Spotlight Exclusives

A Simple Step to Help the Homeless

Heather Pollock, Girls Think Tank Heather Pollock, Girls Think Tank, posted on

Homelessness comes with a burdensome stigma and hardships that make transitioning to economic security extremely difficult. One particular burden faced by the homeless is the lack of a secure space to store belongings, forcing them to carry everything they own around with them wherever they go.

San Diego, in partnership with the nonprofit Girls Think Tank, is tackling the problem by providing free storage services in San Diego through The Transitional Storage Center (TSC). Spotlight talked with Heather Pollock executive director of Girls Think Tank to find out more about the TSC and its role in aiding San Diego۪s homeless population.

How does the Transitional Storage Center work?
The TSC runs on a weekly renewal system, meaning individuals can check in every day for a week. Currently, 170 people are on the waiting list for a storage bin, so whoever is at the top of the list when a bin opens up gets access to one 96-gallon bin to store their belongings in for free. If they need to renew after a week, they can. Otherwise, if they no longer need the center, they can pack up their items and leave.

What are some of the practical benefits for homeless people of having a place to store their belongings?
People on the street carry their lives, their homes, virtually all of their belongings on their back. This is a large impediment to day-to-day mobility. For instance, if somebody living on the streets wants to take a bus or trolley to a job interview, they face the difficult reality of figuring out what to do with their belongings. How do they secure them while they are gone, or what do they do with them when they arrive at their destination? Theft and misidentification of abandoned property by the city are a daily concern.

Many living on the streets face a difficult conundrum of whether to attend a medical appointment or job interview, or to stay with their belongings. Thus, storage allows them to travel freely and without the fear that when they return, their belongings will be gone. The center is open twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, allowing for flexible accessibility around any schedule.

What are the biggest challenges you face in running the TSC?
Our biggest challenges came about a year and a half ago. We were forced to find new funding and a new location. Our current location was on a temporary lease that was no longer available. We kept running into closed doors, but luckily, being in San Diego, having an outdoor location was feasible, despite our initial location being indoors.

For other cities, this will certainly be less feasible, and a major challenge, but in this regard, we got lucky. The big hurdle was finding a large enough location that we could afford. Luckily, we were able to work with the San Diego Housing Commission to acquire a parking lot on a month-to-month lease. The Housing Commission was very gracious in entering into a lease agreement with us, and was even willing to provide it to us for $1 per month. This aid from the Housing Commission, along with gaining support from the city to fund the center۪s operation was crucial.

Do you have advice for other cities, funders, or nonprofits who may be interested in implementing a similar program?
Community support is paramount to long-term success. It۪s important to work with community partners, promote community buy-in to the program, and to educate the community on the benefits of a storage center.

A program like TSC is a win-win for all who are involved. When we had to relocate initially, we faced some negative preconceived notions from potential landlords who were concerned about the adverse impact a program like this might have on their business, or nearby business owners who shared these concerns.

Our success has allowed us to establish strict rules and guidelines. For instance, we forbid the formation of lines before opening to reduce the perception of loitering crowds. It is also important to educate business owners and the community as a whole as to the positive impacts a program like the TSC will have. At our location we have 353 bins which hold over 30,000 pounds of belongings, meaning we are helping remove over 15 tons of items from the streets.

What۪s next for TSC?
As we look to expansion, our first priority is moving away from the bins as a means of storage. The reality is, the bins are in fact large recycling bins, a system that, while cost effective, perpetuates the harmful stereotype of the belongings of the homeless being trash. As things become more stable for us, we are hoping to move to a locker system. As of right now, our space allows for a maximum of 353 bins. Lockers are stackable, meaning we can expand to have close to 500 lockers.

We are also hoping to expand to have an additional location in a different part of town where there is also a high number of individuals without easy access to the storage center downtown.

What does a resource like the TSC mean for the community?
I can۪t accurately express what a valuable asset our storage center is. It truly is a home for the many people we help. I often see people in the morning collect their hard hats from their bin and go to work; families with three kids storing their belongings coming in to start the day; a student retrieving his textbook for the school day. The homeless often hide among us. Your co-worker could be homeless, and you would have no idea. Our storage center alleviates both the burden and stigma of being homeless, allowing people to work towards living a normal life.

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Heather Pollock is executive director and staff attorney at Girls Think Tank.

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