SAN DIEGO — Mark and Tina live in a tent in Balboa Park's Florida Canyon, well-concealed from their No. 1 nemesis, the police. He has been on the street for the last 18 months. She has been there before, but this time it has been about two weeks.
Tina receives about $600 a month from a government program for the disabled. Mark sells his plasma for $8 or $12 a donation. Both get food stamps. As they eat lunch--instant soup and milk--Mark pulls at the bandage on his right arm.
Both were molested as children. Tina said she was raped by her father and her uncle. Mark was attacked by his father.
About three months ago, Mark made two attempts to throw himself off the Coronado Bridge. The police talked him down the first time. "The second time I almost succeeded," Mark said. "If it wasn't for this one cop. He got close enough to me that when I let go, he grabbed me."
Mentally ill and homeless, Mark and Tina are part of a group of people that occupy the very bottom rungs of society. It is a group that has been in and out of mental hospitals, in and out of prison and in and out of work--mostly menial work. They live in boxes, abandoned buildings, parks and tents, They are not the screaming, muttering crazies who wander downtown. But they are not that far from it.
Since July, they have gathered in a newly formed social club called the One to One Program, where, it is hoped, a little bit of normalcy can be injected in lives that are anything but normal. On this day, Mark and Tina sit in the cluttered clubhouse and discuss their lives.
They are feeling a particular urgency to get off the street now. Tina is pregnant, and the street is no place for an infant, she said. "I've been hurt. And I don't like being hurt. I don't want this baby being hurt when it's born," she said.
Mark says he is warming to the provider's role, although the baby is not his. He used to live in an abandoned coin laundry with 15 or 20 other street people, friends he considered his street family.
"Everywhere I've gone, I've built up a family. Brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. And I like to take care of the family's problems," he said.
He fashions himself a fierce fighter, though he is frighteningly scrawny. With attacks an everday part of life for people living on the streets, Mark believes it helps to have a reputation for being a little bit crazy.
People "tend to be more cautious," he said. "They tend not to rouse us too much. The guys at the mission know. On the street, they know. Word gets around."
Glenn Allison, executive director of Episcopal Community Services, was sitting in a meeting at the University Club three years ago when a thought struck him.
"I said, 'It seems to me what (the homeless mentally ill) need is the equivalent of this kind of place,' " Allison said last week. "It's a place like the University Club is. It's a place where you go to meet your friends, to talk with your friends, and you're not identified as sick."
In July, Allison opened that place in an old tannery at 10th Avenue and G Street in downtown San Diego. It is called the One to One Program, named for the Big Brother- and Big Sister-type matches arranged between outside volunteers and club members.
Once a visitor gets acclimated, the One to One clubhouse appears to run a lot more like the University Club than might be expected. Elected officers hold regular meetings where gripes are aired and plans laid. Programs are held each afternoon. Friendships are formed among people who break bread together each day, who support one another's efforts, who listen to one another's dreams.
'Like a Real Club'
"This is like a real club," said one man who hears voices and calls an abandoned warehouse home. "We see each other in the streets. We communicate. We share cigarettes." Loyalties develop, he said. When a club member is in trouble on the street, other club members help. That is not something they do for other people.
"There's a lot of people who would be able to function normally if they were given the support," said Pat Morse, the clubhouse facilitator. "But life on the street doesn't do that. Life on the street challenges whatever little support they have."
The Regional Task Force on the Homeless estimates that on any given day, 5,000 homeless people live in San Diego County, perhaps 25% to 50% of them with some kind of mental illness.
About 20 of the 45 members of the One to One Program have volunteer matches who provide support, encouragement and help in getting off the streets. They go out to dinner or ballgames together, or just sit and talk. Whatever they do, they provide One to One members with badly needed exposure to a different world, and the self-respect that comes from having a friend who is not on the street.