San Diego’s Homelessness Problem: Where Do Seniors Fit?by Brie Stimson April 26, 2017
Ollie Gummer has been getting meals at Father Joe’s Villages for the last five years. The senior has neuropathy of the feet, sciatica and two degenerative discs in her spine – all a product of years of standing as a security guard.
“They just all came at one time … when I just turned 62 … The doctor says it comes from all the standing and the walking that I did,” Gummer tells me while eating her breakfast at Father Joe’s one Sunday morning in April.
Gummer has received no benefits or retirement from her job, and she had to stop working at 62 when her health started to deteriorate. While her health care used to only give her partial benefits, she now has Obamacare (Medicaid and Care First).
“Basically it’s going pretty good right now, hopefully it stays,” she says referring to the Affordable Care Act’s perilous future in Congress. Gummer says her health care helps cover her medicines, doctor visits and provided her with a walker.
Gummer now lives in an apartment built by Father Joe’s Villages, just a block from where we met over breakfast, but she struggled with homelessness 17 years ago.
“I lived on the street,” she tells me. “[It was] horrible, horrible.”
She says she often felt her life was in danger on the streets.
“At that time I had a problem with drugs and alcohol, and I lost everything and I ended up on the street for like a month, and it was scary trying to sleep at night, and when you do go to sleep you’ve got to get up at 6 o’clock, roll up everything so you can be up off the street, the sidewalk, whatever.”
Ron Newell has been volunteering at Father Joe’s Villages with a group from Congregation Beth Israel for 19 years.
“If I’m well and in town, I’m here,” he says matter-of-factly. His late wife, who was a receptionist at Beth Israel, started volunteering before him, and after she passed, he decided to give it a try in her memory. He was hooked.
Newell sits with me at one of the cafeteria-style tables near the kitchen. His latex glove-covered hands and dingy apron belie the success he’s had in his career.
“I started out in my wife’s memory,” he remembers. “It was kind of a negative period, but I was able to do something that felt good. I went home physically tired, it wasn’t something that I was used to doing, but mentally it elevated me.”
As Newell and I speak, activity swarms around us. Father Joe’s breakfast clients file in for trays of hot food while volunteers rush around to make people comfortable and put out metaphorical fires. Four people didn’t show up to volunteer that Sunday, leaving the group short, so now everybody scrambles to pick up the slack.
Beth Israel has sent a delegation to volunteer at Father Joe’s every Sunday morning for the last 31 years. As the loud room buzzes around us Newell takes me back to the 1980s when the partnership started.
“Thirty-one years ago [Father Joe] went around to the Jewish congregations with this pitch: ‘I know you guys celebrate your Sabbath at sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. How about taking over one of my dining rooms Sunday mornings?’” Newell explains. “So Beth Israel, being the biggest congregation in town, said sure.”
The Hunger Project, as it’s called, was founded by Beth Israel member Joan Kutner. To this day volunteers still adhere to what they call Joan’s rule: “Please greet everyone you serve with a smile and ‘Good Morning.’ You just may be the first person who has greeted them warmly in days, and you just might be getting their new week off to a better start.”
Newell says, “Joan Kutner prepared food at the temple during the week, had the key, unlocked the door, turned on the lights around seven in the morning and did the whole thing.”
Now someone else prepares the food and the volunteers just show up, he says.
“While someone prepared the food they worked with the kids on their homework if they were school age. They ran Bingo for the ones that weren’t old enough. Our goal besides feeding everyone was to break the poverty cycle.”
Newell says Kutner got people to donate notebooks, backpacks and other school supplies, and if people didn’t show up for a couple of weeks to get food, she would go to their home during the week to check in on them to make sure they were all right.
Now in its 67th year, Father Joe’s is the oldest and largest homeless provider in the region. They offer some form of housing, from shelters to transitional beds to rapid rehousing as well as affordable housing and permanent supportive housing, to nearly 2,000 people every day. They also have a fully qualified health clinic.
