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.
I waited in his office for him to show up. There were stacks of paper on his desk, a computer, and Alpha Project material on the walls. The office was small, cluttered, and windowless. It seemed more like the office of a junior clerk than a CEO. At last McElroy hurried in, tossing remarks over his shoulder at the members of his staff who appeared to have long lists of questions. He wore a blue Alpha Project cap, a green T-shirt, denim shorts, and basketball shoes. He was carrying a worn Bible. Looking down at me, he said gruffly, “Have you done your devotionals today?” Then he laughed as he began checking his e-mails and phone messages. When he had finished, he leaned back in his chair and got ready to talk. He has what I think of as a Western accent, a drawl that at times becomes almost a growl, very casual with lots of contractions — doin’, goin’ — and sprinkled with “I mean”s and “you know”s. And he was trying not to swear, trying to force himself to say “frigging” instead of all the other words that came first to mind.
McElroy is a third-generation San Diegan. He attended Crawford High School, got his certification in teacher’s training, and taught manufacturing technology at City College from 1980 to 1982, until he was fired for refusing to raise a student’s grade from an F. He described himself at that time as “an all-around ne’er-do-well” interested only in pleasure and plunder.
Next he started a sportswear business and did TV commercials. “It was the first of the diet-plan things, called ‘Grapefruit 45.’ I was the fat-burner guy. Check it out. I did national commercials. I was on during the 1984 Olympics at eight o’clock at night. A billion people saw this commercial. And I was in some movies, you know, chasing all of this pipe dream baloney stuff. I thought I was something. I had fan clubs and thought I was cool. There were lots of drugs, and it was like Sodom and Gomorrah. I was on Entertainment Tonight. I went to some Hollywood parties. But it was a pretty nasty environment. Even for me, as grotesque as I thought I was. So one day I was sitting down at the bay, thinking there has got to be more to life than this. I had the Mercedes and Rolex and all that stuff. But there has got to be more to life than this. And I saw the wreckage of my past, all of the things that happened to me — my dad left when I was two years old. I never knew him. He was a San Diego cop. He was a philanderer. I was a latchkey kid. I never thought anything of it before. But in the world at that time — that was 15 years ago — it was fashionable to have all kinds of psychological hang-ups because you were abused as a child or you were neglected as a child. My mom worked her butt off. We all had clean clothes and we made it through life. But I was sitting down at the bay going, man, how come I’m not the next John Wayne? How come I’m not making it? How come I’m not playing pro ball? How come I’m not doing all of these things? Why is it that it always gets real close and it’s taken away from me? Well, later I knew why.
“First of all, this is what I was meant to do. And second of all, I was meant to feel that pain, that loneliness, go through the self-medication. You know, drinking, snorting, whatever you had, just the self-medication, change the way you feel because you don’t have enough courage to stand on your own and do it, so you take the easy way out.
“And I always knew God, that you prayed before football games that you’d win and wouldn’t get hurt. I’d bounced around to different churches as a kid, you know, your parents drag you to church, and you don’t really understand what’s going on. I had faith, but I didn’t know what that faith was about. And I’ve always been an athlete, played football. I still play football with some old farts I used to play with. Some of the big-time football players are in town here, and we used to rampage through Mission Valley and all of the bars. I mean, it was bad, life-in-the-fast-lane type of stuff, and burning a lot of brain cells. So from 21 to 30 life was pretty much of a blur, chasing all of this material crap. But I always had this big hole in there, and I found out later that’s where God goes.
“One time I went out to the Horizon Christian Fellowship. It’s humongous, one of the ten largest churches in the United States. They had volleyball tournaments and barbecues before the services. And there were all of these chicks, man. So it was like, I had already pillaged all the girls in bars all through town, so here was a new crop, a new herd of sheep, and I was the wolf. So I went up there basically to score on the girls and dated a few. Then there was one Wednesday night, and that was when I had my big revelation. I mean, they were singing ‘Change My Heart, Oh Lord.’ It was a Wednesday-night Bible study, and I was sitting in the back of the auditorium all by myself. It was really…my hair still stands up just talking about it. God spoke to my heart. God cussed at me and talked to me. He told me to shit or get off the pot. You’re either going to do this thing or get out of My house. And so I went home and I decided to give it a try and see what the Bible had to say.
“So I got into church and I was really involved. I started going three, four days a week. I was taking some of the leadership training. I really got into the Bible. Read it through and tried to apply it in my life. Well, naturally, I lost all of my boozing buddies. All of a sudden I didn’t want to go out partying every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night. I started feeding people in parks out of the back of my car, sandwiches. Then I actually tried to get some of my football buddies to go down with me. I was going to show off. Watch how I go to the park, and all of these homeless people will run to me like I’m the savior or something. But I didn’t have any sandwiches that day. I went down with some buddies, and all of the people that I thought were really relying on me were smoking dope and having a keg party. They were all strung out. Some were standing on the corners panhandling. So I’m thinking, man, I’m not doing these guys any good. I’m just helping them kill themselves. They don’t give a shit about me. And I didn’t give a shit about them. Cuss words. I can’t cuss. They didn’t give a damn about me. And I was doing it for me. You know, I was the big hero. I’d go back to church and I could not wait for the pastor to pick me out of the crowd and say, ‘Hey, there is Bob down there. Bob goes down and he feeds the homeless. He’s doing good work.’ And all of that kind of stuff. I got convicted out of this book, the best book the world has ever known right here. And the Lord spoke to my heart again. I’ve never heard Jesus say ‘Bob’ — like that. But He just speaks to your heart, and I was a major hypocrite. The only time you ever see Jesus mad — I’m not going to give you a sermon or anything, but the only time you see Him pissed off is at hypocrites and the religious community. And I was being a hypocrite.
“So I figure, well, I’m going to take my bedroll down to the park for one day and find out what it’s like to be homeless. I stayed down there for ten weeks. And you know what? There were 17 other churches coming down there, as well as an airline, Pacific Southwest Airlines. They had a group that came three days a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, big buffet lines. There would be, like, 50 volunteers. They had pastas and stews. And the 17 churches were giving out food. Man, I mean, I was putting on weight living in the park. Now this is San Diego in the summertime and we’re camping out. People are coming to give us jackets, but you can only carry around one jacket, so we’re selling jackets. We were having swap meets in the park. I’m making $150 panhandling, selling junk, and eating like a king. These guys are rolling hooters and using their general relief checks for keg parties and heroin and crack. The little chicks were there. It was almost like a hippie commune.
“Then I went down to 17th, or 16th, and J. The Catholic Worker was feeding people on the streets. I went to St. Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army, the Rescue Mission, and everybody was Bible thumping me. And I don’t want to knock the Rescue Mission either, because they’re good people. But you sit there for a couple of hours, and you hear a sermon, and then they give you some beans and rice and whatever. If you’re really hungry, that’d be a good deal. But you can eat just standing out on the sidewalk. People are coming down and dropping bags of doughnuts and hamburgers and stuff on you. So food was not an issue. Shelter was not an issue. But somebody got it out of a book somewhere, this is how you treat homeless people, how you treat addicts. But nobody ever asked me why I was homeless and what I needed to get my butt off the street.
“So I opened up a little office on Fifth Avenue, 739 Fifth Avenue. It had a big parking lot next to it. And back in 1987 the Gaslamp was a really crappy place. There was a bookstore and massage parlors, just little stores. It isn’t like it is today. And the businesses down there were really struggling. Ingrid Croce had just opened Croce’s; it was the only really new place down there. So at five o’clock everybody would go home, all the business people and all the normal folks would go home, quote unquote, and the street people would come out: transvestites, prostitutes, dope slingers, and everybody else. It was weird. It just transitioned over; at five o’clock: boom.
