State Sen. Toni Atkins got a first-hand look at Father Joe’s Village’s recently opened Saint Teresa of Calcutta Village housing project in downtown San Diego on Friday, but expressed some mixed emotions at what she saw.
The 14-story building that opened in February is impressive, she noted, both in its looks and its accomplishment of housing about 500 people who were or might have become homeless.
But just outside the lobby doors, homeless people huddled around an encampment on 14th Street. From an upper floor, Atkins could see a row of tents stretching down Commercial Street.
“There’s more work to do,” she told Deacon Jim Vargas, president and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages. “But I also think you’ve got the proof of what works.”
Saint Teresa of Calcutta Villa was built over two years adjacent to Father Joe’s Villages’ downtown campus, which includes a shelter, transitional and permanent housing, a medical clinic, dining hall and other services. The new $145 million, 14-story building, the largest ever built by the nonprofit, was funded from a variety of sources, including a $10 million donation from philanthropist Terrence Caster, who asked the building to be named after Mother Teresa.
“And we received $20 million from the state,” Vargas told Atkins. “Thank you for that.”
But Vargas also took the opportunity to share some funding frustrations with the legislator, and said the nonprofit had to revise its early plans because of some bureaucratic rules. Restrictions on who could be served by some grant money required the building to be constructed as two separate but connected buildings, an extra step that added to the cost of the project, he said.
Atkins said Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, who like her once served on the San Diego City Council, has for years been working to revise a federal funding formula. San Diego County at times has had the third-largest homeless population in the country, but ranked 18th in federal funding received by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The senator’s visit was billed by Father Joe’s Villages as a Woman’s History Month event, and Atkins spent time talking with two women who had been helped by the nonprofit.
“I was actually in the shelter, and I loved the treatment I got at the help center,” said Ollie Gummer. “I had lost my job, and I promised myself I was not going to be homeless again.”
Gummer, 69, said she had been working at a Goodwill store but was laid off about 11 years ago and evicted because her unemployment checks were slow to come. She went to Father Joe’s Villages for help and was provided a temporary shelter bed, followed by a stay in a transitional house and finally a permanent home at the building known as C-15 on the corner of Commercial Avenue and 15th Street, where she lives with her 50-year-old son.
As Atkins told her there was a need for more affordable housing in the area, Gummer agreed but pointed out an ever-present problem.
“Everybody says, ‘Not in my backyard,’” she said.
Atkins also met Michelle McElroi, a single mother of six who had been a client of Father Joe’s and now worked as a residential service coordinator at Saint Teresa of Calcutta Villa.
“The consequences of homelessness to women are obviously more horrendous and hard because of potential threats on the street,” Atkins said. “Not that all homeless people don’t face those challenges. We’ve seen men attacked. But I think women are always more vulnerable.”
Atkins said she’s talked to many homeless women who have told her about their fears of living on the street, and she’s met some who entered into relationships with homeless men just for protection.
During her visit, Atkins noted that the downtown homeless population seems larger than ever.
“It’s absolutely worse,” she said. “If you look down the street, you see all the tents here. It’s disheartening, because when you’re someone whose been trying to work on it for so long, it just doesn’t seem like we’re getting ahead of it.”