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Earl Childress is not who one may expect from a homeless outreach worker. He joined the military to get away from the life of a minister’s son, and much of his worldview is shaped by his time serving. He’s regimented, unequivocal and preaches the importance of self-reliance and tough love. Childress likes to joke that if his sole colleague Matthew Smiley, who has a master’s degree in social work, is the velvet glove, then he’s the iron fist.
The pair work for a La Mesa program called Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement, or HOME, that’s housed within the La Mesa Police Department. But Childress and Smiley are outreach workers, not cops.
East County has long struggled with high rates of homelessness but has historically lacked substantive means to address the issue, and the political will to come up with them.
The HOME program is part of a recent and broader push to finally develop new solutions to rising homelessness across the region. Residents of La Mesa, and the city’s officials, have been broadly supportive of the program. And HOME workers say the approach has been working, but they emphasize it’s not a one-day success story, rather one built on trust earned over time.
But even as La Mesa has taken greater action to address homelessness, challenges remain.
HOME is centered around an outreach method known as progressive engagement, not to be confused with progressive enforcement. In part, this approach calls for assistance tailored to the needs of each individual that goes beyond simply housing someone, to better treat the root causes of homelessness.
Childress and Smiley walk individuals living on the streets through the process of accessing services and work to ensure they not only schedule appointments but show up to them too. Childress recently had a scheduled meeting with a client who didn’t show, but that’s just part of the process.
“We’ll find them again, and we’ll drill it down, and we will not take this personal,” Childress said. “Because that’s not going to help anybody.”
The results of the 2022 countywide homeless count, which took place in late February, haven’t yet been released. But according to the 2020 count, the last on record thanks to COVID-19, La Mesa was home to 52 people living outside a shelter.
Though the number of unsheltered individuals living in the city has been relatively low compared with other cities in the region, La Mesa officials said they were responding to an increased sense of urgency among residents. So in late 2019 the City Council voted unanimously to create a citizen’s task force on homelessness that would study the issue and return with recommendations. The creation of HOME was one of those recommendations.
Established in November 2020, the program is an integral part of La Mesa’s 2021-2026 Homeless Action Plan. HOME was loosely based on a more than 30-year-old mental health, addiction and homelessness safety response program in Eugene, Oregon, called Crisis Assistance Helping out on the Streets, or CAHOOTS. That program, which provides around-the-clock crisis intervention and sends individuals trained in social work or trauma response instead of police officers, has gained national recognition for offering an alternative to police engagement.
HOME also has a dedicated phone number and email address and receives notifications from La Mesa’s SeeClickFix app, which allows individuals to report non-emergency-related issues.
Hanan Scrapper, regional director of the nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH, with which the city of La Mesa contracted to build out a framework for HOME during its first year of operation, said she believes it’s the first program of its kind in the region. The San Diego Police Department’s in-house Homeless Outreach Team, for example, relies on officers to interface with unhoused individuals. Though the city of San Diego recently awarded PATH a contract to create social worker outreach teams, that initiative is not replacing its officer outreach team.
According to an October 2021 quarterly HOME report, the program had served 201 individuals since its creation and moved 32 into temporary housing such as an emergency shelter, 19 of whom were then guided into permanent living situations.
Like its model program in Oregon, HOME is now receiving calls that come into La Mesa’s police dispatch. But while Eugene uses a broader crisis response program, HOME answers calls specifically about homeless residents who do not involve a threat of harm and that feature a low level of criminal activity.
This means when someone calls the police because someone is sleeping on the side of a building, or drinking a beer in a park, they could be visited by Smiley and Childress instead of a police officer. But despite utilizing a checklist to determine which calls get routed where, the exact contours of that divide, and the way the system works in real-time, can be at the discretion of the dispatcher.
Wayne Anderson, who served on La Mesa’s Citizen Task Force on Homelessness, said his work on the board of directors of the Family Health Centers of San Diego taught him that homelessness was largely a result of broken systems nationwide — from mental health to addiction and recovery to prisons, which are often a revolving door to the streets.
La Mesa police had a historically “less-than model” response to homelessness and people with mental illness or struggling with substance abuse, Anderson said.
And the task force had acknowledged that this work wasn’t, or at least shouldn’t, be the job of the police.
“You’re in a better position than if you’re dealing with someone who was trained to incarcerate,” Anderson said.
La Mesa Police Captain Matt Nicholass, who brought the Eugene model to the task force, agreed.
He said police simply do not have the expertise to most effectively interface with homeless people, and the potential of bringing in experts who could more effectively engage with them is what drew him to creating HOME.
A presentation about the program created for the La Mesa City Council also emphasized that sending outreach workers instead of officers would save money, and allow the police and fire department to “address other core service needs.”
