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If there is no answer to homelessness, Dee Torres, Director of Homeless Services for the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County (CAPSLO), didn’t get the memo. And if she got it, she tossed it, because as far as she’s concerned – and she’s very concerned – she going’s to do everything she can to put an end to the homeless crisis in San Luis Obispo County.
Miss Torres and CAPSLO manage the County’s two shelters, Prado Day Center and 50-bed night shelter Maxine Lewis, and she knows it will take an aggressive, coordinated effort to achieve that goal. With the help of Friends of Prado Day Center, led by its president and longtime volunteer Roy Rawlings, and the many good people dedicated to seeing homelessness in retreat by the end of the decade, no one should bet against her no matter how great the odds.
“There’s no glory in this,” Miss Torres said recently at the Prado Day Center off South Higuera in San Luis Obispo. “You have to love what you do.”
Miss Torres was the manager at Prado for a decade and became director several years ago, the hours increasing along the way. After 20 years on the long, heart-breaking, gut-wrenching road to end homelessness, she has become a passionate advocate for the homeless, a fluent translator of their needs, and eloquent expert on a subject that few can talk about knowledgeably in the right way, with the right tone, without sounding like an outsider talking about something that someone told them. Because of her valuable experience working with the realities of the homeless and her ability to break down and articulate the nuances of the issues, she is practically indispensable to the efforts of CAPSLO, SLO County and the community to implement a solution — and make it work.
Caring about the homeless didn’t start out as a job for Miss Torres; it was an instinctive reaction. She was first jolted to an awareness of homeless people in her sheltered youth. “I got involved in this as a student. I came from an upper middle-class family in Orange County. As a teenager I saw my first homeless people going to a movie in Santa Monica at the Third Street Promenade, and I was shocked. I got so curious – why is this happening? I started my own thing with my friends passing out sandwiches, kind of getting to know people, and then just continued on. I started here with overflow. I would do the overflow with the churches as a volunteer. I went on to work for the shelter for about six months, and then came here as a manager at the day center. I did that for about 10 years, then became director.”
Miss Torres is in charge of an overloaded, scattered and disjointed system. Prado is crowded and cramped. A modern new Homeless Services Center is set to crawl off the drawing boards in 2013 and open in 2015. In the meantime, a walk through Prado illustrates why the new center is desperately needed, especially when homelessness is getting worse, not better. Prado was opened in 1997 when an average of 60 homeless people a day came through its doors. Twenty-five years later that number has more than doubled.
“If you start pitting this center with even some like the day care center in Santa Barbara or some of the other programs locally, we really run on a shoe string,” she says. “Our budget is next to nothing, and on a good day we have three staff members on site. And so if we’re talking about 120 to 150 people, that can be as many as 40 to 50 people per one staff person. That’s an unheard of ratio. I do a lot of touring because we’re preparing for our new center. I just wanted to see what’s out there, do a lot of visiting other cites, (and when I tell them) their jaw drops. The normal accepted ratio is more like a 10 to one sort of a thing, not a 40 to 50 to one staffer.
“We do our best to provide the core services – showers, meals, the mail service, things like that, but at the same time we’re constantly challenged to meet clients’ needs, and so we continue to develop programs to do that.”
For example, Prado has developed a ‘medically fragile’ motel voucher program for clients with an illness – it could even be just a contagious rash that would prohibit them from being in the center. “For a long time we were having to just put them out for the safety of others in the environment,” she says. “Now we have a program where we can actually put them up in a motel for a few days so they can get rested and then come back into the environment. We have no money for that program, so we raised money for that program. It’s an extra duty that the staff takes on, to refer people and work with the motels and do all of that…
“We also have a program to get the kids out of here during the days, and on the weekends, after school and before school. That’s another program we’ve raised extra money for, but we don’t put any staffing in that, so it’s added to our duties. But we think that it’s really important to have the kids have a regular environment just like all the opportunities that other children have to play, to go to the Hearst Castle, to swing on swings, and all those things.