“So I went and talked to them one by one, had people come in. I had a little five-by-eight office, and we just talked for hours. Some people were strung out. I mean, I had people come in and rip all of their clothes off, completely out of it. Prostitutes coming in needing $10. They’d strip right down. It was a real eye-opener for me, this little milquetoast kid from East San Diego, but I loved it. I mean, this was a whole different group of people I’d never even had the privilege to even be with. I asked everybody what they needed, and not one person said, ‘I need a sandwich’ or shelter. They wanted a job. Now obviously they weren’t job ready, but they felt job ready. I mean, I need a job so I can make some money so I can smoke some crack. But I got real good at getting people jobs at Jack in the Box and other places downtown. But two weeks later they’d be standing back at my front door, because either they’d be straight for two weeks while they worked, get that first check, and go out and violate their sobriety, or they got that first check and did something bad and got fired. I wasn’t dealing with the core issues on why they were homeless. That was the key. I wasn’t asking them, ‘Why are you homeless?’ So I got businesses like Croce’s to give us an opportunity to clean the sidewalk and do work. And the same people that had been shooed away from the businesses or had the cops called on them were now cleaning up the sidewalk, washing the windows, cleaning the streets.
“Then we started to get bigger jobs. I had people sleeping in the little offices. There was nobody renting this little rat hole place that I was in. I was sleeping on the floor. I had people sleeping like cordwood in the other offices so I could watch them 24 hours a day that they weren’t using. Then Martin Blair, who owned the Kansas City Barbeque, hired us to do a lot of work for him. Ingrid hired a couple of her first cooks from us. And this is on a zero budget. This is me, I’m selling all of my stuff. Everything I had was in storage. I got rid of my condo and sold everything except the BMW. If I needed money, I’d have a yard sale. Like, they were going to shut off the lights. We needed $150. So I’d have a yard sale. I had my stuff in my sister’s garage and some storage things, and I’d take my stuff and roll it out at 7:30 in the morning. By 7:45 I had sold $151 worth of stuff. Didn’t sell anything else the rest of the day. So we had $150 to pay the light bill and $1 left over. That’s the way it went every single time. It was just me for the first three and a half, four years we did this. But businesses were generating money, and I was paying everybody at $6 an hour.
“Then Martin Blair bought the abandoned Rescue Mission on Fifth in the East Village. So there was this abandoned building there. There were tramps in there, and they were burning holes in the floor and stuff. He bought it to build a restaurant, Kansas City Steakhouse. Well, we had already been working on his one restaurant, so he hired our guys, cheap labor. But I had contractors out there, I had guys that were carpenters. They were union carpenters, but they all lost their jobs because of addiction and drug issues and family issues and so on and so forth. I matched up people that had skilled labor with somebody addicted. So we would pair people up. I didn’t know squat about contracting. We ended up demolishing the whole inside of the building and prepping it for the construction to begin, and then I convinced Martin to let us do the rehab on it. Now it’s Moose McGillycuddy’s, and look at it, it’s a beautiful place. We did the staircases. We did all of the brickwork and built bars. It took us about a year, but that really put us on the map. We got a lot of media attention on that. ‘Wow, homeless people can do this? Addicts can do this?’ Because I didn’t build it, they did. I wasn’t coming off drugs, they were. I wasn’t learning the trades, they were. I wasn’t showing up every day — they were. You know what I mean? But for 100 years, homeless people have been portrayed as a bunch of losers that aren’t worth diddly-squat. All they’re worth is a sandwich and a food line. And that’s just a bunch of squat. Well, 128 people worked on that big job, and 86 of those went on to full-time jobs in the private sector.
“And the addicts got off their addictions. They stopped doing it. Because they couldn’t work for us if they were using. I spent every little dime I had to get these drug tests, even though I had them there with me and I lived amongst them for two and a half years. You can sneak out and do a hooter anytime you want to. So they had drug tests every week. They had to fight the battle. A lot of these people came off heroin, which is one of the hardest things to kick. But no lock-down facility, no structured program. Just the will and the mentoring of other people in the program. All of us together sitting around talking through these things. We’d sit up all night and just talk. We had guys that had been in NA and AA for years but were still on the bricks, still in and out. We did our own meetings right there. All NA and AA is is sharing. They give you some tools, some steps, some policies, some guidelines, benchmarks, but we were doing the same thing but applying it to us, this little group. I mean, it was the best time in my life as far as business goes. Because I didn’t have all of this other stuff. Stacks of contracts, administrative stuff. I could just sit down for hours and hours and talk to people. That’s the only gift I have, I think, just being able to communicate.”
During these first years, McElroy met his wife. The story seemed to me a perfect example of the odd serendipity that surrounds McElroy’s enterprises.
“Let me tell you how I met my wife. When I was back downtown and I had no money, she worked at a bank — then it was San Diego Trust — at the outside drive-up. And there were all kinds of stories in the newspaper about us and, you know, ex-cons. And I’d drive up in my BMW and I’d have, like, three, four big black guys, with the sunroof open and all kinds of rakes and shovels sticking out the top, and she’d heard about us, and there was one guy who’d been a bank robber. She was behind this drive-up window glass, her and another girl, and she’d always call me, ‘You’re on overdraft; you’ve got to get out of here before we charge you 15 bucks.’ So I’d have to drive from downtown out to Mission Gorge, put in a little bit of money, or we’d have to scrape up money from somewhere to cover the debt. This went on, like, almost every day for six months. We never had any dough. And then she’d make cookies for the guys and shoot them through the tube, you know. She’d joke around with them, ‘Oh, you’ve got these bank robbers out there again. You’re not going to rob us today, are you?’ And when we didn’t have any money, she’d cover some of our overdrafts out of her own pocket. For six months I never even saw her, never laid eyes on her, but we had a relationship through the speaker, and finally one day she came out around the thing and said, ‘We’ve got to get together.’ At that time I still had some of the old ways in me. I felt that women wanted what you had — Rolexes and BMWs, the Mercedes, and that kind of stuff — and all I had left was my little condo and a beach chair and a TV set. So we went over to my house, and when I opened up the door, I’m thinking, ‘Okay, this is going to blow her away right here.’ But we walked right in, sat on the floor; we had popcorn, cottage cheese, and potato chips. She knew I didn’t have any money and, ah, didn’t care. She just liked this wannabe-movie-star guy who was this clown, this minister, street missionary, and that’s all we had. So we got married. She gave me three beautiful kids, and we’ve built a pretty good life for ourselves. But every time I’ve wanted to quit, she made me keep coming. And I didn’t meet her in a bar, I didn’t meet her in church — she already knew where I was. I didn’t have to put any kind of false façade up there. She knew I was dead broke and my life was going to be dedicated to homeless people and convicts and gang members. And you’re not going to marry no millionaire, you’re not going to live in some 15-bedroom somewhere down the road. If we win the lottery, it’s going to go to Alpha Project.”
McElroy ran the Alpha Project by himself without a salary for four years, and it kept getting larger with more jobs and more projects — construction, renovations, cleanup, cutting fire lines, brush, weed abatement. He even started a recycling center. The money that came in went to pay the workers and for insurance and equipment. They had no social service funding. Then Cecilia Russell, a VISTA Volunteer who is now vice president of the Alpha Project, joined him. And Robb Lally, a recovering priest with a degree in social work, came as well, though without salary. In order to work for the Alpha Project, Lally sold his house in San Diego and lived for two years on the proceeds. Then they applied for a New and Innovative Projects Award and won a $2 million grant over three years. They moved out to Vista and a year later began negotiations with the City of Vista and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to buy a motel, the Grand Vista Inn, which was the beginning of Casa Raphael.
Then, in the late ’80s, when millions of people were about to be made homeless by the expiration of the Preservation Housing Act, which had made rents affordable for poor people, the Department of Housing and Urban Development instituted a plan to give nonprofit social service agencies the money to purchase the properties and keep them affordable another 40 years. The difficulty was that the nonprofits would take all the liability and all the risk but get zero income off the property. Other nonprofits in the area bowed out, but the Alpha Project took the chance.
