Albert H. Fulcher | Editor
A festive night of music, food and charity themed the fifth annual Holiday Party, Legislative Update and Gift-raiser with state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, Assembly member Todd Gloria and Assembly member Dr. Shirley Weber at the State of California Office Building Downtown on Dec. 12. Top topics for updates were poverty, housing and homelessness. The Dreams for Change Safe Parking Program was this year’s fundraiser beneficiary.
Every year, these legislators pick an organization that they come in contact with to be the beneficiary for their holiday legislative update and fundraiser. The Senator met the CEO of Dreams for Change, Dr. Teresa Smith, in March 2018 when Smith visited the Capitol to receive the Irvine Foundation leadership award for her innovative program.
“For all of your contributions and the things that you have brought, families that are together and struggling to be safe have found this organization that has provided a parking lot for people to live in their cars, can be there at night, and be safe with their families,” Atkins said. “That is an incredible and innovative idea. There is not a day that I do not think about those less fortunate than me, because that is where I come, and I cannot not think about those that have still not made it. And that’s our job as citizens, and as human beings on this planet.”
Weber said that everyone in the room has had a dream, and those dreams talk about change, moving forward, making lives better, and making those around us better.
“Every time life throws a curve, it makes it difficult for those dreams to be fulfilled,” Weber said. “Langston Hughes says, ‘Hold fast to your dreams. For if dreams die, life is like a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.’ There is nothing more pitiful than a bird that is broken, who is destined to fly, but for whatever reason its wings are broken, and they are fluttering on the ground. We have the opportunity to help people hold on to their dreams and help them if they are fluttering at the bottom, to get to the top and to heal.”
Gloria said this year’s annual homeless count in the city of San Diego that both he and Atkins participated in, they tallied 8,516 homeless individuals. He said that since its creation back in 2009, Dreams of Change has served 2,600 homeless people, getting them off the streets and into affordable housing.
“People that thought they would never be homeless, became homeless,” Gloria said. “We needed more people to lean in and solve this problem and this is what Dreams for Change has done with its parking program. There are people that have been in this fight for years, and then there are some newcomers that come in and disrupt it, to innovate, and to try and serve more people. And that is exactly what the safe parking program is.”
Gloria said when he jogs every morning in his own neighborhood, there is not a day that he does not see someone sleeping in their car.
“We know that is unsafe, we know that it does not have access to sanitary conditions and that lack of sanitary conditions caused the worst hepatitis outbreak in this country’s history right here in San Diego,” Gloria said. “Twenty people died because of our inability to properly house people. The organization we are talking about tonight actually saves lives. It keeps people safe and secure in parking lots that are illuminated, have security, have access to long-term services so that the cycle is broken and not continued.
“We have harnessed that compassion and channeled it into real solutions, which is permanent supportive housing,” Gloria continued. “But we know that there is not enough units, so until then, we have to have programs that get people into a safe and secure place. That is the vision of Dr. Teresa Smith, who is doing this day in and day out.”
Smith said they were honored to be the recipients of this year’s gift-giving and to be able to highlight what Dreams for Change does, but also to be able to talk about the issues that surround the stigma of homelessness. Upon opening its first parking lot in 2010, Smith said it has had close to 6,000 people visit or stay in the program. She said that the program is as simple as it sounds, with parking lots where 30-plus cars of individuals and families are living in them.
“There are families with children, a lot of seniors, a population that is quickly getting pushed out of their housing situation and most recently, we have started working with RVs,” Smith said. “It is more than just providing that safe place to stay overnight. We have case managers and social workers there every night to provide access to resources. Our clients that we see are people that you probably wouldn’t see as being homeless.”
The individuals helped are working individuals or are in school. Dreams of Change is reaching out to local college districts about students that are in this situation because there are not housing affordable options for everyone.
“It is not just the extreme core anymore,” Smith continued. “Those are the clients we are facing every day. It is different because it is often a shock to them that they are in this situation. There is a sense of shame. They might not be telling their families, their friends, because of how they got there is often their [family and friends’] questions. And it’s of no fault of their own. It is just a situation in our community.”
Smith said that groups of families and families with children is what they have seen increase the most significantly in the past few years. It has gone from about 20 percent to close to 40 percent within the program.