“It’s a complex and challenging issue,” Miss Torres stresses. “Traditionally we are providing services to the people in the community that nobody else really knows how to provide. They’re ending up here generally. Everybody’s individual, but they’ve fallen through all the other cracks. They don’t have the same family support, generally. Everyone’s different, but they don’t have those supports and so people don’t know how to respond. I mean, this isn’t just an issue for San Luis Obispo, this is an issue across the country. If there was an easy answer we wouldn’t be sitting here. It’s challenging and complex, so people tend to take a more phased view of things…
“So we’re really at capacity at this point with what we continue to do. At the same time we’ve taken on the safe parking program and we’re doing that without adding staffing. That’s something that we’re going to try to monitor via internet and with our existing staff, but we are challenged as the number of clients continue to rise. We continue to serve them in spite of that, and try to do it in a more comprehensive way, but we’re really just wearing extra hats rather than adding any funding or adding staff. We are doing it with the same staff – we had three staff when we had the 60 people, we had two and a half, three staff people for that — so we really haven’t added staff.”
Roy Rawlings has been volunteering for eight years, and he’s also President of Friends of Prado, charged with fundraising, keeping the lights on and programs flowing. When he was a veteran he was homeless, and he’s been involved ever since.”We’re pretty much maxxed out in terms of size and capabilities,” he says. “That’s why we’re looking at having a new center program.”
Mr. Rawlings described the situation as “sad,” but he also has his non-nonsense finger on the pulse of what needs to be done. “This complex and the service they provide (comes down to) the importance of case management,” he says. “That’s really critical to me. But this is just one piece of the puzzle. You’ve got mental health. A lot of the homeless are in a mental health state, everything from deeply schizophrenic to something else. Some can be medicated, some can’t. So there’s this huge gap.
“Then you’ve got the others who were working before the recession and they’re not working anymore,” he says. “They were kind of marginalized to start with, and don’t have a lot of capacity to find new jobs, and there aren’t a lot of new jobs. Then there are others, quite frankly; it’s harder to deal with what they’re not interested in. Plus, this is an important piece of that puzzle: People in here, generally speaking, would like to find a way to become more self-sufficient, and that’s what the goal is. They want that self-sufficiency to move into society, and feel better about it at the end of the day.”
Compared to a for-profit business, measuring the success of a shelter is very difficult to quantify, but the ability to steer willing clients into case management and help those willing to help themselves toward self-sufficiency, is fundamental to Prado’s mission.
“Success, for us, is different for each individual, “Miss Torres says. “Our main goal is getting people housing, permanent housing – and that could be housing here locally, it could be housing back in Washington with grandma or with a relative. We always look at the immediate circle because the housing is really tough here. So we don’t encourage people to ‘come and we will house you.’ No, when they come to us, the first thing we look at, especially if they’re from out of the area, is do you have ties, do you have a sister in Oregon. [Through case management] you take the individual, and you take the whole individual as they are, and you work with them to address the issues that generally got them into this situation in the first place.”
The three case managers work countywide, including in SLO working out of the day center and night shelter. They are paid professionals that all have had six to 10 years experience working in SLO with this population.
“We had about 300 people (in case management) last year,” Miss Torres says. “The challenge is we’re still after 20 years kind of going it alone. Mental health, drug and alcohol… there’s no drug and alcohol counselor that comes out here and works with the client. It’s limited to one mental health outreach worker for the homeless – countywide. It’s all budgetary; we’re constantly pressuring (for funds). It always comes down to money. So we end up being that catch-all, end-all deal, and it’s challenging. The economy’s getting worse. We’re not on an island here in St. Louis. We house people but the problem grows.
“In my 20 years,” she says, “I’m seeing pretty much the same type of situations that I saw 20 years ago. I’m seeing a lot of stress and trauma, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, some of it leading all the way to childhood. I’m seeing people that come to us generally. We do have those people that just were hit by the economy – those are the easier ones for us to usually help, and that’s great – but the chronic homeless and the real needy in the population are the real tough cases. We’re seeing them and we’re seeing it get worse.