“We should all have been stepping up to the plate,” said McElroy, “because we’re about homeless people, right? But we were the only ones. St. Vincent de Paul wanted money. If there ain’t no money, they don’t go. The reason we get these opportunities is because there’s no money in what we do. And listen, I’m not a self-righteous person, but I’m telling you that if we’re in this business for poor people, then we’ve got to frigging take the risk. We’ve got to go where there’s no money. So we stood up and here we have a bank account with about $2000 in it. And HUD is going to give us $20 million to buy four properties. I’m signing personally for 20 million dollars’ worth of liability. But I have lots of faith. And my board of directors, who are just friends of mine, they signed off also, with lots of faith that we’re not going to get stuck with the properties. Anyway, long story short, we got all of the properties. We got 700 units, and they’re all doing great; we just won the Best Practice Award from HUD for the best low-cost rental property in the United States for the one in Chula Vista. And we brought in all of these services, like we brought in a shuttle program for our seniors’ facility in Vista.”
Then came the day center in 1991. Episcopal Community Services was the first group that was supposed to operate it, but two weeks before they took control, McElroy said that they wanted more money. When the mayor said there wasn’t any more money, Episcopal Community Services backed out and the Alpha Project came forward.
“We were the only ones, us and some other small agency, that could run it for the amount of money they had budgeted for it. I just said, yeah, we can do this thing. So we did it. We got the contract, and that put us back in San Diego. It gave us the opportunity to hire a few more people, all homeless people. We gave them positions of responsibility to run this day center. Then it took off from there. We started our Take Back the Streets program out of the day center in 1996. We started the employment program. If you don’t want access to services, that’s fine. But if you walk through the door, you can get a job, you can get sober, you can get housing, you can get programs. We brought in mental health counseling, medical triage, all of this. It’s a one-stop shopping facility. Anybody needs anything, you can access it at the day center, anybody, and there are no strings attached. It’s the only day center that’s open to the general population of all homeless people, or addicted people, or anybody. If you just don’t feel good today, you can go and hang out. Do your laundry. We have 8500 people signed up to be able to receive their mail and messages there. You don’t even have to be working with us. Or you can try to get a job on your own. We post the Sunday want ads all over the walls, and they can try and do their own thing if they want to, and we have people do that. But if they want to get into a comprehensive program, all they have to do is ask.”
But through the 1990s McElroy said he had difficulty identifying his priorities. He was spreading himself too thin, and it was partly the fault of an award. In 1991 President George Bush had named McElroy a Point of Light in the Points of Light program for the work he was doing.
“So he made me this Point of Light. We were one of the six, and I got to go around with him and talk about how homeless people can change their lives. That got us in USA Today, and then people called from all around the country, and blah, blah, blah.”
The City of Ventura contacted McElroy for help with its homeless problem. “I went up there for two days; I felt like I was the president of the United States and had the chief of police drive me around.” He went to Los Angeles, where then-Mayor Riordan asked him to set up a plan to deal with the problems of skid row. He went to Long Beach, where the Alpha Project ended up opening an employment center, building a multiservice center on land acquired from the Navy. There were dozens of places.
“That was the trouble,” said McElroy. “I was going everywhere. I wasn’t doing what we needed to do here. I was basically setting up these little programs here and letting everybody run it, and I was leaving. Anybody that asked me, I would go there. I was trying to save everybody else’s lives, and my own hometown here I was neglecting.”
So beginning in 1999, the Alpha Project began to change as McElroy turned his focus to San Diego County. Casa Raphael was entirely restructured to put more emphasis on recovery from addictions. McElroy started to become more of a CEO. More staff was hired for the downtown office, professional staff.
There was Kyla Winters, an attractive 30-year-old poly sci major from San Diego State with a graduate thesis on tracking homeless deaths in San Diego. Previously she had worked in the district attorney’s office in child support enforcement, searching out deadbeat dads. At the Alpha Project she does community-development grant writing, media and public relations, the website (www.alphaproject.org), and private grant writing and keeps the office on track.
It was Winters who brought in Tony Phillips, 36, who started at the Alpha Project in June 2000 as director of grant administration. Before that he had spent one year as director of development at St. Vincent de Paul, and earlier he had worked three and a half years as senior manager of mental health services at Episcopal Community Services. Originally from Louisiana, he has a B.A. in philosophy from San Diego State and an M.A. in philosophy from California State University at Long Beach.
Then Phillips brought in Randy Solomon as special needs housing coordinator. Solomon had taken over Phillips’s job at Episcopal Community Services and had run the Safe Haven program, which provided transitional housing for people with a history of chronic mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness. Solomon is 49, was born in Brooklyn, and had his training in counseling and clinical psychology. He got his doctorate in San Diego in 1984 at the Professional School of Psychological Studies.
I asked him to describe to me what he did at Alpha Project.
““We’re targeting the most difficult of all clients. They tend to be paranoid and have a very low trust level. They tend to have been picked on by predators that have been out there as well. So we try to engage clients like that and let them know about the services we have to offer, then gradually build up a trust level and get them into housing, get them off the streets, and get three square meals a day and perhaps some sort of income coming in. And we found over time that, basically, if the client stays away from street drugs and alcohol and has a roof over his head with some routine and takes prescribed medication, then those three things alone will take care of 90 percent of the problems. It’s kind of new in the sense that heretofore there hasn’t been this comprehensive service package, and so it’s a lot more than just putting a roof over somebody’s head. One of the things we’re hoping to do is stop that cycle of people getting into treatment, getting to the hospital — mental or physical — then being discharged, going to jail for drugs or alcohol or committing street crimes. The whole idea is to keep the client engaged in different kinds of services and have him function in as high a level as we possibly can so he doesn’t repeat the same cycle over time. Some of the preliminary data has shown the probation violations and having to go to jail or being arrested again, or going to the psych hospital or emergency rooms — those clients who used to use those kinds of services, the numbers are dropping dramatically ever since some of these programs have been instituted.”
The refocusing and expansion of the Alpha Project would require a lot more money, and that was where Tony Phillips was to come in.
“Bob and I met over the course of two months before I decided to come here, and by coming here I recognized I was taking a career step that some might not have advised. This represents leaving the thick of the mainstream of social services and the power in that industry and coming to run with a maverick well outside the herd. And I told him part of my discernment was whether or not that sounded wise. But ultimately I came here because he convinced me — and I’m grateful to him for sticking to it — that I would get to do at the Alpha Project what I’ve always done elsewhere, get to do it with a greater degree of freedom and get to know that I’m doing it for a bottom line that I don’t ever have to question. You’ve seen how lean we run. My job really was to come to the Alpha Project and bring with me all the insider knowledge I have about all of the major players in social services and social service funding in San Diego and the County of San Diego, to expand our level of access to public funding sources — including HUD and Health and Human Services, county and city funding — to write grants, to help develop programmatic things, also to work with budgets and know the intricacies of what is permissible billing and what is not, to work with our accounting department to oversee the grants that we already have and administer those contracts. All of these things go into what I do.”
I asked Phillips what he meant by the “bottom line.” We were sitting in a coffee shop across the street from Alpha Project.
