Health care workers, first responders, firefighters and other public safety personnel are at the head of the line when it comes to public thank yous for their service.
But there is another profession deserving of that recognition — outreach workers to the homeless.
One such person recently caught my attention with her impassioned defense of the homeless population in a social media post in response to commenters stereotyping transients as dangerous drug users — and worse.
Jayna Lee, the San Diego PATH lead outreach specialist, explains that most homeless people simply are down on their luck.
“I run across far more elderly individuals whose fixed incomes can’t make it in San Diego,” she notes. “I run across students displaced because of COVID. I run across many domestic violence cases, many sex trafficking victims, many Section 8 (rental assistance Housing Choice Voucher) holders who can’t get a property (manager) to even look at their application because wait lists are so long.
“I have people with steady incomes but not enough to meet San Diego’s rental income requirements.
“I have clients whose spouses have died, many who have a college education, who have medical conditions, who have a disability, and SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) isn’t enough of an income to rent anywhere in this county.
“I have LGBTQ clients kicked out of their homes, as well as youth running away from family violence back at home. …”
Lee goes on to describe homelessness, even for sober individuals who fall on tough times, as incredibly traumatic. Shelters generally are at capacity. Even if space is available, few shelter environments are inviting. The “down on their luck” population can be placed in close proximity to those suffering from drug addiction or mental illness and exhibiting frightening behavior.
Shelters are designed as short-term stepping-stones to affordable housing — which is in low supply here. That is the problem.
I decided to learn more about outreach worker Jayna Lee and what fuels her passion to pound the pavement looking for problems. She is 31. She has a degree in criminology from Cal State San Marcos and is working toward her master’s degree in forensic science.
She wonders, though, if she should consider a career change because of her commitment to her outreach work.
Lee, who is single, rents a room in University City and spends most of her days on the sidewalks and alleys following up with appointments and visiting homeless encampments throughout the city trying to link transients with services.
For three years, she has embraced this challenging job and worked her way up to a lead outreach worker for PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), with 10 workers under her watch.
She has no office. “Our job is to have boots on the ground eight hours a day to meet up with clients.”
She is on the rapid response team dispatched when emergencies erupt. “Every day is a complete adventure and never, ever the same.”
She and fellow PATH workers respond to calls from 2-1-1 operators regarding the homeless population, complaints posted on the city’s Get It Done app and referrals from local elected officials. They are essentially 9-1-1 responders for street people.
In a single week, on different days and in different places, Lee saved the lives of three individuals who were overdosing. In her backpack, she carries injectable Narcan, along with a non-rebreather face mask to protect her when giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
She has suffered the heartbreak of having her clients die on the streets before they could get affordable housing.
In May, she says, an elderly disabled man on the housing wait list bled to death of internal injuries after he was beaten on the street in his wheelchair.
Help didn’t come soon enough for a Vietnam vet, a favorite client of Lee’s who was combatting drug and mental health issues. “He was continuously asking for help,” she says, and was working hard to get his life together. “But nothing ever came through for him.” He died of an overdose before that happened.
Wait lists are particularly distressing for this transient population with no address, no computer and often no phone. Some might be in a pool selected for housing assistance but still face a wait three to six months and longer. Those with housing vouchers can sometimes wait years for affordable housing, Lee says.
She calmed one mentally ill woman who was trying to rip off Lee’s necklace. She calmed another by playing the woman’s favorite music — “Yeah!” by Usher. Before working with PATH, Lee worked with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and is familiar with mental issues.
When I spoke to her, she was about to meet with an elderly lady being evicted from her hotel. They were applying for a 150-square-foot unit with a shared bathroom downtown “or she’ll be on the street with her two dogs.”
While Lee is not a housing facilitator, she finds herself thrust into that role. She’s frustrated with landlords who set rents just a few dollars above the Section 8 allowance level.
To cut the wait time, Lee has dipped into her own bank account to pay for services — paying to order a duplicate birth certificate or a Social Security card, covering the fee to submit a rental application or obtain a California ID.
Just as many school teachers buy classroom supplies for their students, she purchased medicine, health supplies and toiletries and for her clients and, with the support of friends and family, helped furnish their affordable housing units with utensils and other basic items.
Lee joined PATH, which contracts with local governments, about seven months before the pandemic hit. Since then, she has noticed an increase in families with children and elderly on fixed incomes unable to make ends meet. One homeless person surveyed by the San Diego’s Regional Task Force on Homelessness in January was age 87.
In the task force’s annual Point-in-Time Count, a one-day visit to area homeless shelters and encampments to count the homeless population, 8,427 individuals were found to be homeless in the county in February.
That was a 10 percent increase from the count in 2020. Nearly half the homeless, 4,106, were not in shelters.
“Our homelessness crisis is getting worse,” concluded S.D. City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera when the results were tallied.
In recent months, two new shelters have opened, Saint Teresa of Calcutta Villa with 407 units and Ivy Senior Apartments with 52 units for the elderly.
“We know these models work, but we need more of them throughout our region to make a consistent impact,” says Tamera Kohler, CEO of the task force.
“There’s literally is not enough help,” Lee says. “I could get 20 people off the street, but tomorrow 30 more would be on the street.
“It is so easy to fall to rock bottom but getting back to society’s status of ‘normalcy’ is incredibly hard. …Doing it on your own is nearly impossible. There is so much red tape.
“I love the work that I do. Wind me up and, like an Energizer bunny, I’d probably do this for the rest of my life.”
Nevertheless, it extracts a toll.
Despite how emotionally and physically difficult it can become to be in someone’s corner, Lee says she never writes off a client. “I will always be available. … I don’t know how I get through it,” Lee admits. “But if I don’t do it, no one will.”
Her coworkers share her mindset. Two of them were formerly homeless and joined PATH to give back. One fellow goes through Ocean Beach driving his car “filled to the brim” with donated items to hand out.
With COVID revving up again, Lee predicts the homeless crisis will get worse before it gets better.
“We call ourselves chaos navigators,” she says.
They are, indeed, unsung heroes.