have outreach in San Diego sort of doing the same thing in the same way, you’re going to see adequate coverage,” Gruters said. “Right now, I think we’re moving in that direction. I’m actually pretty happy about the pace. But this is just our first approach.”
Teddy Martinez, OB representative for San Diego City Council member Jennifer Campbell, said PATH joins other groups already on the ground and having success, such as Veterans Village of San Diego, the Family Reunification Program of the Downtown San Diego Partnership and the Police Department’s homelessness outreach team.
“I just want to remind folks that they are one tool in the tool kit,” Martinez said. “This is just one more layer to build upon in OB.”
Just as a rain shower doesn’t end a years-long drought, Winkie said a focus on homelessness is the first step toward its eventual unwinding.
“I guess the good news in all this is that we’re excited you’re here,” he told the PATH officials. “We just want more of you. We want more resources. We want more funding. ... But you make a dent in the problem.”