“Well, that gets me into indicting others, which I don’t want to do, but I would say, with the Alpha Project, uniquely, I have never felt in anything that we have done as though the real reason we work really hard is not to affect the lives of the more vulnerable members of our community, that at the end of every day the only reason we did whatever we did was to create greater opportunity and greater empowerment for homeless people or people at risk. And, sadly, that’s unique in my experience in nonprofits, which is not to say that other nonprofit groups don’t ultimately deliver a share of that, but more times than I care to recall I had to look myself in the mirror and realize that I’d compromised myself badly for the sake of my agency’s well-being, which is not necessarily the well-being of the clients. And I don’t have to do that at the Alpha Project. One of the major difficulties is that other nonprofits are top-heavy with bureaucracy. I worked for an agency that charges 25 cents on the dollar to every one of its programs, to pay for executive administration — that’s in addition to fund-raising charges and other costs of doing business. I do not shrink from telling you that I have worked for two different agencies that have an executive infrastructure that rivals that of many private-sector businesses to the point of obscenity. I’ve managed residential programs where we have had to go sometimes weeks without such basic materials as toilet paper and towels and even food at the same time that the organization was hiring new executives at the 70–80 thousand range plus. So. Yeah, this is a big business, and that really offended me. I took it in stride, really. I mean, I didn’t really get outraged about it until I saw there was an alternative. But that doesn’t stand me apart from the crowd. There are tons and tons of well-motivated, very talented, good people working in this business. I’m just in their awe. They’re great folks. But we all talk it. You suffer what you suffer and try to not look too close at blinding executive glut in your agency, because you want to protect the program. You do it all for the little you can get, because the people who suffer if you fail are your clients and your staff. But I’m just one of dozens of people who are worn out by being the cartilage of between administration and programs.
“Alpha Project doesn’t have layers of administration. There are four of us in the agency who are directly under Bob, but everyone else of roughly 100 employees has direct access to Bob as well. There are three tiers — this office with Bob at its head, and then individual program managers, and then their support staff beneath them. And most of our support staff are former consumers. These are people we have brought up from one or another of our programs. If you look at our budget of about two million a year, our largest line-item expense for years has been employee salaries, and of those employee salaries 85 percent are paid to either homeless or formerly homeless persons. That’s where the spending goes. On the other hand, you do face the dilemma that you and I have to walk across the street to a coffeehouse to have this meeting because we don’t have a conference facility, and that does place a functional limitation on what you’ll be able to do as an agency. We won’t ever be able to be the United Way or the Salvation Army or make our hugest impact without growing. We realize that we’ve maxed ourselves out. We’re doing 50- to 60-hour weeks as it is, and if we want to add any critical growth, that means adding new administrative staff. You have to do it, that’s a real cost of doing business. And you do it because you ask yourself, how will we ultimately best serve those that we are entrusted to serve. We’re guardians of the public trust. You pay my salary as a taxpayer. Indirectly, so does everyone else in this county. Philosophically, Alpha Project is the first to say that places a responsibility on us. That’s a pretty solemn duty, that the community has said that ‘We recognize we have a problem that affects the entire community, and all of us as individuals are busy working at our lives and don’t have the opportunity to go out and directly work with the homeless. So we’re going to entrust you to do it, and you better damn sure do it well.’ We take that seriously.”
I asked Phillips how salaries at the Alpha Project compared with other nonprofits. He laughed.
“They don’t compare. At the largest charitable organizations in this county there would 5 or 6, at least, executive staff who earn 20 to 25 thousand dollars more than Bob does. I obviously can’t tell you how much money Bob makes; Bob is comfortably middle-class. Well, even that’s a struggle. He’s got three children, so he’s not that comfortable. In two other agencies for which I’ve worked he would be outpaid by $25,000, probably, by 10 or 15 people. And in an identical position in — we’ll use, and I’m not setting them up as a straw man — the Episcopal Community Services, in my position at ECS, I would make 75 percent more money than I do at Alpha Project. Now, with due humility, I have seven or eight years of experience in this industry and I am not a licensed clinical provider and I am not, you know, many, many things, so I have been given an opportunity by the Alpha Project that I might not have gotten in the bigger provider agencies. And I’m grateful for that.”
I asked about McElroy’s influence on Alpha Project.
“Bob’s role in beginning the Alpha Project can’t be overstated. Bob was the Alpha Project. It’s dumbfounding to me that anybody would even take on something that on its face was as insane as thinking [he laughed]…I mean, you look back on it and it makes pretty good sense, but at one point, here was Bob with nothing but character, charisma, and a passion to go out and try and convince private and public sources alike that he could motivate and influence homeless castoffs to come in and do quality work for you — do your drywall, lay your carpet, reroof your building — and do it under the cost that you would normally pay a private agency, and all of that benefit would end up empowering those people participating in that work and that they would go on to be self-sufficient, given the right support and motivation. Yeah, that’s just too naïve. It’s so idealist on its face that why would you even get yourself involved in that, and in fact he got himself involved in that at great personal peril — he ended up selling his belongings to make it work. As the agency has evolved, he’s picked up a believer along the way — one by one by one — to the point that I would pit our credentials and experience and talent as a staff against any nonprofit in this county. I believe that we are leaner. I believe that we are hungrier. I believe we’re willing to work harder. I believe we’re willing to do so for less. And I believe we are equally talented and demonstrably as successful on a person-by-person basis as any one of those — and I say this making quotes — ‘competitors’ out there in the field. Right up and down the ladder, that’s from our controller to our president to our grant writers to our mental health expect. They don’t get any better than this.
“And we have an incredible degree of flexibility in our work. Yeah, we’re all principled folks and love the bottom line of what we do and get to have the smug self-satisfaction that we’re doing good work, and that matters to a certain extent, but we work here because it’s fun. We don’t have any turnover at the Alpha Project. This is the best place in America to work, and I’ve worked a lot of places. Bob gets hotheaded. And Bob will holler at you and tell you, ‘By God, you get that done!’ And you either do or you don’t. I told Bob when I came over here, ‘I believe that I can make you proud of the investment you made in me, and if I don’t, please fire me.’ Now I don’t believe he ever will. I don’t know what you have to do to make Bob fire you. It’s not in his heart. I think where Bob deserves all the credit is that he has an uncanny, almost an immediate perception of people. He knows from the time you talk to him just a few sentences whether you’re stringing him a line or not and, if you are, whether he can accept it or not. Everybody’s got lines, everybody’s got a mask they’re going to wear, and Bob knows how to work with that, and he can know pretty quickly whether you know what you’re talking about, how much you really believe in what you’re willing to do, and if you’re willing to work hard for it.
“I was asked once by a local reporter, ‘What makes Bob so unique among executive directors of agencies?’ The first thing is that Bob still goes out and does the work. Yeah, he’s the president of our organization, but on any given day you might find him out in a ravine cutting the brush line with men freshly off the street. That’s his preference to do that, he likes it. The second thing is that Bob is a character. And I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. Bob is not a caricature; he’s a character. He’s almost on a heroic scale. He’s this colossal thing that is greater than life, you know, with good humor, whereas in truth, Bob’s also a guy we go to lunch with and we tease each other and he’s just one of us, but I don’t think he’s fully aware of how powerful his character is. He’s made for this right now. Today we face a new generation of community-minded people, we face a new generation of givers, we face a problem in a postmodern context in a way that has never really been seen. We’re looking at unprecedented economic prosperity and an explosive growth right here in one of America’s finest cities, the sixth-largest metropolis in the country, and a persistent presence of 15,000 forgotten, lost, and broken people. That’s a really weird thing. It’s tough to make it jive. And Bob is made to attack that. Great men are made by their times. I don’t know what Bob would have been in a different context, but in this context, he is the right person to attack that. He hits that message better than anybody I know.”
One day I asked McElroy what he saw as his faults as head of the Alpha Project. Phillips had already said that it was almost impossible for McElroy to fire someone, and McElroy agreed with that.
“I’m real lousy at firing people. I always make somebody else fire somebody. I’ve actually kept people around too long that shouldn’t have been here in the beginning. I let Robb be the hit man.
