2018 Award Recipient

Teresa Smith

Dreams for Change

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Preventing Chronic Homelessness Through Asset Building

Teresa Smith tackles the tough problem of homelessness with head and heart. With a Ph.D. in health physics, she worked at a San Diego social service agency during the 2008 recession.

Smith noticed that thousands of people on the brink of homelessness used their cars as a last refuge. Yet many county programs view cars as liabilities, not assets, for someone seeking assistance – and encourage residents to get rid of vehicles. Smith realized that it was time for a new strategy focused on protecting and building assets to help people avoid becoming permanently homeless. Dreams for Change was born.

Today, one out of five Americans experiencing homelessness live in California, including more than 9,000 residents of San Diego.

Dreams for Change launched the Safe Parking Program in 2010 to provide people living in their cars with a free, secure place to sleep — and to prevent them from falling farther into homelessness. It contracted with the City of San Diego to manage three empty lots, providing 350 spaces that, each evening, become safe communities with food, microwaves, bathrooms, homework tables, and housing and employment services.

“We realize that the car is an asset. It’s how our clients get to and from work, how their kids get to school. We work with our clients to maintain their vehicle to be able to move forward.”

Teresa Smith, Founder and CEO, Dreams for Change

The results are promising: Sixty four percent of their clients have gained stable housing within six months, on average. And the $250-$280 cost per vehicle for three to six months is far less than the $1,300 price tag for a shelter bed for one month.

Smith continues to innovate, raising funds to operate three food trucks that accept CalFresh benefits and serve homeless individuals and low-income seniors, and partnering with community organizations to offer Earned Income Tax Credit preparation services – helping people receive eligible credits of up to $8,000-$10,000.

The commitment to preventing people from sliding into chronic homelessness is the driving force that connects the organization’s programs.

“By bringing individuals together who are living in their cars, we create a community, so they know they’re not alone,” Smith said. “That sense of community helps move them forward.”

Video by Talking Eyes Media

The written profile and video reflect the work of the leader(s) the year they received a Leadership Award. Please contact the leader(s) for current information.