In his many years of working with San Diego’s homeless youth, Cardiff resident Jeffrey Sitcov has learned that the most important part of helping those kids is gaining trust.
Doors of Change, a nonprofit founded by Sitcov, has helped fund and develop programs in San Diego’s Youth Emergency Shelter (formerly Storefront Shelter) since Sitcov closed his physical therapy practice to start the organization 15 years ago.
“I wanted to do something for kids, because it’s getting worse … the escalation of violence,” Sitcov said. “There’s got to be some organizations that are helping these youth make better choices. I had no idea there were homeless kids.
“I went to the shelter and they said to me, you need to go on outreach and see how we get the kids off the streets. That night changed my life.”
That night, a homeless girl finally opened up and talked to the outreach personnel for the first time in their six months of working with her, giving her food and water and other help. When Sitcov saw that, and realized how homeless youth have so much trouble trusting anybody, “It was like I got hit over the head with a hammer, and I said ‘This is what I need to do.’ Ever since then, I’ve been committed to getting kids off the streets of San Diego, for the past 15 years.”
Sitcov’s organization has been the biggest private donor to the shelter for the past 12 years — to the tune of $2 million — and in 2013, it developed Taking Music and Art to the Streets, which won an award for youth program of the year. Three years later, the program has been endorsed by San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Congressman Scott Peters, Senator Marty Block and Assembly member Toni Atkins, and served over 3,000 kids.
“In order to get these kids to want to get housing and want to get off the street, they have to trust you, and we’ve found that the easiest way to do that is through music and art,” Sitcov said. “The reason it has grown so quickly, is it’s a safe environment for these youth. They get free music or art lessons, free dinners, free clothes, free shoes, free haircuts, free medical evaluations, free chiropractic … and the biggest thing, if they come for six classes, they earn an instrument of their choice (or $50 worth of art supplies).”
But Doors of Change doesn’t stop there.
“We started the music and art program there and it has been phenomenal, but then we said ‘We need to go to the street, to these 18-24 year olds, and let’s do something to gain their trust so they will want to get housing,’ ” Sitcov continued. “(In the past 15 years), we have helped over 1,800 homeless kids between the age of 12 and 17. But while we were doing that, we realized that there was one group that no one’s helping and it kept coming back to that same group, 18 years old to 24 years old. It’s like a void … no one’s helping these kids, because they are (technically) adults, even though they are emotionally still teenagers.”
With over 2,000 homeless youth between the ages of 12-24 on the streets of San Diego each day (the sixth-highest number in the country), until recently, there are were just 34 beds for youth ages 18-24 with minimal skills.
Thanks to a program that started at another facility 18 months ago, Doors of Change has added five beds to that number with its Housing Program for Self Sufficiency. While one of those five beds is at the original facility in Vista, Doors of Change opened its own facility near San Diego State six months ago. It now houses four young people (three men and a woman), giving them much more than just a bed during their two years in the program.
“It cost $45,000 per kid per year because we monitor them and give them a lot of help with case workers, psychologists, social workers, job-readiness training, etc.,” Sitcov said. “These kids don’t want to be homeless, but they don’t believe they can succeed. We have to help them, nurture them, so they can see that they are valuable human beings. We want to teach them to help themselves.”
The residents also learn life skills, shopping, cooking, job interviews, writing resumes and doing basic chores like cleaning. Guest speakers, giving the kids an idea of potential careers, are brought in every Tuesday.
An Encinitas business, Zephyr Partners, is not only one of the biggest donors and source of volunteers, but it is working toward getting the kids paid internships at one of its partner companies.
Speaking of donations, Sitcov’s ability to raise money has been a cornerstone of everything Doors of Change (which, until a few years ago, was called Photocharity) has been able to achieve.
When he first started 15 years ago, he worked with the famous Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, where for three years he spoke during about 30 of the shows each year and took donations, raising about $150,000.
At the now-closed sports bar Yogi’s in Cardiff, Sitcov spoke during football Sundays for 11 years, passed a hat around and even sold guitars autographed by famous musicians to raise more money.
“The biggest thing is, people don’t understand that there are homeless kids, or they don’t understand the severity of the problem,” Sitcov said. “I found that if you can educate the community about the issue … people want to help. We are blessed to have a lot of people who have supported our efforts, but there is a big majority in North County.”
Initially, Photocharity was founded (and named) because Sitcov’s work taking concert photos created helpful relationships with musicians. Billy Joel and Kenny Loggins trusted Sitcov because they had worked with him on photos and agreed to sign memorabilia to sell. Through Loggins, Sitcov met concert promoter Bill Silva, who asked Sitcov to be the house photographer for concerts at San Diego State.
“This allowed me to have an in into the music industry to start meeting people, share the vision with them and get them excited about helping homeless kids,” Sitcov explained.
The list of musicians that have helped over the years doubles as a list of the most popular artists in the world. It includes The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, BB King, Etta James, The Who and Joe Cocker. Sitcov currently has a Fender Stratocaster guitar and case, signed by The Rolling Stones, that he is auctioning off and expects to sell it for around $45,000, enough to sponsor one kid for a year in the Housing Program for Self-Sufficiency. Visit www.doorsofchange.org to see that and other memorabilia, or get more information about the organization.
In the future, Sitcov is also looking to open an emergency shelter for homeless youth ages 18-24, another way to earn their trust and get them to want to get off the streets. He is also working toward a second long-term housing facility.