Father Joe’s employee helps clients battle substance use disorder, homelessness
By KENDRA SITTON
As the Manager of Residential Services at the Paul Mirabile Center (PMC), Jesse Mendez’s life is a testament to his clients that there is a way to change your life for the better.
“Just because you’re in a situation right now doesn’t mean that we can’t make different decision and be on the other side,” Mendez said.
After over a decade of service to Father Joe’s Villages, his story of struggling with substance use disorder and homelessness still resonates with the single adults utilizing the short-term housing at the PMC.
“I think some of the biggest ways that I relate with clients is because in my life I made a lot of the same decisions as clients,” he explained.
He aims to always be open and honest with clients about his past so they can relate to the obstacles he faced. Mendez, a lifelong South Bay resident, started using drugs at a young age and quit after 15 years at age 28. A year later in 2009, he met a Father Joe’s Villages’ employee at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting who said Mendez would be a good fit to work at the village but needed more relevant work experience beforehand. With a recommendation from that employee, Mendez got a job working at Alpha Project’s winter shelters.
Mendez’s own experience of sleeping unsheltered was limited to the South Bay so seeing the extent of the unhoused population in Downtown was shocking. He felt like he was one bad decision away from ending up in the same place as the people he served in the shelter.
“It also established for me, I don’t know if it’ll sound cliche or whatever, but what I was meant to do in life,” Mendez said. “I’ve been working in the field ever since. Every day is a blessing for me. Every day.”
In that role, he also came to the conclusion that there is no ‘face of homelessness.’
“[There is] just so many different ways that somebody could end up homeless. There’s so many different situations that keep people homeless,” he said.
As he moved up the ranks at Father Joe’s Villages, he described himself as a man of a million chances. When clients came to his office after breaking rules, he would keep them in the program if they showed any sign of trying to make different decisions in the future. One client stayed in the short-term housing program for over 1000 days. When he finally got his own apartment, the client wrote Mendez a letter thanking him for the multiple chances he was given in the program that ultimately allowed him to be in permanent housing.
One advantage of the PMC center is that many of the services to help clients are housed in the same building including a medical clinic, dental clinic, behavioral health counseling, addiction education and treatment. In addition, employment and education services are available as well as a computer lab.
“I think that’s what makes it so much easier to get our clients to engage in interventions and stuff like that, because they don’t have to go anywhere to get them because they’re right there,” Mendez said.
He is grateful to have impacted so many clients as well as his staff, some of whom are previous clients at the short-term housing facility. It is rare for him to go to a public place like a Padres game and not run into someone who was his client. On a trip with his family to Phil’s BBQ, he met a previous client working at the restaurant who said Mendez’s story impacted him and he never forgot it.
“For me, that’s what it’s about. You have no idea what you might say in any interaction with someone that might just be you doing your job, but how much impact that that had on an individual,” he said.
Some of his most successful and long-term staff have been previous clients because they understand the impact their work can have.
“It’s not that you have to have faced homelessness to work in homelessness or understand homelessness. Because it’s kind of like saying that you’ve had to been a drug addict in order to be a successful alcohol and drug counselor. And that’s not true. However, you get a lot more buy in from clients when you’ve lived the life and you’re making different decisions,” he explained. “It’s not a nine to five; we’re not robotic. We work with compassion. We work with a passion – our heart is always in.”
Despite the challenges brought on by COVID-19, Mendez is proud that the retention rate of staffing at his program is better than it’s ever been. He attributes it to all of them having a cause to get behind: protecting clients.
“I was a firm believer that our clients were more at risk of us than we were of them. Our clients usually have their own circles. They don’t really get out and travel all kinds of other places like we do. When COVID first hit, I never really considered it a homeless problem, because it took a while for positive COVID cases to even start to impact the homeless community. And I really strongly believe it wasn’t because of homelessness. It was because of all the all the vacation and all the travel that happens in San Diego,” Mendez explained.
During early 2020, the number of people living at the PMC was cut by 50% while the San Diego Convention Center housed the majority of unsheltered people in the city. Those that remained at the PMC were medically fragile individual who may have been at risk living in communal housing. Since the Convention Center stopped being a shelter, the PMC has tried to increase the number of residents but each time that happens, there is a COVID outbreak and they have to pull back on the timeline for being at full capacity. Amid the Omicron surge, Mendez said many people are testing positive.
Mendez acknowledges that with its many challenges, working in social services is not for everyone.
“You can’t just work at the village or work in homeless services because you need a job. You have to have a heart for this. It’s a trying job. It weighs on you physically, mentally, emotionally, and you have you have to be bought in to what you are doing, because you’re never gonna be rich working in social service,” he said. “But you can live a comfortable life and at the same time, it’s doing what’s important in life – and that’s impacting the lives of others.”
— Reach Kendra Sitton at firstname.lastname@example.org.