By Morgan M. Hurley | Editor
Executive director sails on coattails of his own success
Homelessness has been one of the greatest challenges many big cities face, especially those on the West Coast, where people migrate to because of the warmer climate. San Diego is no exception and while various accommodations have recently been made to house the homeless during the winter months, the politics surrounding homelessness sometimes gets in the way of progress.
Enter the Clean & Safe Program of the Downtown San Diego Partnership.
The Clean & Safe organization is the property and business improvement district (PBID) for six of Downtown San Diego’s neighborhoods; East Village, Cortez Hill, Gaslamp Quarter, Marina, Core and Columbia. Their mission is to do just as their name implies — keep these neighborhoods clean and safe — through their safety and maintenance ambassador teams and a homeless outreach division.
On most days, ambassadors are the first people residents, visitors, business owners and homeless people make contact with every day. They are on the ground and in the streets, cleaning, overseeing, escorting and interacting throughout the streets of Downtown.
While homelessness has always been part of the Clean & Safe’s wheelhouse, it has taken on a new priority and focus under Executive Director Alonso Vivas.
Under Vivas’ leadership, the Clean & Safe team has renewed the mission of their Family Reunification Program. Initiated in 2012, the program reunites homeless people from the streets of San Diego with loved ones and/or friends in their hometown, whether that is elsewhere in the state or across the nation.
Quick to point out that some people refer to such programs as merely “Greyhound therapy,” Vivas said his program is definitely not that.
“Our team is trained to call the family or friends and make sure the client will not be homeless wherever we are sending them,” he said. “And we are committed to continue to follow up with people. We actually call to make sure they got there; then we call them in three months; we call again in six months; in a year; and again in two years. So it’s not just, ‘Hey, here’s a ticket, good luck.’”
Transportation to the client’s ultimate destination is provided through Clean & Safe partner, Travelers Aid San Diego; the local arm of a national nonprofit that helps people who are stranded, fleeing abusive situations, or experiencing other emergencies with limited or no resources.
Vivas admits the reunification program has not seen the 100 percent success they strive for, but context is key.
“We understand it is not possible for every person we send home will be successful,” Vivas said. “We are hoping to get 65 to 70 percent of the people some kind of success, and that when we call them, they are still housed.”
Whether or not they consider the program a success overall, their efforts have certainly been effective, especially of late. From its inception in 2012 through the early part of 2017, Vivas said the program reunited 1,000 homeless people with their support systems. Considering that is a number to be proud of, his team decided they wanted to do better.
“One of the new things we did in 2017 is partner up with the San Diego Housing Commission to reunite 400 homeless individuals with their families or support systems,” he said. “We started in June and we had a year, but we set an internal goal to see if we could accomplish this in six months. From June 26 to this week [Dec. 22], we’ve surpassed our goal and reunited 407 individuals.”
It is important to note that their achievement is nearly half of the number of homeless individuals who had been reunited in the previous five years of the program’s existence.
The new goal for 2018 is to make 2,000 the total number of homeless individuals reunited since the program’s inception in 2012.
One of the things that may help with this success rate is that throughout the interview, Vivas referred to homeless people as clients; while they aren’t property or business owners, they live Downtown and therefore, without question, require his services.
“Every day, Alonso witnesses how difficult life on the street can be — which is why he has made it a priority to assemble a talented, empathetic homeless outreach team to help reduce homelessness in Downtown San Diego,” said Angela Wells, director of communications for the Downtown Partnership. “He and the team work diligently to foster relationships and offer help to the most vulnerable members of our community. Their efforts can be seen in the results of the new and improved Family Reunification Program, which has been made possible by a generous grant from the San Diego Housing Commission.”
Vivas is the perfect example of an American success story; born in Orange County, California, Vivas spent most of his upbringing in Tijuana, Mexico, before moving across the border to Chula Vista while still a youngster. In 2005, he married and started a family, and soon found himself in need of a job. Clean & Safe offered him an immediate position as a safety ambassador, while another job wouldn’t start until after the holidays, which at the time was two months away.
He chose his destiny and the rest, as they say, is history.
