A Night Without Shelter: Event educated community members about homelessness in San Diego

Members of the campus community came together last Friday afternoon to spend the night outside in Plaza Mayor to raise awareness for and stand in solidarity with the homeless in San Diego County.

“A Night Without Shelter” was created and planned by several leaders within Associated Students. The event was attended by various individuals on campus, including many members of the women’s rowing, basketball, and soccer teams. The night began with an address given by the Associated Students President-elect, Will Tate, who set the focus and the tone with his remarks.

Theresa Smith, of San Diego non-profit called Dreams for Change, speaks to USD students about homelessness.

“Tonight is really about our community taking the time to recognize the reality of this issue which is happening all around us,” Tate said. “As an anchor institution, it is important that we are responsive to the needs of our local community here in San Diego.”

Tate then invited Theresa Smith, the founder and current director of a San Diego non-profit called Dreams for Change, to speak to the issue of homelessness and specifically what her organization has accomplished. Smith emphasized the degree to which homelessness in San Diego extends far beyond those who are the most visible and who often inform the general public impression of the issue.

“People typically think homelessness is just the people who you see, everyone downtown on the streets in tents and such, but what often gets forgotten is the group of people who remain under our radar, like the guy next to you at the gym who relies on using those showers every day,” Smith said.

Dreams for Change operates what they call a “safe parking program,” which provides a legally-sanctioned safe area where homeless individuals living out of their cars can live while they receive the resources and support they need to secure their immediate housing needs.   

The need for such a specific service came out of the fact that many of the shelters operating within San Diego provided services primarily for those on the streets who had developed abusive behaviors and mental disorders. As a result, a large portion of the homeless community without such needs was being neglected. Smith said she realized the reality of this gap during the peak of the recession in 2008 and took action.

This divergent approach to tackling San Diego’s homelessness problem has proved successful in the seven years since it began. Smith’s vision for the safe parking program has been replicated in various locations across the country and even internationally.

“If these people stay with us and continue to work with our case members, close to seventy percent will go back into housing, compared to around a forty percent success rates in programs with other approaches,” Smith said.

Following Smith’s remarks, everyone was invited to participate in stuffing packages to be delivered to the homeless downtown on Saturday morning. The supplies were donated by the Sheraton and the Westin hotels downtown and consisted of everything from fresh pairs of socks to toiletries and snack items, as well as stamped envelopes to be used for communicating with family members.

The remainder of the night consisted of remarks from another speaker followed by the viewing of an Academy Award-winning short documentary. The film featured the story of a teenage girl who aspires to be an artist despite being homeless and undocumented on the streets of San Diego.

Joe Zilvinskis, the director of Interfaith Shelter Networks of San Diego, touched on the stigmas surrounding homelessness. Zilvinskis also addressed how privileged communities like USD can work to break them down.

“Most people think homelessness looks like someone pushing a shopping cart, but I can guarantee you there is someone here on this campus who is homeless, someone who looks no different than those you see in your classes,” Zilvinskis said.

Saturday morning began with remarks from Dan McSwain, a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune and a former homeless San Diegan.  He told the story of how he escaped a three-year period of living homeless to become a journalist who now writes on the very same issues he experienced firsthand.

The USD community members who had slept outside the SLP then loaded into vans provided by University Ministry and drove downtown to the neighborhood near Petco Park. A regular street corner on Imperial Avenue was transformed into a pancake cooking station where the homeless could come and enjoy a warm breakfast and the company of others.

Sara Zamanian is a sophomore and Associated Students senator who was a member of the committee who planned the night. Zamanian said that she felt her experience serving pancakes was especially impactful.

“When you’re spending time with [persons experiencing homelessness]downtown and just being present with them, it really helps to break down some of the barriers,” Zamanian said. “Sleeping outside the SLP definitely felt like an act of solidarity, but it was the face-to-face which made this issue so much more personal for me. It was just beautiful.”

Zamanian also explained why the planning committee had thought it so important to include direct service as part of “A Night Without Shelter.”

“I feel like our student body often has a hard time getting out of our secure campus bubbles,” Zamanian said. “It’s important to leave the hilltop and experience what’s happening in our community.”

San Diego has experienced a 2.8 percent increase in the homeless population since 2014 from 8,742 to 8,506, which has bumped the city into the top four highest populations across the nation, according to the Los Angeles Times. Zamanian says she is aware of the growing problem and organized the event out of a desire to make others in the USD community more aware.

“I know we can’t solve this problem automatically, but I think it all starts with expanding our empathy and broadening our understandings so that some of the false assumptions and stereotypes about the homeless can be broken down,” Zamanian said.

Homelessness has become arguably the most prominent social issue facing lawmakers and volunteers in San Diego county over the past few years.  By participating in the acts of solidarity and service surrounding A Night Without Shelter, USD students demonstrated that they are not only aware of this fact, but are eager to be a part of the solution.

Glenn McDonell | Contributor