Because HOME is bringing resources like food, clothing, and help accessing services instead of enforcement, individuals are often happy to see them arrive, Nicholass said.
Nicholass said the program, which costs around $200,000 per year to operate, is fully funded through state and federal grants for the next three to five years. He added that HOME’s price tag will decrease in future years because large equipment purchases, like a new van purchased to transport people, were one-time costs.
“Things that you have at your camp, we can throw them in the van and we can take you where you need to go and then do a lot of advocacy and a warm handoff,” Smiley said. “Whereas a lot of other outreach teams aren’t able to do that without things like a city vehicle and permission.”
It’s a less punitive approach. But there are times when the Police Department may get involved, like if the HOME team finds themselves in a tense situation, or if they get repeated calls about an individual who is consistently refusing services.
“Say we get 10 calls on one individual, and HOME’s gone out there 10 times, and this person is continually causing a disturbance in a neighborhood, causing problems,” Nicholass said. “If they’re committing a crime, at some point, we need to decide how [to] handle that best, and maybe that means enforcement.”
According to the October report, since HOME’s creation it had received 786 calls for service — all of which would have previously gone to an officer — and requested LMPD assistance during one, and the county’s Psychiatric Emergency Response Team during two.
Nicholass said HOME was placed under the umbrella of the La Mesa Police Department for a number of reasons. Its officers, who had been doing the work before, were already familiar with both the physical geography of the city and many of La Mesa’s homeless population. Additionally, they already had a dispatch system set up. Much of HOME’s work is done on the streets, but the program’s office was also placed inside La Mesa’s police headquarters because of the existing infrastructure, Nicholass said.
“We are basically a resource to the HOME program,” Nicholass said.
Despite broad support among La Mesa residents for this new approach, advocates are concerned by its connections to the Police Department, mainly that the placement of HOME’s office is in a police station.
“If it’s in the police department it would be logical to assume it would be the police,” said Malcome Morgan, an organizer with Pillars of the Community, a local advocacy group for individuals affected by the criminal justice system.
Morgan leads training for community members, including unsheltered neighbors, about their rights and what can be done when law enforcement violates them. He questioned why HOME needed to work out of the police station when fire personnel, for example, also have physical locations and access to the dispatch system. They also have experience interacting with the unhoused population — putting out tent fires or responding to medical emergencies like overdoses.
Katy Lynch, a lieutenant and public information officer for the Police Department, said that while the dispatch infrastructure of Heartland Fire, the organization responsible for fire response in La Mesa, El Cajon and Lemon Grove, is similar, police infrastructure is “more suited to supporting HOME’s efforts.” Partly, that’s because the police communications system is localized to La Mesa.
She also noted that HOME’s workers dress in casual attire bearing HOME and city decals rather than police logos, which she described as a “critical component of their rapport building and engagement.”
Barbara Poppe, an adviser on homeless services and affordable housing, and former executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, said sending social workers instead of police was “better practice” than simply arresting people, but criticized the decision to place HOME’s office in the police station. She said many individuals who experience homelessness have frequent police interactions, which can be traumatizing.
“Anything that we do that reinforces these connections between homelessness and criminal justice will be traumatizing to individuals,” Poppe said. “There will be a reluctance to engage or participate simply because of that bad past experience.”
But HOME workers say their new approach is paying off.
One of the program’s clients is Will Batley, a 72-year-old living in his Jeep near a park in La Mesa. Batley spent decades working as a welder, among a host of other things, and said he’s watched as buildings he built 30 years ago have begun to get torn down.
Batley had been “home-free,” as he put it, since 2011, and he spent eight years camping in Borrego Springs. But in 2020, he relocated to San Diego to be closer to medical care and has spent the last year living in his car.
Batley said he greatly appreciated Childress and Smiley’s efforts to match his specific needs with compatible resources. But he’s fiercely independent, by his own admission, and thus far he’s resisted shelters and certain housing options because of concerns about safety and COVID-19.
“My feeling is that if I do get (COVID-19), it will kill me,” he said. “No option has been presented to me that is safer than where I am.”
Childress said it’s with people like Batley that HOME’s progressive engagement model approach is most effective. Batley suffers from edema and poor circulation in his legs, which in July forced him to go to the hospital.
After weeks of communicating and building trust, Childress said, Batley contacted him for help changing socks, which had become dirty because of the wounds on his legs.
“That was huge,” Childress said.
There’s still more work to be done to fulfill Batley’s particular housing needs and get him off of the street, but Childress knows that many of the people he serves require consistent, sustained outreach.
“They may not want to take advantage of what we’re offering the first time, but they might want to do that the 52nd time,” Childress said.