“And I have a foul mouth, which is not good. Even my kids are praying for me. They say, ‘Dad, you’ve got to stop cussing.’ And I used to be a hitter. I would hit people. I’d fight. I’d always have a chip on my shoulder, because back in the ’50s and the ’60s, if your parents were divorced, you had a big scarlet letter on you. It wasn’t fashionable to come from a single-family home, so I always had to be tougher, better, bigger, louder than anybody else, and that carried over. I had a lot of rage, lot of anger, still have a lot of rage and anger, because things are so broke. If it wasn’t for my faith I’d probably be in the grave by now. I still have a temper, and the temper’s directed at hypocrisy, blatant hypocrisy. And I cuss.
“And patience. I’ve got a tremendous lack of patience. Because I just feel like there’s people dying out on the street that could be saved if we had the resources to be able to do something about it. If we could get the people and the powers that be to listen. We’re just some little program. Like I say, I’m just another little grain of sand on the beach. We need to get people to listen and look at the results of this program, this minuscule, little, tiny little program. There are many people who have started programs long after us that have only been around four or five years that have three or four times the budget we have because they are master fund-raisers. They’re not doing anything with the money. They’re paying themselves big fat paychecks, and they’re not solving the problem. But I’m not doing my job, I’d much rather be out weed-whacking or hawking papers with the guys. That’s probably my greatest weakness: I’m a lousy support system for my staff. I’m depressed.”
McElroy leaned back in his chair and laughed, then he continued.
“If anything, I mess this up because I don’t do the things I should. I’ve pulled things off the table before just because somebody at a meeting has pissed me off. Back when I was downtown the first couple of years, we had no money, and the city called me in because I was getting all these people jobs, but I wasn’t getting any money for it, and they said, ‘You should probably get some money for what you’re doing, you can probably get $40 for every person you refer into a job.’ Then one person, who has since become a big supporter of ours, started saying, ‘What’s his background?’ I was the new guy on the street and I was a lot more crass back then, but here’s 40 bucks a head and I’m getting hundreds of people jobs and so that adds up to some money. And my wife’s calling me from the bank, ‘We’re overdrawn, we’re overdrawn.’ We needed that money. But he started questioning my credentials. ‘Well, what kind of social service degree do you have?’ and all this kind of stuff. And I’m just a street guy. I came off the bricks and I’m just meeting people where they are and doing that kind of stuff. And he said, ‘Well, we don’t really know if you qualify.’ And I said, ‘You know, I ain’t got effin’ $40 and I don’t need your effin’ $40 tomorrow, man. You guys keep your effin’ $40.’ I threw it back on the table and walked out. Now that cost us some generating money down the road there, and we’d probably be a little bit farther along now — no, we wouldn’t have. It was dirty money. I didn’t get into this job to be paid for it. But I threw it back in their face, and I’ve done that a couple of different times over the years. ‘Keep your damn money!’ Good Lord wants me to keep doing this, and He’ll keep finding us the money somehow, but I used some expletives there. In mixed company.
“And even the people I get angry at, people I’ve already been a pain in the side of, the Father Joes, who’s really the one I take to task most often, I’d help him out in a minute if he needed help. I don’t hold any grudges. If I say something, if I get mad, I’m done with it. Sometimes guys come in and we go at it, nose to nose in here and stuff, then I’m done with it. So far as I’m concerned the slate is clean and we start anew. And if I’m pissed at you, I’m going to tell you straight up and I want you to tell me the same thing. Anybody. If Father Joe — and I always hold him up because I’ve been on the other side of the fence of him all these years because I don’t believe in warehousing people and stuff — but if he said I was the biggest asshole he’d ever met in his life, I’d respect that, instead of weaving around and being a busybody. Just lay it on the table. Everybody knows where I’m coming from. If I don’t like you, I’ll tell you and I’ll tell you the reason why. And I want people to tell me the same thing. Doesn’t happen though. I think I need therapy. Randy’s going to give me a Rorschach test in the next week or so. He’s licensed to do all that kind of stuff. So I said, ‘I want to take a Rorschach test.’ I’ll probably find out that I’m a raving flipping lunatic and I need medication.”
McElroy’s chuckle sounded like an idling Harley. Then he told me one of his most serious weaknesses as a CEO.
“I’m the world’s worst fund-raiser. And I’m kind of all over the map, I guess. I’m not as organized as I should be. But the worst thing is fund-raising. We should be a lot more financially sound than what we are. My responsibility is to raise money for this organization, and I’d much rather be out weed-whacking with the people. Thank God Tony’s here and Kyla’s here and the others, because their job is to go out and fund-raise. I just can’t do it. I sit for hours and listen in complete fascination as salespeople tell me how they can sell stuff. It’s phenomenal to me that somebody can knock on the door of anybody’s house and sell something.”
I was impressed that somebody who was head of an organization constantly in need of money should find it so difficult to ask for money. I told Tony Phillips what McElroy had said and Phillips laughed.
“He’s the worst I’ve ever seen. Nobody in this town has more direct access to powerful media than Bob does — perhaps Father Joe. Bob’s a walking sound bite. He’s on television at least every couple of weeks. In fact, almost every month we do a live morning news broadcast with one of the large channels here in town. He’ll have 10 or 15 minutes of unobstructed airtime with a network that absolutely loves him. And I’ve never once heard him say when asked, ‘How can people get involved?’ ‘Well, you can send us your checks.’ Yeah, and really, that’s what you can do. We get calls and people ask, ‘How can I help?’ You can send us a check. That helps. Bob won’t say that. Not even anything approaching that. He’s the worst I’ve seen at asking for money for what he does. I’m not kidding, he just will not do it. It insults him somehow. And I think he thinks that it makes us look as though we’re not independent, that we need something from others, which I admire, but by God, we’re not independent. We’re absolutely dependent upon the community of which we’re a part, and I’ll tell Bob, ‘Just ask them for money!’ And he won’t do it. [Phillips laughed again.] And it’s okay, that’s why he has other people to do that. We can ask for money for him. But he’s got a direct line to the public’s ear, and it’s very hard for him to ask for anything. We have a half hour infomercial that runs once a week on a local channel and we have one-minute advertising spots that we do on several channels locally, but not once in there does anything say to send a donation to the Alpha Project. The word ‘donation’ does not even appear, not even in print. It’s pride, I think, with Bob. You don’t go out panhandling. That’s what he thinks it is. You don’t go out begging for money.”
McElroy sees his inability to ask for money as a problem he is incapable of solving. He can no more change it than he can change his height or fingerprints.
“I’ve been told by every marketing firm, every PR firm, and even the Bible says, ‘If you don’t ask, then you don’t receive,’ but I just don’t have that gift. I still can’t do it. You know, I’ve had to take people when I’ve given speeches, and before we close they get up and say, ‘We need financial support.’ But I’d rather people give to us because they’ve seen our work, they’ve seen the results. And I tell people, ‘Don’t take what I’ve got to say to you as gospel. Go see, visit our facilities.’ Well, most people aren’t going to do that. So the marketing firms come in and talk to me — and I go, ‘How do you get people to believe in your cause when it’s good news?’ When I did the winter shelter, it was perfect: it was raining, we had kids in there. People were throwing money at us. But we weren’t getting the people jobs — actually we did, because we had job fairs and stuff — but people didn’t give us money for job fairs, they gave us money and donated stuff for the shelter — food and diapers and blankets, which were Band-Aids. The work programs are long-term, they’re life changing. You’re going to get up, you’re going to get sober, you’re going to get a job, you’re going to get trained, you’re going to learn how to work — these things are long-term. This is what’s going to get you out of homelessness forever. People aren’t giving us money for that. People gave us money for the quick fix: the soup line, the pizza party, the blankets. How do you get people to give you money for cleaning up neighborhoods? How do you get people to give you money for good news? ‘I want to write you a check because, you know what? Because you go through the ghetto and you paint houses for seniors and you give homeless people jobs, you teach them how to work and keep them sober.’ People don’t write checks for that.
