unEasy Street

It isn’t America’s finest life for people living on the streets of San Diego.

But from college students collecting clothes for homeless veterans to a school providing afterhours refuge for at-risk youth to a woman of the cloth putting a roof over 1,200 heads each night, local nonprofits are giving some of our neediest neighbors another chance.

A big hand for three of the city’s helping hands: Embrace, Monarch Schools and Father Joe’s Villages.



The intimate portraiture of Rob Hammer

I’ve always been intrigued with people’s individual stories and how they got to where they are. Certainly homeless people couldn’t have any better stories in that category. I wanted to use these images to help raise awareness and money for the homeless.

All of the people shown here were complete strangers that I approached on the street, alleys, under bridges, in homeless shelters, et cetera. At first, it was very intimidating to approach these people, and still can be, especially if they were in groups. Their reactions seem to go one way or the other, depending on the time of day and how intoxicated they are.

After photographing homeless people for a while, I came to realize that they are totally out of their mind or really normal. I encountered a lot of them that could hold a normal conversation. In fact, if they were in regular clothes and I had met them in the supermarket, I never would have known know they were homeless.

For the most part, these people say their current situation was caused by the economy and not being able to find work. A lot of them were construction workers and have since pawned off every last tool they once owned, which had allowed them to make money.

The other half are really nuts - very obvious that they are on one or multiple substances during our meetings. And some have no problem admitting that drugs or alcohol led to their homelessness. A few of them have smoked crack right in front of me and try to say that they aren’t homeless. I shot one younger guy in a park who gave me a 20-minute speech about waiting in that spot for his spaceship to pick him up. And I believe that he believed that.

Another guy talked of the money he was waiting on from the queen. Apparently, he has been writing letters to her for years, and she owes him a lot of money.

Meth, crack, marijuana, and alcohol seem to be the substances of choice. With woman, domestic abuse and drugs seemed to be the common factors. And none of them are natives of the city they are occupying. Paranoia is also very common. They all think that I am a cop when I approach, and expect to see their picture on “America’s Most Wanted.”

“You da po-lice. You da po-lice?”

From conversations with the sober people, I found out about intentional crimes. During winter months, they will figure out which crimes to commit so they can remain in jail until it gets warm again, so they don’t have to sleep outside.

Shooting down at a local shelter was quite something. The ones who allowed me to take their picture were thrilled about it and felt like celebrities. The others were very skeptical and did not treat me very well. Some of them were in real rough shape. One older gentleman had obviously soiled and urinated in his pants, but intelligently spoke with me about specific film cameras, their functions and why I should switch back to film.

At the end of each shooting day, I have weird feelings. Dirty for one, and depressed/sad for these people and how their lives are going. Sometimes it takes longer to shake than others, but it’s still very rewarding...somehow.

Creatively, I wanted the portraits to be very intimate. Photographing the homeless is nothing new. However, I think it’s cheap when they are shot from far away without their permission or knowledge. I feel like a person’s face can tell a story, good or bad. And to see these people close up sort of brings you into their life a little bit. You can see what they have been through and continue to go through.

I used a 50mm lens, which caused me to be extremely close while shooting. Too close, sometimes.

The whole experience has been very humbling. Despite anything that’s going on in your life, it’s much better than theirs. They literally have nothing - nowhere to live, no belongings and no one to care for them.

It really makes you think about they way you live and what you actually need. This project is ongoing, and I still hope to put the images to good use.

-Rob Hammer


A nun takes the helm as San Diego’s fore Father steps down

By David Moye

What began as a small church for San Diego’s impoverished citizens 60 years ago grew, under the watch of Father Joe Carroll, into Father Joe’s Villages - the largest provider of services for the homeless in the county.

Now, 2,000 people each day turn to Father Joe’s for food, clothing, healthcare and more. At night, Father Joe’s puts a roof over the heads of more than 1,200 folks in need in San Diego and Riverside.

