Homeless for the Holidays

    Ed Stewart spends most of Thanksgiving day thinking and relaxing on one of the white beaches of La Jolla. Around midafternoon, he catches the bus to a Thanksgiving dinner offered to San Diego homeless residents like himself.

    Victor Ha
    Guardian

    “”It’s always a nice set-up, no matter where I go,”” Stewart said, as he stood on Girard Street in downtown La Jolla. “”There are more volunteers this time of year, and most everyone is in good spirits.””

    According to the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Act, a person is considered homeless when he “”lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence and has a primary nighttime residency that is: a supervised or publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations; an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or a public or private place not designed for human beings.””

    Between the lines of this dry explanation are the nearly 15,000 people that constitute San Diego’s homeless population, according to the San Diego Regional Taskforce on Homelessness. This population divides into the “”urban homeless,”” who carve out a living on city streets, and homeless farm laborers who live in the northern canyons, hills and fields.

    Victor Ha
    Guardian

    Stewart, 39, has been homeless for six years after losing his job and family to drug addiction. He has been in and out of therapy and shelters during his time on the streets. He believes that the winter season makes San Diego residents feel particularly altruistic.

    “”One thing that’s nice around the holidays are the extra donations,”” Stewart said. “”It’s a much different time of year.””

    St. Vincent de Paul Village, one shelter network Stewart said he has utilized for assistance, is a large resource for San Diego’s homeless. Its two Thanksgiving meals served on Nov. 26 will feed over 2,000 homeless.

    “”Thanksgiving day meals for the less fortunate are a dime-a-dozen in this city,”” said Father Joe Carroll, president of the village. “”But the thousands of homeless and underserved members of our community need warm meals and nourishment year-round, and St. Vincent’s meets that need by providing meals each and every day of the year ‹ not just on popular holidays.””

    Sharon Johnson, director of the City of San Diego’s Homeless Shelter Administration Winter Shelter Project, agrees that the holidays bring more volunteers. The project, a large-scale homeless service effort during the winter season, was established in 1993 and provides hundreds of beds, countless meals and other employment, health and social aid services to people like Stewart.

    “”We developed the Winter Shelter Project for the colder season, but this is a dire, year-round problem,”” Johnson said. “”I can’t even come up with the right word to capture the homeless situation. It is disgusting, embarrassing and appalling that with the wealth that this country has, America still has men, women and children living on the streets.””

    Families represent a quarter of San Diego’s homeless population and the majority are headed by women who are domestic abuse victims. Movements like the Monarch School, located in downtown San Diego, and Stand Up For Kids were founded to help nearly 2,200 homeless youth ‹ an estimated 800 of whom are on their own.

    The Monarch School blossomed from a small drop-in center the San Diego County Office of Education funded for homeless youth in 1988. The Progressive Learning Alternative for Children’s Education was staffed with a single teacher, despite the number of homeless youth it attracted. In 1996, P.L.A.C.E. expanded to include an academic curriculum for junior high and high school students, and tutoring and mentoring programs were installed. In 1998, it was renamed the Monarch School, and by 2001, it operated with a computer lab, three classrooms, a health clinic, a lunch room, a kitchen, a laundry room and showers made possible by donations and SDCOE funding.

    Each season, the Monarch School hosts seasonal celebrations for the students, from Thanksgiving to Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. Stand Up For Kids also hosts such seasonal celebrations, but, like the Monarch School, it works at its efforts year-round.

    “”We do what families do for the holidays,”” said Rick Koca, founder and CEO of Stand Up For Kids. San Diego is the national headquarters for Stand Up For Kids, a movement run almost entirely by volunteers throughout 30 states.

    In 1987, Koca saw a television news special report on homeless youth in San Diego. When the Navy stationed him in San Diego, he was inspired to walk the streets, find these youth and direct them to shelters. Stand Up For Kids was created to assist with housing, education, vocational development, counseling and life-skills training needs. Laundry, food and mail services are also available.

    “”We are here to benefit the kids, and each one is an individual,”” Koca said. “”Around the holidays, we decorate the center and make a fun, festive atmosphere.””

    Remembering some of the most popular gifts that were donated, Koca said that magazine subscriptions and prepaid phone cards were high on the wish lists.

    “”Some of the youths at the center don’t even realize they have anyone to call until you get a phone card in their hands,”” he said. “”It’s then that they realize they are connected, and that sort of gift is good year-round.””

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