continued "I would never accuse them of that," Poochigian says, "though it's not something I couldn't believe. But how long would it take for homelessness to return? I heard that San Diego recently got a large sum of money to deal with the problem. Why not resource it to the organizations that do it well? I know that governmental agencies don't do it well, and that's because of the way bureaucracy works. A homeless man doesn't want to know what hoops he has to jump through to get a meal. He wants to know where he gets the meal.
"I want to support the development corporation," continues Poochigian, "but in a way that is realistic and not discriminatory to people in need. People want to have the life they've worked hard for," she says, "and not to be disturbed by things that are uncomfortable for them to deal with. So no one wants to see a homeless man or woman camped out. But we look at the homeless in a prejudicial way by thinking, for example, that they're all doing drugs. We have quite a few people that are far from that, such as women whose husbands have died and left them nothing. They've never worked, so they don't know how to work. These people are being held in prejudice, because we see them as only not wanting to work and taking advantage of the situation. But it's not so.
"Take the mentally ill. They do get Social Security income," according to Poochigian. "But being on the streets is all about survival. Am I going to survive today? If you had all your mental capabilities, it would be a difficult route to go. But you get a Social Security check of $800, you're not mentally stable, and no one's watching your finances. You go and cash your check and put the money in your pocket. There are quick, streetwise people out there that are trying to take from you. One day you have your $800, and the next day you don't. Now you're looking for food. We see a lot of that.
"So homelessness occurs for lots of reasons," says Poochigian. "I've had Harvard graduates and lawyers in the shelter. There was a CEO who had a mental breakdown. He was affluent, had a wonderful house and career, and provided for his family well. But he went through this mental crisis and lost his job. His wife was unable to keep up their financial base. That threw him into an even greater depression. As their financial cushion dwindled away, they found themselves in our shelter. In some families that we have, both people are working full-time, yet they were only able to get the lowest-paying jobs. Two people working full-time at a little above the minimum wage cannot afford to live in San Diego. The working poor have a hard time surviving.
"If the Salvation Army is willing to take on the challenges of homelessness," Poochigian continues, "then why not let us? I know we're doing it effectively. Many guys who were homeless a year ago are working today to help with our Christmas program. I've had homeless guys who were able to stabilize their lives, find a place to live, and get jobs to sustain them. They are now productive, taxpaying citizens. It doesn't happen overnight, but it works.
"Maybe we should look at this realistically," argues Poochigian. "Are you going to get rid of homelessness? No. If you push it away, it comes back. But can you do something about it? Absolutely. And if the development corporation wants to see progress in this area, then let's look at the agencies that are doing it right and support them. Since we are willing to take on the tasks that we know will give homeless people the best opportunity for changing their lives, why not allow us to do those things. But only to deny them food? No.
"If every Christian organization that is now helping the homeless stopped today," Poochigian says, "the city would be a scary place. The people that we serve would start becoming civil-disobedient. I don't think we would want to see San Diego turn into that kind of community.
"If we're denied the ability to do what the Salvation Army has been doing for over 100 years," asks Poochigian, "who's going to do it then? Is city hall? The Centre City Development Corporation? If they want to take on the responsibility of taking care of the problem that will come when we don't do it, they're bigger people than I believe they are."
One municipal law governing social services in San Diego especially galls Poochigian. "It's okay to have all these bars they have downtown within a square quarter mile," she says, "but two helping agencies can't legally operate next door to each other. You don't want people in need congregating in one place? Well, excuse me. I don't want drunks driving around where I work."
And if you think the homeless do lots of jaywalking and littering downtown, Poochigian suggests that this spring you watch people leaving Petco Park after a Padres game. "What's the difference," she asks, "between some guy throwing cigarette butts out the window of his Mercedes and a homeless woman leaving a cup on the bus stop bench?"