I finished orientation at Project Homeless Connect and got in line with dozens of other purple-shirted volunteers to await our first clients. Soon someone was saying, “Meet Darlene.” I told her my name is Doris and we’d be the Darlene and Doris team for as long as it took to move to all of the stations she’d told the screener she wanted to visit. She grabbed my arm and held on warning me that she had an anxiety disorder and was very uncomfortable with the crowds. Besides, she’d gotten on the wrong trolley to come to the Civic Center and had had to walk some distance to make it there. She was eager but already tired.

After visiting the dentist who said she needed to go to a clinic then the medical van, she spoke up to tell me her primary reason for coming to the event was to find housing. Great! Weren’t most of the nearly 1,200 people who came to Project Homeless Connect looking for housing?

“I’m not going back to the dirt,” the 66-year old repeatedly told me throughout the day. She currently stays at the winter tent but she has no idea where she’ll go when it closes in April. She has been homeless off and on during the three years since her partner of 19 years died and she has been unable to get his benefits. (She believes she is owed these since she cared for the disabled veteran and was his “agent” — whatever that means!)

Fortunately, I know a little about affordable housing. Unfortunately, I also know how oversubscribed it is and how long the waits are — far longer than the few months until the tent comes down.

We started at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development desk but they don’t develop housing and had only lists of affordable developments. They were giving out pens and key chains. Darlene took a key chain and held onto it for “good luck” all day — she said she planned to put the key to her new home on it.

We next went to Section 8 where Darlene was signed up for multiple wait lists as a disabled senior. Good news: That would give her a priority to have a portion of the rent paid on an apartment since her total income of $934 a month means she can afford about $300 per month in rent. Bad news: The wait is still years for Darlene to get onto Section 8 in the city of San Diego.

At the next table there was a representative from The Association For Community Housing Solutions, a supportive housing provider. That would be a wonderful alternative — affordable housing, independent living, some services if you qualify. But, again, a waitlist.

After signing up for a reduced-price California identification card from the DMV and talking to an attorney about an elder abuse incident, we had lunch and visited with some of Darlene’s friends from the tent. During all of this time, now a couple of hours, Darlene had held tight to my arm relying on me to navigate through the hundreds of clients and service providers in Golden Hall. We took advantage of the lunch table to complete the many forms and applications we’d picked up during the morning. Darlene was determined to turn them in before she left in order to expedite her move into her own apartment.

The forms asked for an address. We used the Neil Good Day Center. Darlene said this was her address but no one ever contacts her there, especially her family members who, she claims, are embarrassed by her. The forms asked for a phone number. We put the same number on all of them. It was the phone number for the county’s clinical coordinator of the homeless team at the tent, a woman Darlene spoke of as her “guardian angel” (also as her “psychiatrist”, friend, etc.).

My background in affordable housing led me to the Impact table. I’d heard they now have the county contract as the Full Service Partnership for homeless seniors with mental illness. Someone had whispered to me a few minutes earlier that they had an opening which would mean, if Darlene were accepted for it, housing plus supportive services to allow her to live independently. We quickly completed the form and turned it in and will eagerly await a screening call.

By now, we were both tiring. We’d been at this nearly four hours hustling back and forth around Golden Hall. The person Darlene and I wanted to check in with was her “guardian angel,” Sally. Sally’s card said she was a licensed M.F.T. (Marriage and Family Therapist?), not a psychiatrist. I wanted to warn her about all of the agencies that might be calling Darlene on her phone and to thank her for the assistance she was providing for my new friend. Darlene wanted to introduce us and, in spite of reminders about waitlists and never mentioning the possible Impact opening, she wanted to report that she was finding a place to live.

We easily found Sally at the county’s behavioral health table and updated her on our day. Since she was right next to the Impact table, we told her of the application and expected call from them, one I wanted to be sure Darlene wouldn’t miss. I left Sally knowing that Darlene has great support, at least while she’s at the tent.

After a few more stops our day was done. But Darlene didn’t know how to get back to the tent without the people she’d come with, and she wanted to show me where she lives. So I agreed to take her on the trolley. When I asked one of the coordinators which trolley to take, he informed me that the Alpha Project had arranged vans to transport clients back to the tent so, with a hug and a kiss from Darlene, we parted ways and I left her in the company of some other tent residents. I committed to visit and to follow up through Sally on how she is doing. I will treasure the little “silk” change purse she gave me as a gift; said she’d bought it for 15 cents at the Salvation Army and that it had a penny in it for good luck. I was already the lucky one — I met Darlene.

Doris Payne is an advocate for the homeless.

Want to spark discussion? Start a conversation by submitting a commentary at Fix San Diego.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.