“I want to solve homelessness. It’s all I want to do. And we have one easy formula here. The state spends $40,000 a year to keep somebody incarcerated. I could probably take 60 to 80 percent of those people who are incarcerated today and give them a $20,000-a-year job, doing nothing but a mentoring program for kids, gang intervention, Neighborhood Watch programs, neighborhood-enhancement programs, low-income-housing building programs — pay them $20,000 a year. The taxpayer gets the other $20,000 back and they get about another half a million dollars per person back from reduced crime, improved property values, and so on — these people aren’t tearing down, they’re building up. We could take more than half the men and women out of prison today and enhance communities. But that’s too frigging easy. You go into any ghetto, anywhere — I’ve been to East L.A., South Los Angeles, Logan Heights, the rest of them — and they’re all the same. There’s no anchor markets, no job opportunities. People in those communities have given up. They’re not worth any more than a welfare check. They’re multigenerational welfare recipients. And so it means you’re going to be poor all your life, and so we supplement our income by slinging dope. The heroes in our neighborhood are gang members, drug dealers, bank robbers, and those kind of guys. Us white folks have just basically turned our back and said, ‘Well, we just won’t put anything there.’ It’s the same everywhere. If I could take the money and employ all the people who are doing bad things to do good things, we’d turn those communities around in a year. And crime would go away. If you gave people who are doing bad things now — whether they be gang members, dope dealers, or whatever — an opportunity to have some hope, but hope has been taken out of those communities. And we’re not even paying these guys $20,000 a year. They’re working for six or seven or eight bucks an hour. These are people who have been career, multigenerational criminals and convicts. And this is the first time in their lives they’re off parole. They are no longer on the radar screen in the judicial system and they are doing good things in the community and they are never going to prison. Now how much did that save the taxpayer already? Millions! And if we did it on a large scale? But it won’t happen.”
One afternoon I went with McElroy to the day center, a long, one-story cinder-block building surrounded by a tall fence. In the yard in front, about 30 rather ragged men and women were lying on the concrete, sleeping or reading or staring at the sky. Many had large black garbage bags with their possessions by their heads. Going through the gate with McElroy was like going into a small country village with the popular local squire. People waved, came over with questions or just to talk. McElroy was hearty and solicitous, but he was still tough. Someone had tossed some trash on the ground, and McElroy spent a few minutes trying to find the culprit and threatening to throw him out. Again and again McElroy would take my arm, point at someone, and say, “There’s another miracle.” Then he would launch into a story about the man or woman’s time in prison, years of alcohol and narcotic addiction, and how they had managed to turn their lives around, were employed, and had become useful citizens.
McElroy began talking to a thin man in his 40s by the name of Joe who worked on the maintenance crew. The problem was that McElroy had lent Joe the Alpha Project white pickup truck and Joe had brought it back with a small dent in the side. “I got all these dents marked,” said McElroy. “I gave you the brand-new truck.” Joe said something about backing into a pole. He was clearly unhappy. “I’ll get ’em fixed.” Then McElroy asked, “How long have you been with me, Joe?” Joe: “Eight years.” McElroy was incredulous, “Eight years?” Then he turned to me, “I think he’s lying, he’s going on 6. Seems like it’s been 20.” They began talking about getting another key for an equipment shed. The dents seemed to be forgotten. McElroy then asked Joe for my benefit, “How many years were you in prison?” Joe: “Four and a half. Five.” McElroy turned to me, “See that. A miracle. I don’t know how that happens. That’s just God telling me I needed that one Hawaiian on the payroll.” Joe laughed and McElroy turned back to him. “Something must have happened though, because you never got dents in cars, man. You just start working or something?” Joe began to make excuses about where he had parked. McElroy interrupted him with mock tolerance, “All right, forget about it.” But Joe was getting worked up. He pointed to another dent, how he had pulled into a parking lot and someone nicked him. McElroy interrupted him more gently, “Joe, relax, just don’t get any more dents. Have a good day.” McElroy sent him off as Joe kept explaining. “All right,” said McElroy, “I’m watching you. You know I’m watching now.” Then he turned to me, “Anyways, he’s another one.” He laughed and called after Joe, “Be responsible for the truck. Yeah, have a good day.” Joe looked back, beginning to smile, “Okay, have a good day, Bob.”
The interchange was typical of many I witnessed — McElroy being paternal and kind. There was also the sense that this was his home and he wanted it treated right. At one point he stopped in the middle of a story and shouted to a young black woman across the street. Then he whistled loudly to get her attention. “Don’t be smoking that crack over there!” The woman called back in protest and McElroy said, “That’s just a cigarette, okay. Okay, all right. I was just making sure.”
McElroy wanted to introduce me to Russell Demery, a black ex-alcoholic addict who was case manager for the Take Back the Streets crew. Although 44, Demery had spent 25 years behind bars on various drug-related charges. Now he had been clean for 7 years and had gotten a degree from San Diego City College in behavioral science, specializing in drug studies.
“He’s another miracle,” said McElroy, and went on to praise Demery’s ability to talk to people.
“I’m a lousy schmoozer, but Russell can really work a room. We went to Pete Wilson’s birthday party — we get invited to it every year because I was one of his recognizees, or whatever word that is. That Russell, man, he’s right up there with these head guys of major corporations. He’s got that gift. He was a great dope slinger for 20-some years. He can just manipulate people. He’s got the gift of gab. He wasn’t a violent criminal. He was a con man. Man, is he good. So my plan for him is to have him be a marketing guy one of these days. Get him out of the case management stuff and he can go out there and market. He has that smile and he has that charm, you know. He knows the frigging ropes, and he’s doing things the right way now. Miracles. Absolute, total miracles. Those guys were out robbing liquor stores and stuff for their heroin addiction, and now look at them. They’re helping people out. Thousands. It’s crazy.”
Shortly I was in a small office with Russell and Bruce, who is the case manager for the maintenance crew. Bruce had come into the Alpha Project “through the yard,” meaning that in 1994 he had been one of the homeless people lying outside on the concrete. The year before, he had gone through the program at Casa Raphael, then fell back into addiction. Coming into the day center he got clean again, and in 1995 he began to do some work, starting at the bottom and eventually reaching his present position. In fact, both men spoke of coming in here with nothing and just stubbornly hanging around until something was found for them to do.
“We used to work outreach,” said Bruce, “and Russ used to come down and bug us. He bugged us every day till we finally gave him a job.”
“I used to come down every day because I seen something,” said Russell. “I’ve never been hungry for work like that before, but there was just something about what they were doing, I felt comfortable seeing. I’m a people person and they interacted with the public a lot. And I felt that I could be an asset, their goals and their accomplishments, they were about helping not just the homeless but also helping the businesses, so it was not just a one-sided situation. Everybody was winning.”
Russell has a round face with a mustache and wore a gray sweatshirt and a gray cap. Bruce was 46, gray-haired with a mustache, and big. In fact, he looked like an actor who might be playing Falstaff.
Russell started being sent to jail when he was 13. “As for prison, I was looking for the easy way out. Success fast. Torn up in the cycle — hip, slick, and cool. And you know, I was immature, irresponsible, and foolish. Not a fool, because if I was a fool I would probably be in a worse position than I was. So from being like that, I woke up. I woke up in a cell and I said, ‘Hey, I can’t do this no more. What have I done? I’m 38 years old.’ I remember my last high and I remember my last incarceration. I said I can’t do this no more. I did eight months and got out and haven’t looked back.”
I asked them what working with McElroy was like.
“Having a friend,” said Russell. “You know, a friend that knows how to handle his business.” “He’s a dynamo, if you will,” said Bruce. “He used to be a lot different.” Russell agreed, “This is the new Bob, you’re seeing the new Bob.”
They were talking about the changes and restructuring that had begun in 1999, which had taken McElroy away from the work crews and put him in an office downtown.