In late June, Carroll, 71, retired from his post as CEO of the Villages and its partner agencies, which include St. Vincent de Paul Village. Assuming Carroll’s position is Sister Patricia “Tricia” Cruise, who was previously (2003 - 2008) president and CEO of Covenant House, which provides services to more than 50,000 homeless kids annually in the Unites States, Canada and Central America.

“Homelessness is not going away, but it is changing,” Cruise says. “You’re seeing people who used to be members of the Middle Class - people who used to volunteer to work with the homeless - becoming homeless themselves. Now, we need to create programs for former professionals.”

The sluggish economy has forced more people into homelessness, but the silver lining, as Cruise sees it, is that it has also paved the road for charity to become a profession.

“Colleges, until recently, didn’t have programs on how to run nonprofits, but that is happening now,” she says. “It’s important - you have to know how to run a business.”

With Cruise in charge, Father Joe’s business of helping the homeless seems poised to keep paying big dividends for San Diegans in need.

Father Joe’s Villages “CREED”

Compassion: concern for others and a desire to assist.
Respect: an act of giving particular attention or special regard.
mpathy: understanding, an awareness of and sensitivity to the feelings of others.
mpowerment: helping others to help themselves.
ignity: counting all people worthy of our esteem.

Honor Students

Give it up for giving college kids

By David Moye
The recession has made finding employment tough for kids graduating college, but it has turned out to be a boon for nonprofits, like Embrace, which depend on volunteers.

Launched in 2000, Embrace gives college students and recent grads a chance to use their skills to help the homeless, disabled veterans and underprivileged school children, while honing their own leadership and organizational abilities in a way they couldn’t in entry-level jobs.

“The recession was a perfect storm for us,” says the organization’s founder and CEO, Sean Sheppard, a former weight-training coach at SDSU who wants community service to be required of all college students attending state-funded institutions. “Our greatest growth has been in the last year, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another organization with as much diversity as ours. We have Muslims, Christians and Jews, all working together.”

Embrace, which got a boost earlier this year when Sherri Shepherd of ABC’s hit television series “The View,” asked her wedding guests to donate to the charity in lieu of buying toasters, became an officially recognized student organization at SDSU in June.

Embrace Slogan: “We put you in the center of commYOUnity.”

Street Smarts

San Diego school educates and shelters homeless youth

By Wendy Kitts and Allie Daugherty

Downtown’s Monarch School offers more than just a safe and nurturing educational environment for 150 homeless and at-risk children, many of whom live in cars, shelters or on the streets.

Every morning, the kids get breakfast. Every Monday and Friday, they and their families are given free dinner. A support staff provides social and psychological support, and there are many afterschool programs, which senior director Brian Daly says is key.

“Homeless shelters close at six in the morning and they don’t reopen until 6 p.m.,” he says, explaining that it’s the time between when schools let out and shelters open that homeless kids face the greatest dangers. “Where does a second-grader go that’s safe? Where does a 10th-grader go where they might not get involved with the more risky elements of the community?”

Monarch’s afterschool programs provide a safe haven for kids during those critical hours.

One Monarch student, Cindy, came to the school in August 2010 after having lived in a Chevy Suburban with her parents and five brothers and sisters.

“They’d been bounced around from one shelter to another - the typical depressing story most of our students come in with,” Daly says.

Thanks to Monarch, its staff and supporters, however, that otherwise sad story has a happy ending: Cindy and her peers just became one of the school’s largest graduating classes, the first ever to have its entire population continue to college.

A recent $5 million donation by Nat and Flora Bosa (Nat founded San Diego-based Bosa Development Corp.), will help fund Monarch’s move to a new, larger facility just south of Petco Park at 1625 Newton Avenue. The new building, groundbreaking for which took place in February, will accommodate an additional 200 students.

Helping to forge brighter futures for these young San Diegans in need requires ongoing support from the community. Here are a few ways to get involved:

--Tutor students
--Help serve breakfast or lunch
--Sponsor a dinner for kids and their families
--Chaperone or drive students to field trips
--Facilitate music, Phys. Ed. or art classes for afterschool programs
--Buy a library book on Monarch’s wish list
--Donate to clothing and supply drives
--Give gift cards for grocery, clothing or school supply stores