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Chula Vista street team aims to save lives of its homeless residents

Chula Vista charity helps those in need

As the number of deaths among homeless people rises, the Chula Vista nonprofit Community Through Hope plans to launch a street medicine team this summer to improve the health, or even save the lives, of people living without shelter in the South Bay.

For some, it’s already too late.

“His name was Eric,” said Bella Martinez, program manager for the nonprofit, as she recalled a 47-year-old man who lived at Harborside Park in Chula Vista.

Eric had health problems, and his friends called 9-1-1 last month when he was having trouble breathing. Martinez said paramedics were not able to save him, and they later discovered he was laying on top of an oxygen tank.

“Imagine if we’re out there earlier with doctors,” she said. “We could have known he had an oxygen tank and taught all his friends to use it. Instead of having to depend on other services, they could help each other. That’s why this program is so important. It’s allowing people to have self-sufficiency and take care of themselves. It’s a matter of life and death.”

The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office last month reported that more than 400 homeless people had died in 2021, a 20 percent increase from the previous year, and the number was expected to be higher by the release of the final tally later this year.

Community Through Hope Executive Director Sebastian Martinez said he has a commitment from the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency to fund a nurse for a street medicine team in the new fiscal year beginning in July.

The concept of street medicine teams began in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1990s and has been replicated in several other cities. In 2019, Father Joe’s Villages launched its street medicine team, inspired in part by a survey that found 30 percent of people living on the street receive no regular health care.

Sebastian Martinez said Community Through Hope is doing the ground work in anticipation of its own street medicine team. A team of four outreach workers are providing emergency relief services, wound care, hygiene products, food and other items to people living in encampments to gain the trust and build a rapport with people in encampments.

Bella Martinez said the effort is needed because some people living without shelter have come to associate outreach with police enforcement.

“A lot of what we’re doing now is building trust that’s been broken,” Bella Martinez said, adding that she believes the police department has shifted its focus from helping homeless people to keeping parks and other areas clean. “We want people to know if they see our light blue or green shirts, they’re not here to trouble you, they’re here to help you.”

Capt. Phil Collum of the Chula Vista Police Department’s Patrol Operations Division said enforcement is not the focus of the department’s homeless outreach team, but can be a last option to protect the community, including homeless people themselves.

“Their focus in their mission is not to target or even to arrest or cite homeless persons,” he said. “They are, of course, police officers, and from time to time that may happen, but their focus is not that.”

Collum also said CVPD has had a good relationship with Community Through Hope, and had a meeting with people from the organization earlier this month.

One couple who have been staying at Harborside Park in Chula said they appreciate the work Community Through Hope is doing.

“They’re a blessing,” said Chieko Tanaka, 70, who has been sleeping in a tent in the park with her partner of 30 years, David Reifenrath. “They give you hope. They actually result in something positive for you.”

Tanaka said the nonprofit has helped her after her purse and her identification were stolen three times in the six months they have stayed in the park.

As she spoke, she and Reifenrath were sitting on folding chairs on a sidewalk on Oxford Street, enjoying a hot meal provided by the nonprofit and waiting for a time when they felt safe to return to the park across the street.

It’s a weekly routine. Each Tuesday, a notice is posted that a city crew is going to clean the park the next day. Tanaka said about 10 tents had been in the park on Tuesday, and people had to pack up and haul everything they own across the street Wednesday morning or risk losing their possessions. She said she saw three abandoned tents taken away by a city crew.

“A lot of these people don’t want to be homeless,” she said. “It’s not a life that’s really conducive to something positive. But where do you go? There’s no place to go.”

Reifenrath said she and Tanaka had plans to travel the country after her retirement, and even had a train route and budget in place when their car was towed and a chain of events happened that disrupted their lives.

“I never thought that in retirement, I would be homeless,” Tanaka said.

Chula Vista Homeless charity helps those in need

The four-person Community Through Hope team goes out each Thursday and occasionally on Wednesday. Their next stop after Harborside Park was an undeveloped area near the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Faivre Street.

The trails are just out of sight of the road and littered with trash and discarded mattresses and couches. Some of the people in the encampments appeared to recognize and welcome the team, who wore green t-shirts with the words “South Bay Street Medicine.”

One man near a large encampment appeared suspicious but was assured by Deion Williams, director of programs for the nonprofit, that they were there to help. The team avoided a large encampment where they already knew people inside would turn down their offer for help.

Natalie Najera, unsheltered services coordinator for Community Through Hope, said she has seen encampments in the area grow over the past few months while others have been cleared out, with their inhabitants scattered.

“But every week our goal is to find as many people we can, find our regulars who go missing and check on them to make sure they’re OK,” she said.

As Williams walked through trails and noticed the structures some people had built for shelter, he marveled at the people’s resiliency.

“The unsheltered population doesn’t get credit for how hard they work and how smart they are,” he said. “People only see the drugs and alcoholism, but they don’t see all the things that it takes for them to survive. To put it in the most honest way, if we had an apocalypse happen, they’d be winning.”

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