Vivas moved up the ranks at Clean & Safe relatively quickly. Back when he first started, most of East Village was vacant lots and abandoned warehouses. Since then, the neighborhood has become a thriving metropolis, with thousands of new property owners and residents that he has become responsible for.
After first moving up to assistant supervisor and later serving as a full-time supervisor, Vivas soon became the assistant director of operations under Sam Jackson, who eventually retired, making way for Vivas in the director of operations role. His qualifications for the top job certainly proceeded him and in August 2016, Vivas took over as executive director, succeeding Bahija Hamraz.
“When I first applied, I didn’t really know that it would be a long-term thing, but from day one, I fell in love with the program and what it did,” he said. “It is a dream come true to be executive director. I never really thought it was possible.”
Now leading a staff of 60 with nearly 60 more contracted to work with the organization in areas of safety, power washing and tree trimming, Vivas noted the biggest difference between his former role and his current responsibilities was how he interfaces with the community.
“As director of operations, you are kind of in the weeds, making sure things are operating properly, keeping things clean and safe day-to-day, but things come up and you have to respond immediately.
“As executive director, I attend community meetings and talk to different community groups and hear their concerns,” he continued. “It’s being able to represent them and be their voice and knowing that if there is something that is important to them, then it is important to us.”
“Alonso is a compassionate leader who is dedicated to improving the quality of life for every single person in Downtown San Diego,” Wells said. “His vast experience, coupled with his big heart, have made him a great asset to both the organization and the greater Downtown community.”
Other ways the Clean & Safe leadership interacts with residents and business owners are their weekly Walkabouts, held every Friday in a different neighborhood, where they walk the streets and take note of any graffiti, trip hazards or other safety issues that might need their immediate attention. It also gives members of the PBID the opportunity to interact with them and see what how they work. In the program’s early years, Walkabouts were anchored at an intersection, but now they meet at a different coffee shop in each neighborhood.“We want to support local businesses, so we thought it would be a good way to give back and keep them engaged, as well,” Vivas said. “As much as I want to have unlimited staff, the additional eyes and ears for us are not only the residents, but also the business owners. The other hope would be that they become so familiar with our program that they are willing to open up and let us know the concerns they might have.”
Residents and business owners are familiar with Clean & Safe’s bright vests and logo but they may not be familiar with the important roles the organization’s safety and maintenance ambassadors play.
Safety ambassadors are tasked with observing and reporting quality of life crimes — basically being additional eyes and ears for the San Diego Police Department — but they often can mitigate the problems themselves.
Maintenance ambassadors keep the streets clean and the median and sidewalk foliage in top shape. While Comic-Con is the beast they contend with annually, every neighborhood has its challenges throughout the year, from the liquid amber trees in the Marina District; the jacarandas of Cortez Hill; the encampments of East Village, and the nightlife of the Gaslamp.
“Sometimes the amount of trash that’s accumulated [in the Gaslamp on any given weekend] is astonishing but it is amazing to see how clean it is once the graveyard shift clocks out in the morning,” Vivas said proudly.
In the early days, there was some overlap within the two roles, but today, the overlap is strictly in the ambassadorship arena, and Vivas does not take that term in their titles lightly.
“Downtown is a tourist destination and we have a lot of residents so people need help with directions,” Vivas said. “We want our ambassadors to be familiar with Downtown and be able to guide people to different places. One of the most popular things we have is our walking escort service; if you are lost, looking for a restaurant, or it is late at night, we will walk you to our car. Just call 619-234-8900.”
Vivas said the staff recently participated in a retreat to address the various challenges they face and determine their vision for 2018.
“We realized that while we’re going to do our best effort, we can’t do it alone, so we want to expand our collaborative relationships in 2018,” he said. “We are Clean & Safe, so we always have to strive to make sure that Downtown is cleaner and safer, and improving quality of life for our residents is something that will be very important to us in 2018 as well.”
To learn more about everything Clean & Safe does for Downtown, subscribe to their weekly newsletter and attend a Walkabout in your neighborhood. Visit downtownsandiego.org/clean-and-safe.
— Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.