“These are all real issues,” Smith said. “There is now this knowledge that housing is key. We know that if we do not help them right now, that they will be the ones that we will be seeing on the streets. We know how much more costly that is and think about all of the issues that people face when they lose their car. Now they can’t get to work to do the things that they need to do in our community.”
Smith said in talking with their clients, Dreams for Change learned many strategies that could have been in place prior to them becoming homeless.
“We need to start moving towards a lot more prevention in how we reach people before they have to take that next step,” Smith continued. “Keep them in their houses that they are in or make it a very smooth transition. For us as an organization, that is our vision. We are here in essence to disrupt because we want to see impact and change in our communities.”
Atkins said she is grateful to serve with her colleagues and friends, and that they like each other, share similar values and work on lot of constructive things together.
“You follow us on social media, and you see all the good things we do relating to housing, homelessness, education, equality and immigration,” Atkins said. “All of those issues we work hard every day for you. We do a lot at the state legislature because we learn hear from you in our own communities. We know what the needs are here.”
Weber said this year was amazing in many ways and a very successful legislative year.
“I think that all of us are grateful that we live in California,” Weber said. “There has been a lot of things happening around the world and our own country and are glad we live in California because we believe in climate change. We are still wrestling with the fires that affected the lives of thousands of Californians that worked hard as a community to make a difference. We are grappling with a lot of issues in California to try to make it equal.”
Weber said they are still dealing with issues of poverty and its impact. She said that she believes that people in California will rise to that occasion.
“We will make it impossible for people to live in poverty in California,” Weber said. “Toni [Atkins] had a phrase a long time ago that said, ‘No one should work full time in California and still live in poverty.’ Work should matter and people should be able to see a difference that work makes in their lives.
“We are going to go back to Sacramento in a few weeks and battle the monsters that we face, but we are confident,” Weber continued. “You know me, if you keep hitting them, they will fall. And we will do that again.”
Weber, who is now the chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus (CLBC), said the group is already developing a very progressive agenda. She added that with Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez as the chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, “San Diego has the caucuses covered here in California.”
“We are looking forward to the new season, the new change in government, a new governor, new elected officials with a Democratic majority of 59 out of 80 Assembly members,” Weber said. “It is a super majority that can do almost anything but will always do it right. That’s what’s important. We [California] set the standards, we are the lighthouse that people look to for change and we plan on continuing to be that lighthouse for change and opportunity and that good things happen for every Californian and not just for the few.”
“We are fortunate in San Diego to have a delegation unlike any other delegation in the state,” Weber continued. “When you look at the other large cities and look at the delegations, you go, ‘Oh, they’re pretty good.’ But when you look in San Diego and you put together the four of us, Toni Atkins, Lorena Gonzalez, Todd Gloria and myself, you have a force.”
Gloria said he sees himself as a missionary for housing. Less than two years ago, he and Atkins added $250 million annually for construction of additional housing. In this year’s budget, they have allocated $500 million across the state to invest in homelessness. That’s about $30 million for the city of San Diego.
“Make sure they spend it right,” Gloria said. “No more rocks under freeways. We want housing. Passed a bill leading to the construction of 22 new homes on Commercial Street in Logan Heights as we speak. These are homes that are available for working-class San Diegans. Hopefully, soon enough, these homes which are actually going to be shipping containers that are repurposed into housing, can come online in the next few months, not the next few years. And by saving time, [we’re] saving money, and that money is reflected in the rent. This is the kind of innovation that we are trying to bring in this space, not just saying the talking point of housing, but that we are actually making.
“It doesn’t matter where you are on the housing spectrum, or homeless and living in the streets — if you’re a renter who knows that the rent is too high, or if you are someone that we’ve invested in but cannot afford to live, buy a home or see a future in this state, we have problems,” Gloria continued. “We know that the poverty rate in California is the highest in the nation, not because we are not trying like mad to change this with the standard income tax credit, investing in higher education and the list goes on. The reason we still have this distinguishing characteristic is that it is just too expensive to live here.”
Gloria told everyone to look out in the year ahead.
“We are going to do some more legislation, more housing, at a price that people can afford,” Gloria said. “The goal is a roof over every head of every Californian because everyone deserves to live in this fabulous state and deserves to have a fighting chance. I am tired of investing in the education of our youth, simply for those young people to move to another state because they don’t see a future for themselves here.”
—Albert Fulcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.