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Homeless Outreach Team: a year in review  

Posted: March 25th, 2016 | Communities, Feature, Featured | No Comments

HBA and Alpha Project hope to extend program for another year

By Joseph Ciolino

It’s been almost one year since the Hillcrest Business Association (HBA) teamed up with the Alpha Project and Councilmember Todd Gloria’s office to launch the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), a program designed to provide social services to the homeless and get them off the streets and into shelters or housing.

The Alpha Project provides specialists who team up with police officers to go through San Diego’s communities and find homeless people by directly approaching them or responding to community calls, and try to persuade them to accept services or move into housing, said Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the HBA.

“The idea is rather than try to bully them out of neighborhoods, we are trying to provide them services so they don’t need to stand on the corner and panhandle,” Nicholls said.

So far, Nicholls considers the HOT project to be a success.

homeless-Ken Williams photo

A homeless person sleeps under a blanket in broad daylight behind a business in the HUB shopping center in Hillcrest. (Photo by Ken Williams)

The Hillcrest program has engaged with 836 people and provided them some level of services, from relocating individuals to shelters to providing showers, job training and mental-health services. Out of the 836 contacted, 16 people were placed in homeless shelters.

For last month alone, 44 homeless people were contacted and provided services, which included food and water, hygiene supplies, blankets, clothing, and housing, medical and mental health referrals, according to Alpha Project reports.

The Alpha Project and the HBA hope to renew the HOT program in April when the grant ends, but the means to fund the program this time around is still being worked out.

“Ongoing funding for the program is a challenge,” Nicholls said.

Gloria, the District 3 councilmember, said he has been very pleased with the program, and his office has been advocating for continued funding. Last year, his office provided $20,000 of the $50,000 annual budget for the HOT program.

“Alpha Project’s outreach in Hillcrest has had a meaningful impact in addressing homelessness in the neighborhood,” Gloria said. “Their efforts to link homeless individuals with services and place them in housing is the only real way our city will end homelessness in the long term, and I am happy to help the Hillcrest Business Association fund that effort.”

Hospitals and local businesses are also encouraged to give their support to the program.

“We have approved another grant for this year and tried to encourage the business community to match our funds,” said Jessica Lawrence, policy advisor for Gloria’s office. “Getting the business communities and hospitals on board would help sustain the project.”

The HBA has already been working with local hospitals to help renew the program, since they are directly involved with providing health services to the homeless.

“The hospitals are part of the issue and they have obligations to treat homeless people through the emergency rooms,” Nicholls said. “We are working with them to secure a sponsorship for the program.”

Nicholls has another plan that could help generate additional funding for the program. Hillcrest has a Maintenance Assessment District for business property owners, and the HBA is looking to expand the district into the east side of the community. The assessment would help raise the money to cover the program.

However, for this to happen, the business property owners must approve the assessment plan by balloting. If passed, business property owners would pay about $100 to $120 a month, with larger property owners paying more and smaller property owners paying less, Nicholls said.

The ballot is currently being formulated and the election should take place this summer to see if business property owners are willing to be assessed to help fund the services available to the homeless.

“The real people that suffer when there are scores of homeless people everywhere are the business people,” Nicholls said. “Property owners are going to find it more and more difficult to lease these spaces if we can’t address this problem.”

An additional element of the program was developed over the last year. According to Nicholls, about 10 to 15 homeless people are chronic troublemakers in Hillcrest. HOT officials identify any crime that is committed and can file a temporary restraining order against that individual to prevent them from visiting the businesses where they have caused problems.

So far, Nicholls said, only one homeless man has been served with a restraining order. Nicholls said people would buy him yogurt from Starbucks and he would proceed to throw the yogurt at their windows. He was also arrested for assaulting someone in Rite Aid.

Nicholls’ face lit up when discussing another project the HBA is working on. His team is gathering unused parking meters, painting them red and putting them around the neighborhood.

The print on the meters read: “Help the Homeless Outreach Program.” People wanting to help the homeless will be able to place their change into the meters, which will be mobile and can be placed as special events, for example. The Downtown San Diego Partnership has already implemented a similar program, which is called “Make Change Count.”

“Most homeless people have some chemical addiction and that [panhandling] money is going straight into a bottle,” Nicholls said. “We are going to put five meters around the neighborhood, and that will fund the outreach program as well.

Today, HOT members work eight hours a day, five days a week in the communities trying to provide for the homeless, and Lawrence says the councilmember’s office wants to see the program improve by expanding it.

One way to do that would include hiring housing navigators who can place clients into housing more efficiently and effectively, and having more people involved with the program.

“More outreach workers, more hours,” Lawrence said. “This will take a broader commitment from the community but additional hours, days and more consistency will always help.”

—Joseph Ciolino is an editorial intern for San Diego Community Newspaper Network, the parent company of San Diego Uptown News. Reach him at josephciolino@hotmail.com.

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