“With the economy, we’re not so much seeing people whose homes were foreclosed on and now they’re in the shelter. We’re not really seeing that; usually those people have other resources. But we are seeing how the economy is hitting us and hitting these other departments, such as the Department of Social Services, other workers in other areas. As a result, a lot of people are coming to us with more complicated issues that aren’t being addressed in other areas, so it’s getting tougher.”
Looking five years down the road, Miss Torres is “nervous” for the challenge she sees ahead for the community. “The community dialogue is good. It’s good that we’re addressing it and it’s getting the attention that we weren’t getting five years ago. Honestly, the only reason I’m doing this is to end this thing. Everyone says you’re never going to end it; I’m not going into it thinking that. My goal is that we will. For me the dream is the center that we’re building. We’ve been titled the land and we’re moving forward, and bringing the services – you see how impacted we are here – being able to have more offices for more providers, and really pressure – we’re doing that now – the County to find resources, find the money, this is important… Bring the mental health and bring all these services under one roof, and cut down on the transitory way that the population is treated now, going here and there.
“Homelessness is hardest right now just in our community on the children. They’re from birth sometimes – because we do get them right out of the hospital – put in some migrated state where they come here to the center during the day, then they go to the shelter in early evening. Then from the shelter they’re bussed to an overflow, and they’re supposed to do well in school all day when they’re woken up at 6 a.m. from their cot and bussed to a school, so it’s really tough on the kids. At our new center it’s a one-stop. The kids can come after school. We’re going to have study areas, play areas, then the people there to support them, and a special dorm area where it’s more family oriented with a goal of stopping this thing, breaking the cycle, bringing the services now that are disjointed and all over the place that we’re sending them all to, under one roof and help people move forward. At the same time our community still has some work to do on what’s going on out there.”
Adds Mr. Rawlings: “The more you can break that cycle, you also ease the pressures on the hospitals, law enforcement, all those things people don’t realize with a little help over here will help relieve the pressure there. To the extent that you can keep the family together, and not put them through the foster home system and the cycle there, you’re also really enhancing the ground-level foundation of society, so it’s really important that we get the center started and all the things that help connect the dots. Right now there’s a lot of fragmentation and inefficiency, and we think this will help, though it may not be perfect.”
Miss Torres counsels that success in her line work, or productivity, if you will, is measured by the most unique criteria. Sometimes it’s strictly individual. “Sometimes we get people who don’t know where they were born, have never had a birth certificate, they’ve never seen their birth certificate. We had a guy who was sold when he was very young for a pickup truck to a separate family. He was beaten and molested; he is developmentally disabled. When we got him he was in his early twenties. The sweetest guy you’ve ever known, and he became very attached to us, like family. Through hard work we ended up getting him into a program where he got a little job that he can do and housing. It took about a year really working with him, but his story is just unbelievable.
“Sometimes (success) is helping somebody get medical services,” she continues. “If you ever look at a real true homeless person… Housing is like the big one. That’s the ultimate goal. Of course, they’re homeless. You’re hoping to get a roof over their heads. That’s the goal. But there are so many milestones in between, and for some people – not everyone who comes here is homeless, that’s not a requirement; it’s really for the needy – we have some people that supplement their income by doing their laundry here or getting a meal. They are people that we house that I’ve known them for 15 years. They come and say hi and get a lunch, and by supplementing their income, by getting a lunch here — we also give out bags of food for housed people to take home with them when we have it in our kitchen — that helps them to stay out, because, honestly, we have people that at the end of the month when they’re done paying their bills, just their basic breads, their electricity and the rest, they have $8 for the month, and that’s what they’re living on. So they supplement, they’re able to survive and stay housed with the services that we can provide here. So we run the whole gamut. We try to accommodate people at all levels. So success is really individual; success for that person is if they’re getting a meal and if they’re staying healthy and they’re staying in their house, it’s not so much housing.”
