Homelessness is a national challenge and evident in the streets of our cities. The number of homeless across the country is staggering, however, in California, it is a crisis. The state auditor stated in April 2018 that California is doing a poor job of sheltering the nation’s largest homeless population and needs to provide statewide leadership to address it. California has approximately 134,000 homeless people, roughly 24 percent of the nation’s total homeless population. Of this homeless population, 34 percent lived in a place not meant for human habitation, such as the street, under freeways, grassy fields, parks and abandoned buildings.

Our Crestwood San Diego campus had an opportunity to interface and participate in relieving homelessness for some individuals in the community. In 2017, Crestwood San Diego took its first steps toward a major expansion project to increase their bed capacity by an additional 80 beds throughout the campus. As we assumed responsibility for the entire property, we had opportunities, as well as challenges.

We found a sizable homeless encampment on our property, in a large canyon adjacent to the parking lot. There were 15 to 20 individuals living in the canyon, with an enormous amount of belongings and trash. The status of the canyon posed safety risks, leaving Crestwood with no choice but to address the homeless camps that had taken over the canyon.

Our approach was to address these campsites and its inhabitants with dignity and compassion. We assembled a team of caring community partners that included San Diego County Behavioral Health Services, local law enforcement, the city’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), the San Diego Public Health Department, Alpha Project, Episcopal Community Services, and local city government. Preparation for the upcoming move-out day was very thoughtful and deliberate. We worked together to provide as much notice as we could, to prepare the homeless individuals for their need to relocate. Our goal was to provide support to them every step of the way, to connect them to needed services while considering the major impact this would have on their current living situation and sense of safety. The homeless safety risk in San Diego was also increased by an outbreak of Hepatitis A, that had already killed 17 people.

The canyon encampments were visited by Terry Hoskins, San Diego Police Department’s Communi- ty Outreach Officer, and Crestwood staff, who provided them with information and resources, as well as notification of their need to relocate. Months of preparation went into this project and by the time the day of the move arrived, many of the inhabitants had already found alternative housing. The few that remained were assisted by our team of compassionate workers who provided counseling and supportive services to those who were dealing with issues of substance abuse, family displacement, unemployment, financial issues and health concerns.

Once the inhabitants had vacated, another large project lay ahead. There was an abundant amount of trash and belongings left in the encampment, as well as the overgrowth of trees and bushes. We contracted with an amazing local organization, Alpha Project, to spearhead this phase of the project. Alpha Project is a not-for-profit human services organization that serves more than 4,000 people each day with affordable housing and residential substance abuse treatment. They have a program called Take Back the Streets (TBS) that is a catalyst for homeless people who are able to work, providing them with immediate transitional employment and training while providing the community with vital cost-saving services. TBS arrived within an hour with a crew of 10 able-bodied adults, many of them with their own life experiences with substance abuse and homelessness. They worked tirelessly for two weeks to clean out the canyon and restore it to its natural beauty.

“I cannot express my appreciation for the work that has already been accomplished in such a short amount of time. This type of productivity and sense of responsibility is so refreshing,” said Officer Hoskins.

Addressing this homeless challenge aligned beautifully with Crestwood’s mission and values. Crestwood’s values of compassion, character and family were prominently displayed throughout this project, teaching us all that such challenges are best handled with sensitivity, respectful care and teamwork.

Contributed by:
Patricia Blum, PhD
Crestwood Executive Vice President