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An Exercise in Helping Homeless

December 20, 1987

Last week's blast of cold, rainy weather sent most of us scrambling to light the furnace and dig out our coats from Back East.

But the breath of arctic air also sent many San Diegans scurrying to provide emergency shelter for those without home or hearth.

Of particular note were the remarkable efforts of Suzanne Pohlman, executive director of the North County Interfaith Council, and officials at Palomar College.

When temperatures threatened to drop into the low 30s last weekend, Pohlman and her staff took it upon themselves to find a shelter for the homeless in North County because the county's recently approved emergency plan is not ready yet.

Palomar College lent the use of its student union on a half-hour's notice; within about three hours, Edgemoor Geriatric Hospital had delivered mattresses. The county arranged for bus passes. The public donated blankets and the council handled the food. County mental health workers and officers from the Sheriff's Department and North County police departments lent assistance to the center, which housed up to 50 people over the weekend, some of them children.

When the campus reopened for classes Monday, Pohlman was faced with the task of finding new quarters for the shelter. A cramped Salvation Army soup kitchen was used until Thursday, when warmer weather returned.

The near-record low temperatures also caught the City of San Diego by surprise. It hadn't finished its plan either, but officials decided to give what they had a try. The results were impressive.

With help and donations from San Diego Life Ministries, the St. Vincent de Paul Joan Kroc Center and the Salvation Army, the city scrambled to house more than 450 people Saturday and Sunday nights at the Municipal Gymnasium in Balboa Park. City employees worked through the weekend. People from the community brought coats, blankets and cookies.

The only bleak moment was when the city closed the center Monday night because temperatures nudged above 35 degrees, the established threshold for declaring an emergency in dry weather. But the city reopened the gym Tuesday and Wednesday nights in the face of a cold rainstorm.

Many people in North County and in downtown San Diego worked long hours to help people who needed it. But it was more than an outpouring of compassion. It was an exercise in caring that worked in an era when many things don't.

Those involved have every right to be proud of their kindness and effectiveness.

Now, it's up to the city and the county to incorporate what they learned during this cold snap as they finish work on their plans. Perhaps this partnership of government and private agencies will provide a basis for more permanent solutions to the problems of the homeless. But the government agencies must do their share. The meager resources of the private organizations already are stretched very thin.

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