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S.D. Rescue Mission launches homeless outreach with a personal touch

People pose for a picture at a restaurant
The San Diego Rescue Mission’s Walk With Me program matches volunteers with homeless people over a year. Teri Jasper, far left, and Cindy Braun, far right, were matched with Sam and Christine, center.
(Mary Benirschke)

Sometimes the road out of homelessness can begin with something as simple as getting an identification card, filling out the right form or talking with the right social worker.

And sometimes, it takes a friend in the know to help with those things.

With that in mind, the San Diego Rescue Mission is launching Walk With Me, an outreach program that will pair volunteers with homeless people on a one-to-one basis.

“I feel like the mission’s been playing defense for 65 years,” said Rescue Mission President and Chief Executive Donnie Dee, who often turns to sports analogies because of a career that included playing tight end with the Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks in the late 1980s.

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“I want to play offense, and offense to me is to be more out there, out in the community, meeting people who are experiencing homelessness.”

Walk With Me, now in its pilot phase, is a homeless outreach program that will be significantly different from traditional outreach teams run by law enforcement or social workers who often encounter several homeless people in a single day, including some they are meeting for the first time.

In the mission’s new program, connections are made not by chance encounters but by pairing volunteers, known as friends, with homeless people, known as neighbors. Each friend will work with only one neighbor in a yearlong commitment, with the two meeting four to six hours a month.

Dee said training in the program will begin in January, with a plan to recruit 100 volunteers from churches and other groups in 2021.

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“We can’t change the state of homelessness by hiring enough staff to do all that we want to do,” he said. “We’ve got to engage churches and corporations around the area. Then we begin to cover more ground.”

Funded with a $100,000 grant from the Lucky Duck Foundation, the mission is creating a training program that will be led by professionals from the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, People Assisting the Homeless and other groups.

Planned as recorded, online sessions, the training will teach friends how to respectfully interact with someone experiencing homelessness and how to help people overcoming trauma. Friends also will learn about the variety of services available to their neighbor, which could lead to employment and housing.

“Maybe you’re helping them get their driver’s license,” Dee said. “Maybe you’re helping them get signed up for rapid rehousing. Maybe you’re helping them get into a program like the San Diego Rescue Mission, or maybe you’re helping them think through what their career might be. They’ll be trained on all of that.”

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Michelle Le Beau, director of church partnerships at the mission, developed the program. Dee said working with churches was a natural fit because congregations already have active volunteers who want to help homeless people.

The program is open to others who want to volunteer, and people can apply online under the programs section of the mission’s website, at www.sdrescue.org.

“We’ll find people who want somebody to walk with them through this journey in their life,” Dee said, explaining the process. “If you want to be paired up, you don’t just go out and find somebody and say, ‘This is my guy.’ You actually contact us, and we do a Zoom interview with you to make sure you’re a good fit.”

The program was proposed by Rescue Mission board member Mary Benirschke, who said she got the idea while working with homeless people in downtown San Diego through a ministry program with the Rock Church.

“If we can just get to know them, we’re going to understand what kinds of things they need, and we’re going to be able to support them,” she said.

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Benirschke said the ministry program involved projecting sermons by Pastor Miles McPherson of the Rock Church onto a screen set up behind a store in a neighborhood with a large homeless population. Over time, she came to know some of the people who frequented the event.

“They are very cautious about people who come up to them, so developing trust and having patience over time is important,” she said.

Benirschke also has a background working with people who have disabilities, and the experience helped her form what she called the person-centered approach to Walk With Me.

Besides helping homeless people become self-sufficient and deal with issues related to their homelessness, Benirschke said the program also will have a powerful effect on the volunteers.

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“I personally think we’re going to change the perspective of homeless people in our community, and I think it can be done in other cities, too,” she said.

She said her husband, former Charger Rolf Benirschke, is interested in becoming a friend in the program, and her sister Teri Jasper is one of the first of about 10 friends in the pilot phase.

Patti McCord, who has participated in the downtown Rock Church program with Benirschke, also was one of the first friends. She was paired with Patricia Gaines, a member of the Voices of Our City homeless choir who may be recognized for her solo spoken-word performance in the song “Sounds of the Sidewalk” when the group performed on “America’s Got Talent.”

“How I have helped her?” McCord said. “No, she’s helped me. Seeing their spirit was amazing to me. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

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Although their training hasn’t started, McCord said she anticipates she will provide everything from emotional support to help in what may be considered mundane but vital tasks.

“We’ll be able to jump in and say, ‘I can help you with that, I can help you write that letter,’” she said. “We’ll be able to help with some things that we take for granted. I’m looking forward to being the hands and feet, on a practical side, and I’m excited to continue to be the emotional help.”

Warth writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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