Rebecca's older sister, Christine Slattery, 16, is in her fourth year as a volunteer at St. Vincent's. Slattery's reasons for volunteering seem simple but gratifying. "I just like to see the smiles on their faces when you're helping them. They say thank you and...it just makes your heart grow." Slattery also volunteers with the SHARE program and Border Crossings, an organization that sets up designated drivers for students returning from "partying" in Tijuana.
On the other side of the counter in the dining room, guests are seated at picnic-style tables on wheels in a dimly lit room that doubles as a basketball court. The backboards are a permanent reminder of the room's multiple usage. Many of the guests are friends and group together, while others sit alone, a rare opportunity for solitude. As I walk by two men eating together, one sneers, "Take my picture and I'll shoot ya!" When I turn to assure him I won't, he smiles suddenly and insists he was just joking.
Jerry Osborne, an older black man, sits alone, looking neater and cleaner than the other guests. More muscular than most men his age, he wears a Marine camouflage cap and sunglasses while he eats, meticulously salting his meat and buttering his bread. He seems to savor every moment of his meal. "I've been here almost a year. I was in the Sea Bees, in a construction battalion. I moved here in 1959. I'm originally from Birmingham, Alabama. I tried my hand at being an entrepreneur, and after three businesses went in the toilet, I ended up totally penniless and homeless."
Osborne seems intimidating until you talk to him. A divorced man with grown children scattered around the country, he is cheerful and articulate but turns serious when discussing his situation. "The facilities here are great. They have computer access, various classes to enhance your skills. If you don't have a high school diploma, they have classes to guide you toward your certificate. It's a lifesaver. If it wasn't for them, I'd be in the street. The first three nights I slept in my car, and on the fourth day, through the Lutheran Crisis Center, I ended up being admitted here. They've got an incredible program because they find out who the people are that sincerely want to try and work their way out of here. That's the whole emphasis behind the program, to get you job-ready so you can become independent instead of being dependent. If you really aspire to do something with your life and you're serious about it, they've got programs. There's a 15-week class, CTC -- I think it means 'Commitment to Change,' or something like that. It's to change your attitude about what's probably some of the reasons that got you here in the first place -- anger management, that sort of thing. After you complete that, they do an assessment on you. They give you a battery of tests to find out your aptitudes and skills -- it's administered by people from UCSD. They'll evaluate you and give you a guideline to work from to try to get you into jobs that you'd probably be good at.
"I was told I'd be a good electrician, but I have no desire to do that. I promised the Lord that if He let me get out of the military and not get electrocuted, I'd never work with this stuff ever again. You see, I was severely shocked a couple of times. It was very painful. Right now, I'm looking for a job in law enforcement. I just turned 60 last month. I've been working out in a makeshift weight room they've got here, and I passed every single thing for the San Diego Police Department -- they put out a notice that they needed police officers, and there was no age limit. I passed the physical agility test, background check, everything, the whole shot. There were people in their 20s and 30s who didn't make it. So, right now, that's pending, and I've also passed the exam for the Sheriff's Department."
The saddest, yet most assuring thing about the guests at St. Vincent's is its families. Raylene Montgomery, 29, has been at St. Vincent's for three months, sharing quarters with her husband and four children. Montgomery's boys seem to whirl around their table with limitless energy while she calmly feeds a toddler that she is baby-sitting for another resident. Montgomery's husband, Paul, is kept late from dinner by his anger-management class. Originally from Los Angeles, they've lived in San Diego for four years. "My husband was stabbed in L.A., and we came down here. I've enjoyed staying here, and they treat us very well. Right now I'm taking a chemical-dependency class because I've abused drugs in the past. After I graduate from the class, they'll help me with job training."
Every kid's tray is loaded, and a separate tray is filled with large slices of chocolate cake for dessert -- an enticement for her brood to clean their plates.
Paul finally shows up. "I like it here at St. Vincent's. The good part is we're not on the street. I was on the street for a while, but my kids were here. We're starting to become a family again. I was a victim of a violent crime. It was a difficult recovery -- they stabbed me through my lungs and into the spleen. I relapsed and relapsed, and now that I've gotten over that part, I got out of the rehabilitation home, and I'm using the benefits here at St. Vincent's. I'm getting my life back in order here."
The security measures taken to protect residents are commendable. The staff shows concern not only for the safety of residents and diners but also for their reputation and privacy.
Kimberla Weaver, a swing-shift supervisor, holds a clipboard with the name of each resident printed on it and checks for those who show up for dinner. She stands at the door near the line and notices me for the first time. She asks me to identify myself and repeats the request that I not interview or photograph anyone who doesn't want to be in my story. Just to be safe, she talks to security on her cell phone; for the next seven minutes it seems as if no one has ever heard that I was going to be there. She is told that it's all right, and she relaxes. "I just make sure that there are no problems in the dining area. No fights or arguments." When asked if there ever are fights in the dining hall, she assures me it is rare. "If that happened, I would call security. I wouldn't show off my karate expertise!"