Prado staff earns about $12 an hour, and the work can be challenging, but Miss Torres says they do what they do because they believe in what they’re doing. “There are people that come, they work here and last two weeks or two months or six months (and determine) ‘it’s not for me.’ But the people that are here and stay here — you don’t stick around, it’s not for the glory — it’s because we love what we’re doing. We aren’t here to perpetuate homelessness. We really are here to end it.”
Sometimes staff morale suffers when critics who don’t work every day with this tough population take potshots from afar. “You feel like saying, ‘you know you could do so much good if you just took the front desk four hours a day. Do you really want to help?’ I feel like because we’ve been able to raise awareness of homelessness, now we’re getting it all – the good, the bad and the ugly… and I’m thinking, ‘you know, you’re not trying to solve anything, you don’t understand what we’re doing down here’…”
Some of that “ugly” has flared up over the center’s new Safe Parking Program, which provides five overnight parking spots in the Prado lot for those homeless who qualify. Some businesses are upset with it, staff has yet another program to handle, and critics are carping. “I have friends, donors and supporters that are really mad right now, and I’m just continuing to work with them and try to give them the truth. I’m not conceding anything, I’m not giving up, but it’s challenging. There’s a fight everywhere. The population is a vulnerable population, and to advocate for them you really put yourself out there.”
The Safe Parking Program has been a lightning rod, says Miss Torres, partly because staff and case management are also involved, and “because there are five spots and it’s meant to be a temporary housing solution towards permanent housing. With the parking program (and) the exact same case management program that we do here and at the shelter, we are saying to (clients), ‘if you want to park here, then you need to participate with the case management program because (parking overnight) can’t be a long-term solution. You’re not going to live in the parking lot. We can’t do it. You can’t stay here.’ We’ve had people stay at the shelter for a year, two years; we never give up on them. As long as you’re working with us, we have a high-percent success rate qualified by the fact that you continue to work with us. You save your money, you set goals, you reach goals, we will house you. We don’t have anyone that’s been in the program that’s not housed.”
Miss Torres draws support from dedicated, veteran contributors like Mary Parker, President of the People’s Kitchen, which provides hot noonday meals to Prado. “Mary is a good friend of mine, and she’s been doing this a long time. She used to be the head of nursing at Cuesta for years and has been around the block with this. She says, ‘I keep telling you it’s just Chinese water torture. You just keep wearing down the negative, you just gotta hang tough and they go away eventually.’ And that’s what I’ve noticed happens, especially, as I was telling the staff, when you have the truth…”
While self-sufficiency remains the goal, not every homeless person wants to go through case management, whether they know or accept what’s good for them or not. Sometimes, people Prado tries to help don’t want to be part of the system. “The problem that we have and the problem mental health has – and why we’re not able to be 100% self-sufficient with everyone — is because people do have free choice,” Miss Torres says. “That’s what we’re all trying to figure out what to do. The only thing we do with that is that most people just choose — they don’t want to save their money. That’s the bottom line. At our shelter, you have a guaranteed bed if you go on case management, and you’re guaranteed a bed until you’re housed, so why wouldn’t everybody take advantage of that if they’re homeless and they want to be housed? (Some) don’t want it.”
Since CAPSLO is a nonprofit, not a County-run shelter, Miss Torres can’t afford to let occasional criticism and accompanying frustration knock her off track. She knows it’s an imperfect system, but she has an important job to do, and a big part of that is fundraising. She can’t respond to hecklers in the cyber shadows. A lot of people depend on her. There’s no time to dress the wounds of the healthy when the focus should be on the needy and mentally ill.
“We have to fundraise 50% every year of everything that we do just to make ends meet,” she says. “It changes depending on what comes down from the state, so we fundraise – I think this year alone it’s close to $200,000 – just to keep the doors open, not to add any services. That’s just for the Prado Day Center. Every year. We’re lucky here at Prado because we have a fundraising board – all volunteers, the Friends of Prado, of which Roy (Rawlings) is the President, and they take on the majority of that. But even with the support that they give us – and I work closely with them so I help them to fundraise — I have to do my own private fundraising to put into the budget to keep the doors full hours.
