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News / Clark County News

San Diego response to homelessness a model for Vancouver, beyond

Advocate for homeless people makes impact in Clark County

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: February 28, 2023, 6:02am
3 Photos
Bob McElroy describes the living conditions inside the Temporary Bridge Shelter in San Diego that houses up to 325 people.
Bob McElroy describes the living conditions inside the Temporary Bridge Shelter in San Diego that houses up to 325 people. (Photos by Will Campbell/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

On the outskirts of San Diego, an unwieldy white tent peeks over industrial buildings and overlooks encampments dotting the nearby streets.

Inside the tent, bunk beds take up most of the space, people’s entire lives sitting on the mattresses.

Bob McElroy trails through the pathway between them, his dark gray bomber jacket displaying the words “Alpha Project” to those he passes. Residents and workers are busy around him; some stop to initiate conversation.

“It’s a whole ecosystem,” he said, referring to the residents who work to keep the tent running.


Bob McElroy will be a member of The Columbian Conversation’s panel about housing and homelessness on Wednesday. Other panel guests will include an Outpost Safe Stay resident, representatives from the city, county, state, and the Council for the Homeless.

When: 5 p.m. Wednesday. (Doors open at 4:30 p.m.)

Where: Kiggins Theatre; 1011 Main St., Vancouver.

Tickets: The event is free and first come, first serve. To register for the event, visit; http://columbian.ticketbud.com.

In 1986, McElroy started the Alpha Project to provide assistance, resources, employment, and shelter for San Diego’s unhoused population. Alongside transitional housing like the Temporary Bridge Shelter, the nonprofit has helped more than 4,000 people.

Around 65 communities across the United States have visited San Diego to learn about the Alpha Project’s programs and try to incorporate bits and pieces into their cities. In 2021, Vancouver was one of them.

Nearly 40 years of work

McElroy’s work aiding the homeless community started nearly four decades ago, in 1985.

After noticing the sizable populations of unsheltered people around his church, McElroy would pull up in his car at parks around San Diego, pop open the truck and pass out food to the unhoused population.

“I realized that feeding people in somebody else’s neighborhood was not solving the issue … it made me feel real good, and I’d get the warm fuzzies, but that wasn’t solving the issue. When I went and lived amongst the (unhoused population), I realized that nobody was taking us with them, and that’s how the Alpha Project got started,” said McElroy.

So, McElroy opened a tiny office to provide work opportunities for men experiencing homelessness. Over the years, Alpha Project has opened up more than 1,000 units of housing, four transitional tent shelters across the city, and uncountable opportunities for members of the unhoused community to have a new beginning.

“We started putting people to work, cleaning up the neighborhood, working with the businesses that did remain down there — changing the negative perception of the homeless people through empowerment,” he said.

McElroy believes in providing employment opportunities and a purpose for people. At his temporary bridge tents, McElroy’s philosophy of giving people a purpose is evident.

Residents can enroll in the Wheels of Change program, which pays people $13 an hour to clean up trash along the San Diego streets — similar to Vancouver’s Talkin’ Trash program.

Behind the San Diego transitional housing communities, behavioral health, substance use resources and laundry and clothing services are available for residents.

“Give people a purpose to put down the pipe or bottle and start the heavy lifting of trying to get recovered,” he said. “Everybody needs a purpose. If you don’t have a purpose – what’s the point?”

Vancouver takes a page from San Diego

In 2018, McElroy visited Vancouver and submitted a report commissioned by the city and paid for by the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund held at the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington. McElroy was tasked to provide an assessment of how Vancouver was servicing the unhoused population. He said he’s always had an affinity for the city due to some of his family living in the area.

During his visit, he took note that Vancouver was trying hard to not let Portland’s homeless crisis leak over the Columbia River. He assessed various Vancouver housing services and talked with people living on the streets to gather information for his report.

Opening a temporary bridge shelter with a minimum of 150 beds for single adults topped McElroy’s report. Providing more wraparound care at a bridge shelter was his second suggestion.

His report also praised the former Navigation Center, which closed in 2020. He also wrote that the city, at the time, was “decades” ahead of places like Seattle or Portland.

“When I went up there and saw (Vancouver), I thought: ‘Man, you have a solvable problem here that you could if you get after it’,” McElroy said.

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McElroy also spoke to the “Housing First” approach.

Housing First is a nationally recognized model that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness. The belief is that once someone has housing, they can then work toward personal goals, like recovering from substance use disorders or behavioral health issues.

But if you ask McElroy, he will say that Housing First can work in some instances but he also won’t sugarcoat his opinions about the model.

“House First is a joke. That’s just an excuse for a politician or a city council or a governmental agency to kick the can down the road because it’s never going to happen,” McElroy said. “Never.”

“The Housing First (model) is just one piece of a much bigger picture,” he said.

McElroy’s connection to Vancouver didn’t end there. In spring of 2021, key people working in homelessness services in Vancouver flew to San Diego to learn about the Alpha Project’s model. Jamie Spinelli, the homeless response coordinator for Vancouver, was one of the observers.

“I was impressed. I wouldn’t say there was a ton of influence on the Safe Stay Community up here, but there was some influence in the overall plan that I pitched to council back in 2021,” she said.

Only a couple of months after getting hired by the city for its Homeless Assistance and Resources Team, Spinelli proposed creating several formal, supported campsites around the city for people experiencing homelessness — what are now known as the Safe Stay and Safe Park communities.

The plan also underscored providing more opportunities for health, employment and housing services through the supported campsites.

Spinelli said that the Alpha Project and the city’s philosophy of serving the unhoused community aligns a lot with one another. For McElroy, that means serving people where they are at and giving them a purpose.

“We want to give (unhoused) people the opportunity to be part of the solution and not the problem,” McElroy said.

Will Campbell contributed to this story.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.