San Diego 'A major complaint we get," says Captain Trish Poochigian of the Salvation Army, "is that the homeless cross the street illegally in the middle of traffic. So I told the clients, 'If you want to come to our programs, you need to cross at the crosswalks.' Then they started using crosswalks, but still against the red light. So I said, 'You're not quite getting this; you need to go when the light turns green.' You'd be surprised. I had 6´9´´, 350-pound, rough-and-gruff guys say, 'Yes, ma'am.' And they did what I asked, not because it's me, but on account of what the Salvation Army stands for. One of our sayings is: 'A heart to God and a hand to man.' And the homeless know that we respect them regardless of their background."
But the Centre City Development Corporation may want to change how the Salvation Army does business in San Diego. In early December the corporation told Poochigian that providing food to people violated the Army's conditional-use permit. The corporation did not send a formal demand to end the practice, but on December 14 the Salvation Army voluntarily stopped giving out food.
Poochigian and her husband, Captain Thom Poochigian, lead the Salvation Army's activities on E Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. She understands that the Centre City Development Corporation does not like the homeless people loitering, throwing trash on sidewalks, and violating traffic laws. "But our concern," she says, "is that we be allowed to continue the things that we've been doing downtown for a long time. Our mission is to reach out to people in need, point the way through our belief in Jesus Christ, and meet human suffering in His name without discrimination. We've never given anybody a false impression about what we do."
At issue is whether the Salvation Army's giving people food constitutes a "feeding program." Or is the food an integral part of the Army's religious events? "We call it a fellowship meal," says Poochigian, "and it's after our services. When people come late or when the service is over, we tell them it's not a feeding program. We've been doing meetings with meals afterward in downtown San Diego since 1888." The Salvation Army served its recent evening meals four times a week. They included beef or chicken, starches, and vegetables.
Does linking food to a religious message pressure homeless people to attend religious services? "They can choose to come or not," says Poochigian, "and they don't have to listen when they get there. But I'm a woman of faith and have the right to share that." The services consist of prayers, the singing of Christian hymns, and preaching by Poochigian or her husband.
The conflict with the development corporation only began, according to Poochigian, after the Salvation Army added the meal to its evening program in the early fall. "Already," she says, "we were doing a continental-style breakfast for the senior community. And they knew we were doing it. What we started doing in the evening is the thing that bothered them. If we were violating the conditional-use permit in the evening, then the program that had breakfast in the morning was breaking it as well.
"But we are good neighbors," explains Poochigian. "We're civil-obedient. We temporarily suspended the two programs so we could look into what accusations were coming across. We want to follow civil codes and laws.
"But I've got to believe that sometimes our city gets it wrong, even though they're trying to do the right thing. We believe we're in the right, but until we know for sure, we won't cross that line.
"If they only want to make sure we're within the law as they understand it," Poochigian continues, "then the Salvation Army will get a conditional-use permit to continue what we were doing. But what is their motivation? Do they want to stop us from continuing? That would be a miscarriage of justice."
Centre City Development Corporation project manager Jeff Zinner is pleased that the Salvation Army voluntarily stopped feeding people. "Many varied activities take place downtown," Zinner says, "and to allow them all to coexist, people must comply with their different conditional-use permits." He wants to talk with the Salvation Army about "how and where it can provide its services. Additional changes will be coming in the near future," he says.
Two organizations several blocks east of Petco Park currently serve meals to people in need with the city's full blessing. God's Extended Hand, located at 16th Street and Island Avenue, serves an evening meal Mondays through Saturdays. The St. Vincent de Paul Center on Imperial Avenue offers lunch at 11:30 a.m. every day except Sunday, when it has a brunch at 9:30 a.m.
I ask Poochigian whether the Centre City Development Corporation sees programs like the Salvation Army's as helping to keep homelessness in the downtown area. "Now isn't that silly? There are 6000 homeless in San Diego," she says. "If I were feeding 6000, that idea would come closer to the truth. But I served a population between 150 and 300 for the four nights a week that we were doing it. We gave breakfast to only seniors in risk. I did not create homelessness, and I don't encourage it.
"The development corporation has been mandated by the State of California to find a plan that will eradicate homelessness downtown," says Poochigian. "But you don't eliminate homelessness by getting rid of people or denying them services and food. You get rid of it when you give people some possibility to find hope in their lives and some structure that will stabilize their lives."
The Salvation Army's founder, William Booth, said, "People need soup, soap, and salvation," according to Poochigian. So its programs combine the physical and spiritual with life skills. "We want to connect them to stable things in their lives that will get them out of their circumstances. And we encourage them to be good citizens," she explains.
Is it possible, I ask, that the development corporation thinks its mandate is to move homelessness out of the center city to San Diego's periphery?
"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?"