“A portion of our population has mental health challenges and of course many of those whom we serve have health issues in general from high incidence of blood sugar from diabetes, as well as high blood pressure, and that comes from living on the streets and not eating well and being [malnourished],” Deacon Vargas, president and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages, says. “And so the fact that we have doctors here who are able to assess an individual not only … the physical aspects, but also as their mental wellbeing is concerned has been a G-dsend for us.”
The center operates as a clinical site for UC San Diego’s medical program.
Vargas says that although they placed 826 people in long-term housing last year, there is still a lot more to be done. Of approximately 9,100 people who are considered homeless in San Diego, 5,600 of them are actually living on the streets.
“We can provide shelters and we do, we’ve been doing it for a long time, but there aren’t enough front doors, I call them, there [isn’t] enough permanent housing in order to really help them break that cycle of homelessness,” Vargas explains.
Ollie Gummer calls her studio on 15th and Commercial “gorgeous.” As well as being on the Patient and Family Advisory Board at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, “they just conned me into being tenant rep in my apartment over there,” she laughs, meaning she reports problems on her floor.
Her struggles living on the street “blessed” her to go to a shelter, and after getting addiction help at the YWCA, she left California for Texas, for a “geographical cure to get away from everything.” She returned in 2005, started coming to Father Joe’s and six years later in 2011 she moved into her apartment downtown.
She is now waiting on her Section 8 federal housing choice voucher.
“That would lower my rent,” she tells me.
Right now Gummer pays just under $400 a month, but with housing assistance she could get her rent lowered, and she hopes she might be able to afford a one bedroom apartment. As much as she loves her studio, “I’m thinking I’m starting to grow out of it,” she says. “I need a bigger closet,” she laughs. “If you don’t have a housing subsidy,” she says, it’s impossible for people in her financial situation to afford an apartment. “That’s why there is so much homelessness here. It’s because of how high the rents are … The rents [have] just skyrocketed.”
Gummer says she’s seen the blueprints for Father Joe’s bold permanent housing expansion plan.
“Now they’re trying to get things organized, especially Father Joe’s is getting ready to build some housing here for the homeless … Basically what they’re doing right now to get it started is they’re getting old motels and revamping them into apartments so they can get them off the streets. I think it’s going to work outstanding once they get it started.”
Vargas says two things make San Diego’s rental market different from most others. There is a low availability of affordable housing coupled with generally only about a two percent rental vacancy.
“What we need is affordable housing,” he says.
In March, Father Joe’s announced the initiative Gummer mentioned. It’s called “Turning the Key” and would increase permanent housing by 2,000 units over the next four to five years. The price tag, according to Vargas, is $531 million, $409 million of which is already available from existing public funds.
“That’s going to be through a combination of new construction on sites that we have … and we’ll be building on those sites, and that’ll equate to 760 units of the 2,000,” he explains. “Then we also will go out and acquire and refurbish old motels that basically need a shot in the arm, they need a facelift, they’re in areas that I hope the community would welcome us so that we could refurbish them and we can convert them into studios, one bedrooms and two bedrooms so we can accommodate families as well.”
Vargas says that will account for 1,240 units bringing the total to 2,000.
“We hope that will take off the streets, out of shelters anywhere from 2,500 to 2,800 individuals, which is a big number,” he says. “There’s still a lot more out there, but this is a huge endeavor.”
For his part, Ron Newell says he’ll keep volunteering as long as he’s physically able.
“At least once or twice when I was standing there putting something on the tray each Sunday a little thought will flip through my mind, but for the grace of G-d I could be on the other side of this counter. And so I have done well workwise, retirement is time to give back.”
Gummer can appreciate Newell’s thinking. Her father was a preacher, and she says she’s always been a spiritual person.
“I got help,” she says of her struggles. “But the main help I got was from my man up above … That support has helped me greatly … Right now things are starting to happen … Things are looking like it’s happening for me.”