“He’s busy chasing the money nowadays,” said Bruce. “Before, long time ago, he sat right here in this chair, and he was a brother, a father, a mother. He fit all those descriptions for a long time. For everybody around here. He always has time for us when we need to talk. He peps me up, keeps me going. He had a vision a long time ago. He didn’t tell me about all his visions, but he would say, ‘Well, this is what I see happening, and even though it takes a long time for those things to come into fruition, they’re starting to happen now.’ And that’s why it’s getting really exciting nowadays.”
I suggested that what McElroy loved best was being at the day center and working with the crews, which meant turning his attention away from the larger goals, those that went along with being a CEO. Both men agreed.
“This, from my knowledge, I think was a scary situation, about the main goal of the public relations,” said Russell. “It meant that Bob couldn’t be in the mix of his employees all the time.”
“He likes being out there with a shovel,” said Bruce.
“He wants to be part of everything that we do,” said Russell. “If we’re having a problem we’ll call and say, ‘Well, Bob, why don’t you come down and help us out?’ He’ll say, ‘Okay, I’ll be there. We’ll all have a meeting.’ I don’t think he wanted to leave. You know, it’s hard to let go of something you’re so attached to. I mean, this was his office. Every day 40, 50, even 100 people came into this office and said, ‘Hi, Bob, can I get a job?’ ‘Can I get a bus ticket?’ Can I get this, can I get that? And that becomes a part of your life. I mean, for many, many years.”
“He had to go,” said Bruce. “Otherwise it wasn’t going to grow.”
“We had to get him out of here or he couldn’t be Bob,” said Russell. “He was just like being one of us. And I miss it.”
“He misses it,” said Bruce. “He misses having a chainsaw.”
“But I know it’s the best thing for us to get us bigger and broader and into the community,” said Russell, “and for people to know that we’re around. Because not that many people know about us. They know of us, ’cause a lot of people say, ‘I hear you guys on TV.’ Or, ‘I didn’t know you guys did that.’ Now we’re trying to spread out. We got more people to help Bob do the things we need to do. Because he’d come down here two, three times a week, just to come down. It’s just like being home, you know what I mean? If you lived in a house for 50 years, you’d still go traveling down that street. But Bob’s a great guy, he’s one of a kind. And he’s been here for me. We’re literally a family. We have radios. We can call any given time, any one of us. If I call somebody from corporate, from Bob, Cici, Kyla, Tony, nobody in there has never denied me help. Always, help. That’s what you call a good situation, a permanent situation. ‘Help. I have a problem.’ ‘Okay, Russ, I’ll call you in just a second.’ Then they’ll get back to me and I’ll say, ‘I don’t know how to figure this guy’s time’ or ‘I need help.’ Our radios are on between eight in the morning and eight at night for each other. And there’s another on 24 hours a day. You can’t beat that. How many jobs you know where the employees can call the boss and say, ‘Hey, Bob, I need help on this.’ ‘Okay, Russ, I’m in a meeting. Call me when I get done.’ Or he’ll get someone else to help me out. It don’t even have to be me. It could be a person in TBS. He might say, ‘Can I use the radio, I want to talk to Bob.’ He’ll say, ‘Hey, Bob, I got a problem.’ ‘Okay, come up to my office tomorrow.’ And he will take his time and see one of the guys who’s in our program. You can’t ask for more than that from an employer. I respect him a helluva lot because he does not separate himself, saying, ‘This is me, this is you, and you can’t come here and talk with me. You got too many hurdles to get to me, and when you get to me it’s not going to be nice.’ That’s usually how a corporation is. But here you can be a participant, a client, a homeless person, and he’ll see anyone. You can’t beat an employer who’s open and will tell you, ‘Hey, I’m here for you.’ That’s what I love about him.”
“He let me be me,” said Bruce. “He didn’t make me be somebody else. He gave me a chance to be me, because I’d lost me for a long time. That’s what I admire about him. He didn’t want me to be somebody I wasn’t. He wanted me to be me.”
The next morning I went out with McElroy, Tony Phillips, and Kyla Winters up I-5 to Pacific Beach. McElroy was driving. They wanted to look at some property on La Jolla Boulevard that somebody wanted ripped down. The three chatted with one another, joked, discussed future meetings, future plans. But all three also had radios that kept going off, so they would also be talking to other people about problems, future plans, etc. It made it seem as if there were a dozen people in the truck. Phillips loaded his conversation with words like “dilemma,” “situation,” “issues,” “eclectic,” “consolidate.” McElroy used words like “stupid,” “cool,” “waste of time,” “let’s do it,” “he’s got to have bucks.”
McElroy got a call on his cell phone about a meeting that had to be rescheduled for the afternoon. Hanging up, he said, “Another bureaucrat — can’t get out of bed before five in the morning.”
Winters had her calendar and notebook on her lap. She took notes as she talked on the radio, then told McElroy about another meeting.
“One of the hardest things about my job,” she told me, “is managing the office, scheduling all these guys, seeing they’re where they’re supposed to be, especially since Bob has not really mastered keeping on a schedule or public relations, which is not necessarily a bad thing.”
McElroy had lived for 11 years in Pacific Beach, during his bad-boy days, and he reminisced as he drove through the downtown. “There’s nothing better than pizza. I could eat junk food every day of the week. See that little place? That was Sluggo’s — a Chicago guy — with huge hot dogs covered with sauerkraut and glop. And that used to be Diego’s — best Mexican food in Pacific Beach.”
“Chips, you have got to have chips,” said Phillips wistfully.
Driving up La Jolla Boulevard, McElroy said matter of factly, “I saved a girl’s life right up here.”
Winters laughed. “Oh my God, what are you talking about?”
“It’s the gospel truth. I was coming this way. See this turn-in? A lady cut this girl off. Her car hit, went over the top of the girl’s car, and fell right there by that drain. I came sliding up in my truck, went up and grabbed her, in her car. I was just like holding her and talking to her and telling her everything was okay. Her head was all gashed and her finger was almost cut off. I talked to her for about 35 minutes till the paramedics got there, and they said I kept her from going into shock. She called me from the hospital like three days later and, you know, well.” He laughed.
“Bet she was grateful,” said Phillips.
“I don’t know why I tease you,” said Winters, “because ever since I ran into Casey, I can believe your stories.”
“That’s gospel truth,” said Bob. “And if Steve wasn’t here writing everything down I would tell you about five other conquests that I once had in some of the motels we drove by here.”
The building to be torn down was a two-story, partially demolished office building. They studied it for a few minutes, took some notes, then decided to stop by a Mexican restaurant, Su Casa, for lunch. As we sat down in a booth, McElroy said, “Don’t let me have any chips. I used to live on chips.”
They were all trying to lose weight. Phillips, who struck me as quite thin, said, “I know tamales probably aren’t on a diet, right? See, I can have a bowl of black bean soup and some rice. There’s nothing wrong with that. Particularly in the middle of the day. All those carbohydrates. I’m going to burn it off before I go to sleep, right?”
“I’m going to have ceviche and the chicken salad,” said McElroy. “That building, it’s a big job over there. That’s all concrete block. Is it reinforced?” Phillips said it was. “If it’s cinder block it’ll come right down, but if it’s reinforced we’re screwed. There must be a rub somewhere because that’s a million-dollar piece of property.”
“There must be something wrong with it,” said Phillips.
“It could have asbestos in the concrete,” said Bob. “Why’d they stop tearing it down halfway down?”
“He’s always right about a piece of property,” Winters told me.
“You guys want some chips?” asked McElroy. “If you’re not going to have chips I can get them off this other table. I’m an addict right now.” He turned to me. “You want some chips, don’t you?” I said no. “Are you a vegetarian or something?” he asked.
“I trying to cut down my calories,” I said.
McElroy laughed. “Hah, we made him confess.”
