By Erin Weaver
When asked to create an image of a typical homeless person, many people might use the terms dirty, lazy, addict and social outcast.
However, in the wake of a receding economy and record home foreclosures, many residents in San Diego and across the country are facing homelessness for the first time in their lives.
This trend has not been overlooked by the people who work closely with the homeless, even if it still goes relatively unnoticed by the general population.
Julie Vance works for St. Vincent de Paul Village, an organization that partners with shelters and schools across San Diego to battle homelessness. At any given time, the shelter where she works houses around 70 families. She has noticed an increase in the number of people becoming homeless, but she is hesitant to put the blame on any one factor.
“I think you can say the current nature of the economy is probably a big factor in this, although it’s hard to say what is the reason behind the spike. There are some families that are first time homeless who lost their jobs and couldn’t pay their rent,” she said.
The San Diego Regional Task Force is a government agency that works closely with the city of San Diego’s Homeless Services and provides numbers and data for the city’s homeless population. From 2007 to 2008, there was an 11 percent increase in the population, according to the company’s website. While the results of the 2009 count are still being calculated, many predict a second straight year of increase.
Although the spike in homelessness may be attributed to the economy, an arguably temporary condition, chronic homelessness has been an ongoing problem in the city of San Diego. Many see this type of homelessness as a generational issue that is harder to remedy.
One of these people is Micah Bray, a counselor and activity coordinator at Touissant Academy of Arts and Sciences in downtown San Diego. Touissant is a four-story facility that houses and educates homeless youth, aged 14-17.
“Many come from many generations of homeless,” Bray said. “It’s strange to make the comparison, but it’s very similar to kids who grow up in privileged situations in that they don’t know any other reality.”
At Touissant, students are realizing a new reality, a brighter future. By educating the children beyond what they would get in a typical classroom, the staff there hope to break the cycle of homelessness for good.
Touissant grants high school diplomas through the San Diego Court and Community school system and provides an alternative sort of education with hands-on classes including art, music and even film-making. Bray says that the students at Touissant would fail in the public school system, as they have no parents to go to for positive re-inforcement.
In contrast, the students at Touissant have a better than average chance of success. Ninety percent of Touissant graduates go on to college while fewer than 70 percent of students in public and private schools pursue a higher education, according to the San Diego County Office of Education.
Touissant is a subsidiary of St. Vincent de Paul. Another educational facility they operate is the Monarch school, which also educates homeless youth and is located in downtown San Diego.
While valuable lessons are being learned within the walls of the Touissant Academy, a more important form of education is needed in the outside world, according to Bray.
“The stereotype of the homeless needs to be eradicated if we are ever going to truly fix the problem.”