Friday, September 23, 2005 | The ground level of the San Diego Rescue Mission has a patchwork floor of concrete, linoleum, tile and carpet. The freshly-swept hallways echo with a melodic mix of voices, music and an occasional burst of song.
The floor itself serves as a good metaphor for the diverse makeup of the people that have come to the rescue mission seeking solace from their demons of drugs, alcohol or an abusive spouse. Trodden underfoot by society, a little worn around the edges but proud, that floor is a lot like the building’s inhabitants.
The rescue mission celebrated its 50th birthday with an official ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday. That the mission’s actual birthday was sometime back in August, and that the threshold over which the ribbon was cut has been crossed thousands of times over the last few years, didn’t really matter to anyone attending the event. In symbolic terms, the ceremony marked five decades of the mission’s work in the community.
What started as a humble soup kitchen on G Street – then San Diego’s Skid Row – is now a towering institution on Banker’s Hill with sweeping views of downtown and the harbor. The institution has been reborn a few times over the years and has found itself shunted around the city due to financial considerations and as a result of gentrification policies ordered by the city of San Diego.
After moving from facilities on G Street and Fifth Avenue to the city’s East Village, the rescue mission set up a facility specifically for women and children in Barrio Logan. Pushed out of the East Village by plans for the new ballpark, the organization eventually found its new home on Elm Street in 2001. Moving into the new facilities was a nightmare for mission President and CEO Jim Jackson Jr.
“Folks were viscerally outraged,” said Jackson. “Their perception was that the city was foisting off the problems of the East Village onto them. … We didn’t get any help from the city.”
The year 1999 was the beginning of a new era for the mission in a number of ways. Under its new president, the center began moving toward a philosophy of what Jackson calls “the continuum of care.” Under that mantra, the mission began to offer those who sought its help more long-term solutions to their problems.
That meant people who came to the shelter could stay for weeks rather than days. The mission began offering a comprehensive program similar to the 12-step program that is offered to alcoholics and drug users.
In addition to its short-term goal to house and protect those who have nowhere else to go, the mission now wants to take in as many needy people as it can and to offer its inhabitants as many chances as possible to re-join mainstream society.
That can be a daunting task when often people arrive at the center with nothing. Many newcomers are consumed by addictions and haunted by the ghosts of mental illness and relationships gone wrong.
“We’ve had women turn up in the middle of the night, wearing one shoe,” said Keith Hammond, the center’s communications and public relations director. “Mothers and children will show up with half-packed suitcases looking to get away from an abusive spouse.”
Jackson said that the demographics of the mission have changed noticeably over the years. In the 1950s, the shelter mainly housed old white men – hobos carrying paper bags holding wine bottles. The people seeking help now are much more likely to be women and children. Children are the fastest-growing homeless group Jackson sees coming to the shelter.
A four-pronged attack on the poorest members of society has driven more and more people to the mission’s doors, said Jackson. The closure of state-run mental hospitals, a vast increase in the proliferation of drugs – particularly crack cocaine and methamphetamine – the AIDS/HIV epidemic, and San Diego’s housing crisis have contributed to a level of homelessness that’s never been seen before in this city, he said.
At the ceremony Thursday, Jackson remarked on the fine weather and how strange it seemed that across the country millions were fleeing Hurricane Rita. Despite the sunshine, however, Jackson said San Diego has had to deal with its own natural disaster.
“San Diego has been hit by a deadly and a silent tsunami,” he said. “It’s taken over 90 lives in the past year. Wave after wave of drugs and despair have hit our city, along with domestic violence and alcohol abuse. We have 10,000 people living in the canyons and on the streets of San Diego County today.”
There could have been 325 more.
That’s how many people sought refuge in the center on Wednesday night. Many of these were mothers and children brought into a downstairs dormitory that serves as a short-term shelter.
In that room, brightened by the happy colors of blankets and by its cleanliness, one can still feel the sadness that visitors to the center bring through the doors. A small corner with toys that have been used countless times is marked out as the “kids corner” and rows upon rows of bunk beds and mats on the floor sit waiting for the night’s influx of refuge-seekers.
Upstairs, things are more jovial. The long-term residents of the mission, those on Jackson’s version of the 12-step plan, happily go about their business. Some are sweeping floors, others sit in front of computer screens, while still more relax in the TV room or stand in the corridors sharing stories and the day’s news.
One group of men standing in the building’s lobby Thursday talked of the local job prospects and of the smart shoes they planned to buy when the first pay check comes in.
On other levels of the building, the long-term residents have their homes. One resident showed off the impeccably tidy room he shares with three others. The men have their own bunks, dressers and a desk. Each room has its own bathroom and shower.
Lining the shelves of the desk are a number of Bibles.
Jackson is vehemently proud of his organization’s Christian roots. He asserted that the rescue mission has never sought a penny of public money, believing firmly in the separation of church and state.
But the rescue mission is a Christian organization through and through. One of the first things newcomers to the shelter participate in is a church service.
Throughout their time at the shelter and while they are following the organization’s routine, they are expected to abide firmly by the basic rules of Christianity. That means no drugs and no sex and they must participate in Bible studies and worship.
If you ask the men who call the place their home, it’s a small price to pay. For some, certainly, the religion they learn in the rescue mission is the best thing about their stay.
“I was so ready to be changed,” said 33-year-old Brian Nixon, who spent a year on the streets struggling with alcohol and drug addiction before he sought the mission’s help. “I came in here and I just gave all of myself to this organization.”
Twenty-nine-year-old Croshawn Stevens, an ex-gang member from South Central Los Angeles, agreed with Nixon.
“My faith was kinda limited,” said Stevens. “But as time allowed me to progress here, I have realized that God has the power to change a person from within and that’s what he has done to me.”
It’s that sort of internal change that Jackson and his staff are searching for. With an annual budget of $12.5 million, mostly made up of donations from more than 40,000 donors in San Diego County, the rescue mission has spent 50 years providing a service to San Diego that was recognized by Deputy Mayor Toni Atkins at the ribbon-cutting speech Thursday.
“For 50 years, the rescue mission not only provided warm meals and kind words, they have provided humble beginnings that have given tens of thousands of people the help they needed to change their lives.”
Gripping the firm handshakes of Stevens and Nixon, and looking up into their clear eyes and hopeful faces, one gets the sense that those humble beginnings could really be the start of something.
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