The talk went back and forth between the building that needed to be torn down and various other projects. Punctuating this talk were a variety of jokes; weaving through it was a stream of good humor. With all three there was a mixture of kidding and seriousness, but Phillips and Winters also seemed full of respect.
McElroy asked me about the Reader, then said, “You know, the homeless people they interview, most of them are chronic homeless folks and they reinforce the dumbest perceptions, and they’re talking to you like, ‘Yeah, I panhandle money because I got to support my habit’ or ‘I gotta drink’ or whatever. These are people who have no desire yet to get off the streets. ‘I gotta have my five beers a day.’ These interviews set us back, you know, another two years. Again, it goes back to no money. Laws and legislation have to be changed in order to let us go out and try to help these people. The cops make regular sweeps through the parks and the riverbed looking for encampments, but hopefully, instead of just going in there and enforcing the law, they’ll call us first and give us an opportunity to talk to the people. That’s a big step in the right direction. As for the county’s homeless outreach team, they’re afraid of their own clientele.”
Phillips described how the county’s social service agencies would sometimes give the homeless tickets to leave the city.
“It’s called ‘Seeing the U.S.A. the Homeless Way,’ ” said McElroy. “It’s called ‘the circuit.’ They start in Florida. Florida gives them tickets to Phoenix. Phoenix to San Diego. San Diego to L.A. L.A. to San Francisco. Then back across the Midwest to New York. I’d see a guy who’d be gone for a year, and he’d come back and tell me how he’d been working the circuit. They’d have free tickets.”
After lunch they were in a rush. Phillips had to get back to the office for a meeting, and McElroy and Winters had to inspect a house on Julian Avenue in Logan Heights, where the Take Back the Streets crew might do some work. There were more phone calls and meetings planned. Winters kept referring to her notebook, keeping the schedules on track. There was hardly any small talk.
The property on Julian was a one-and-a-half-story stucco building with three small bungalows in back. There were bars on the windows and a yappy dog. The owner was a Hispanic woman who had applied for money to get the work done — plastering, painting, some structural work. She was nervous, thinking that two of the bungalows wouldn’t meet code and she would somehow get in trouble. There were two representatives there from Councilman Inzunza’s office to discuss the project with McElroy. Winters kept reassuring the woman that there would be no problem. They would paint and even rebuild the bungalows that didn’t meet code. Slowly the woman was reassured. The dog yapped the whole time.
Back in the truck there were more phone calls. Bob pointed to a lot on 31st and Ocean View where they had torn down a crack house. Half a block up the street was a 100-year-old duplex with lemon and orange trees in the back. It was vacant, and the guys in the crack house next door had tried to firebomb it. Now the Alpha Project was taking it over and would soon begin renovations.
“This will hold 12 guys and be good for ten minutes on TV,” said McElroy. “Sober guys are moving in here, and the bad guys aren’t going to like it.” He turned to a young woman from the councilman’s office who sent out press releases. “You’re a media person. This is a good visual. We’ll do it within a month. You can get some Navy guys to help.” He talked about booking Rod Luck of KUSI morning news to do a short feature on the renovations. “He’s like me, a type A personality, a real knucklehead, a straight shooter. You’d like him. He’s covered 17 of our 19 crack house demolitions. But this will be the first time in four years that we’ll be rebuilding a house for our own people instead of for others. But they’re doing it, not me.”
This was a phrase that McElroy used often: they’re doing it, not me. And he would say that he wasn’t the one who ran the Alpha Project, he wasn’t the one responsible, that the other people ran it and did the work.
“I had nothing to do with this,” he told me. “I just had this stupid idea…no, it wasn’t a stupid idea, it was a divine idea, that homeless people were better than what the propagandists were telling us. That’s all it is. But these people do all the work. They deserve the credit, not me. I’m really boring, when you think about it. I just did what I was called to do, and that’s all I do. I just kind of let everybody else do their thing. The real story is the people.”
One of the last things I did was to ask Tony Phillips about McElroy’s claim that “they’re doing this, not me.”
“You know, he’s right,” said Phillips. “If a man or woman off the street uses the opportunities that we provide to empower themselves and bring more tools to their arsenal to go out and to be effective and to overcome all the hurdles in their way, it is absolutely to their credit. But all of us involved in Alpha Project know there is one person who is absolutely indispensable to creating the opportunity for that to happen in the first place, and that’s Bob. And so if Bob says, ‘Well, I’m not the one who does it,’ he’s right. He’s not the one that chooses to stay sober, chooses to kick his demons, and chooses to every day face the hardship of going out there and working and recovering and bringing oneself up from absolutely nothing — the clients do that. But none of them could do it without the opportunity he creates, because he can find another me. He can find another Kyla and another Randy. In fact, he could do it without us; he’s demonstrated that over the past 15 years. But we’re just toiling in obscurity without Bob. He’s indispensable to it, which places it at great risk. Bob could get hit by a truck. Right now, Bob is the Alpha Project. I know that Bob is aware of the fact that if we are to have a lasting impact, there will come a time when we do it without him. There will invariably be a time when the Alpha Project does not include Bob McElroy on a day-in and day-out basis, and we need to struggle to get there. We’re doing our very best, all of us who are working on grants or contracts or whatever, and when we can’t do anything else, we can rely upon Bob and say, ‘Bob, can you call the mayor’s office and make this better?’ And he can do that, because he’s built that up over the years, and nobody else is ready to step in and fill that void. We totally depend on Bob to make those things happen. I don’t think that other people even in our industry understand — and it’s disgusting to use the word ‘industry’ to refer to homeless services, but we do — I mean, major, powerful executives of large organizations in this business do not have state assembly people call them on their cell phone, don’t have the fax number to the governor. Bob kicks doors open when every single bureaucratic step along the way has made sure it stays sealed. He can make things happen, provided we do all the legwork, and there is a lot involved. Sometimes I don’t even know if Bob knows everything that’s involved, but you have to do the steps — fill out the applications, write quality proposals, and oversee and administer good programs — but often you still need him to go in there and force it to happen, and he does that.”
At times, McElroy would discuss doing what he did, ranging from the religious reasons to the fact that it was fun, but there was also his love and admiration for those whom many regard as life’s rejects.
“Those people are real; they’re trying so hard. And it makes me want to keep trying hard. And I’ll tell you, this is tough. I could do other things — I mean, I don’t want to do anything else — but having to get up every day and say, ‘I’ve got to go fight today for poor people. I’ve got to go change the public’s perception.’ I just found I’ve got to raise 80,000 bucks in the next three or four weeks for our day center. And having to work so hard every single day without taking a day off — it’s tough. But when I see them doing it, then I do it. And I’m so blessed that I don’t have to overcome the obstacles they have to overcome right now — number one: getting away from the drugs and alcohol, stop self-medicating. And then fighting all their battles from the bottom of the heap and knowing that they’re probably never going to own a house in San Diego. And a lot of our people are in their 30s and 40s and 50s and trying to stay motivated and focused enough to know that ‘I’m probably not going to get to the top of the heap, but I’m going to have to settle for somewhere in the middle.’ And to see them keep fighting the battle every day, how can I not fight too? How can I not show up for work? The fact is, these people have seen something that I’ve never seen. I’ve maybe had glimpses in my own little way. But these people have come through hell, in many cases. It gives them a special wisdom. They have seen hell and they have chosen to put forth all of their energy, faith, strength into doing the right thing. And, you know, I tell people all the time, dying’s easy, it’s living that’s tough. Doing wrong is easy. Giving up and going and smoking crack today is very easy. Going and buying a $3 bottle of Mad Dog is very easy. Quitting is very easy. It’s continuing on, continuing the battle and going forward that’s tough. It’s a lifelong thing.” n
Stephen Dobyns teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and is the author of 20 novels and of 11 volumes of poetry. His most recent book of poems is The Porcupine’s Kisses (Penguin, 2002).