“Two years ago we were supposed to close early because we couldn’t make budget, so I was the director and the Prado manager at the same time, for the same salary. Just to keep the doors open. I always dropped dead and we raised the money, and then we hired Shawn Ison to take over Prado so that I could focus on raising more money, but then that’s just Prado. For the night shelter we have to raise over $200,000 on top of the money we get to keep those doors open. So it’s constant.”
While there is a lot of support for collective efforts from businesses and, yes, attorneys to help the homeless, many in the public don’t want to see homeless people or hear about them, perhaps because they were once verbally assaulted by a homeless person, or they fear being assaulted.
“Remind them that homeless people can be a three-day old infant,” says Miss Torres. “People forget, they get so locked into the stereotype of what they see outside the post office, and that’s not the sum total of homelessness. In the schools they counted close to 2,000 children county-wide that are going to our schools, that are doubled up in houses or literally homeless. People don’t think about that. You see the little kids over there? They’re homeless. How can you blame them? You can’t.”
Many homeless were first innocent victims of crime. Miss Torres learned about a pattern a longtime local probation officer noticed among female probationers, that 99.9% of them had been sexually molested either as a child or raped as an adult. “I started looking at our female population,” says Miss Torres. “It’s so prevalent. A lot of these issues go all the way back to childhood trauma and things like that, so how do you start hating people that have not been given the same opportunities? How do you hate the mentally ill? People get afraid because if you start acknowledging it, then maybe you have to do something about it, and most people don’t want to know about it. (They say:) ‘I can barely pay my own rent. What can I do?’ (They) either ignore it or demonize it.
“It’s coming from an almost understandable place. I think we’re all feeling kind of pinched, and it’s easy to just wish it away and say, ‘well, I barely can make it… Gee, that guy needs to get a job, then he’ll be okay’ … Anything we can do to break down (the stereotypes that prevent real understanding). It’s a lot of good people trying to figure it out,” she said.
Miss Torres has a dream she can almost touch. She can envision the end of homelessness in the County and it looks a lot like the new multi-million-dollar 200-bed, 24-hour Homeless Services Center, which is expected to break ground in 2013 on South Higuera Street adjacent to the Department of Social Services and open doors in May/June 2015. Even with the homeless numbers in the County on the rise — almost 4,000 homeless on any given night, more than one third children — the economy worsening, and finding money to keep it all going a constant struggle, Dee Torres continues to believe that even the scourge of homelessness itself has an end point, an actual place where, when you let it in, it’s home. And only then and there, once that place is built, can she finally begin to close the door once and for all on this long, painful, too-human march for help that as of today still remains, unfortunately, a journey unfinished.
- “A Path to a Home: A Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness”
- 2009 County Enumeration Report
- 2011 County Enumeration Report
How to Do What You Can
Prado can always use volunteers. The center has a long history of enjoying the benefits of many great volunteers of all kinds who have contributed their time and energy because they wanted to, not for any recognition. Some volunteered their expertise — cut hair, did foot massages, did art, etc.
“I like to hear from the volunteers to see what they’re interested in,” says Dee Torres of CAPSLO, which manages Prado and the Maxine Lewis night shelter. “If they don’t come to us with a specific interest, then the front desk is the best place to be because they can answer the phones. We usually ask for four-hour shifts if they’re doing the front desk. It’s like an 8 a.m. to noon, then a 12 to 4 p.m. shift.”
Volunteers get the opportunity to work directly with staff and clients, find out how the shelter works, and how to help.
“Generally, what’s very helpful is when we are able to have volunteers staff our intake desk. We are always looking for that. It helps to keep the budget down and helps supplement the staffing if there’s a volunteer there and staffers are working together. They help the intake when the clients come in. They get some information, direct them to the right person, and just be kind of the point person in regards to where things are and what’s going on,” says Miss Torres.
Thinking about volunteering at Prado? Contact Dee Torres by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.