Bob McElroy, head of the Alpha Project, and Martin Luther King III were walking slowly along the sidewalk as McElroy was telling King about homelessness in San Diego and the problems of alcohol and narcotics addiction. In front of them, moving backward, were five members of a film crew with a young female director signaling people nearby to be quiet. Suddenly a man looked over the balcony above and shouted, “Howya doin’, Bob.”
Bob paused, smiled, and waved back. “Howya doin’, bro.” This had been the third interruption, and the director rolled her eyes. “Okay, take it back to where you’re talking about the heroin addict living in the avocado orchard.” Again McElroy and King moved forward, seemingly engaged in an intimate conversation, as the camera crew retreated in front of them. A man came out of a doorway and called, “Hey, Bob, how you been?” McElroy removed his arm from King’s shoulder and called back, “Fine, Eddie, how ’bout yourself?” The camera stopped; the director lowered her head.
Bob McElroy is 47 and big, about six feet, with a body put together from years of playing football and lifting weights. Brown hair, a mustache, square-jawed, he looks like a movie actor who specializes in Westerns. He speaks in a deep baritone with a slight burr, a mixture of the slangy and articulate, and he talks in sound bites as if they were a second language. He and King were at Casa Raphael, a transitional housing and work program in Vista for 120 recovering addicts and alcoholics, which is run by the Alpha Project. King was making a film on McElroy and the Alpha Project, part of a 13-part series called Wisdom of Dreams, to be played on a cable network. However, they were having difficulty filming this sequence because of the interruptions. It seemed that everyone wanted a few words with McElroy, and he was perfectly willing to say a few words back.
I, too, wanted a few words with McElroy, because after spending a few days at Casa Raphael and visiting the Alpha Project offices downtown, I had been struck by his energy and dedication, caught up by his golden tongue. Talking to you, he displays a casual intimacy, like a good buddy prepared to swap stories. It didn’t seem strange to me that he could convince an addict to put down the needle, a drunk to swear off the bottle.
The Alpha Project began in 1986 out of the trunk of McElroy’s BMW when he started handing out sandwiches to homeless people in San Diego parks. Now, besides having Casa Raphael, the Alpha Project provides nearly 700 units of affordable housing at the Metro Hotel in San Diego and in apartment complexes in Chula Vista, Riverside, Escondido, and Harbor City. It also runs the Neil Good Day Center on 17th Street, which serves between 250 and 300 homeless people daily, providing, among other things, showers, a laundry, rest rooms, a lounge, mail/message service, medical/dental referrals, a library, mental health counseling, and jobs through the Alpha Works Step-Up Program. Step-Up offers jobs and training to homeless addicts and alcoholics, bringing them in through a program called Take Back the Streets.
I asked the Take Back the Streets case manager, Russell Demery, to explain what they did.
“We’ve got a crew of about 20 people, working three months to a year, engaged in revitalization — that means going into a community wherever there’s maybe camping out and it’s gotten real trashy, and we’ll pick up the debris and clean up the area. The crewmembers get between $6.50 and $7.00 an hour. Or we might go into the Logan Heights–Sherman area — they’ll give us a call and we’ll police the area and clean it up and make sure that it’s presentable. Or we might get a call concerning a crack house, and we’ll tear it down. We also do parades. We’ve been doing the gay parade for many, many years now. We clean up, break down, make sure the trash is all picked up. We get these jobs from the main office, who might get them from the city council, and they call us. Then the supervisor tells his workers what is the next task for that day. And what we do is we try to be an asset — you know, the homeless give back — and also be accountable. But all this is funded by the City of San Diego; also different council districts give us different amounts of money out of community district block grant funds. Usually the crews work four days, six hours a day, then they’ll have meetings, psychotherapy sessions, which consist of how they’re doing in their programs — like getting a driver’s license, furthering employment, staying clean and sober. We do urine-analysis tests to make sure they’re clean because if they’re not clean, they can’t work with us. We have them go to NA and AA meetings. They do journaling and group discussions. We try to get them housing, identification, SS cards — whatever we can to make sure they become self-sufficient and that they get a full-time job, that they’re okay, that they don’t have to say, ‘Well, I don’t have this.’ We try to plug in those little holes that people who haven’t been in the workforce need help with.”
There is also a 24-member maintenance team made up of people who have moved up from Take Back the Streets that does maintenance in downtown San Diego, takes care of the day-care center and the Metro Hotel, and is involved with various outreach programs. Also there are two full-time staff in Hillcrest and the Uptown region who have come up through Take Back the Streets and are under contract to the Hillcrest Association. The two Metro Ambassadors, as they are called, do outreach, work to decrease loitering, aggressive panhandling, and street encampments by patrolling the streets. They also are trained in CPR, conflict resolution, and anger management.
So all of this began out of the trunk of a BMW owned by an ex-playboy. Talking to McElroy and being impressed by his energy and his devotion to his work, I decided I wanted to learn more about him. So I made an appointment to see him one morning in May in the Alpha Project offices above the California Bank and Trust, 3737 Fifth Avenue.