For Teresa Smith, what truly matters isn’t complicated
Maybe it’s got something to do with the gloomy, cloud-filtered early morning light, but as parking lots go, the one located in the 4600 block of Market Street really isn’t much to look at. Oil stains and murky puddles courtesy of an early-fall storm pock the property, and everything feels more than a little worn and sullied.
Then you see the smile. Welcoming. Buoying. It’s not the one emanating from the artfully illustrated carrot waving from the hood of an otherwise inconspicuous food truck parked in the middle of this somber space. It’s the one grinning a greeting through the truck’s windshield.
Nodding a hello, Teresa Smith bounds down the steps of her award-winning endeavor into social enterprise — a mobile eatery that provides San Diego’s homeless population with affordable and health-conscious hot meals — and introduces herself with a winning blend of congeniality and cool. “What’s the deal with all the rain last night? Well, we’ve definitely dealt with worse. You ready to have some fun?”
Serving meals to those battling personal issues ranging from mental illness to depression to drug addiction would not rank tremendously high on most folk’s fun-meter. But for Smith, CEO of the poverty mitigation nonprofit, Dreams for Change, who moonlights as a PhD candidate in SOLES’ Nonprofit Leadership and Management program, it’s a moral imperative. “It comes down to a simple question: ‘Why not?’ There’s so much that needs to be done in the world, and money and material things have never really meant that much to me … ”
A somewhat panicked voice from inside the truck suggests her volunteers need help, stat. She turns in a flash and heads back to solve the most recent crisis, but stops short, turns and offers with her trademark grin, “Put it this way: If not me, then who?”
Smith’s energy and enthusiasm are palpable, and just now, she’s focused on getting this four-wheeled show on the road, ASAP. All three of this morning’s volunteers — a friend and teammate from another of Smith’s life passions; softball, and two wide-eyed, well-intentioned college students — are preparing for today’s run to downtown San Diego’s East Village district. Their orderly approach suggests both good coaching and familiarity. “When you work on the truck, things tend to move really quickly; there’s no lag time,” says volunteer Hannah, an SDSU undergrad currently pursing a degree in social work. “Teresa likes to run a tight ship.”
Half an hour or so later, food has been prepped, drinks have been packed on ice, and all other 11th-hour tasks have been completed, (the dilemma du jour has to do with whether or not there’s enough meat on hand to make their signature burritos). The truck, known as “The Fresh,” rumbles to life, and with Smith at the helm, slowly heads west down Market Street towards one of San Diego’s largest concentrated homeless populations.
For the uninitiated, the 10-minute drive to the truck’s first stop — the Neil Good Day Center on 17th Street — is a journey into the unknown. The center provides a wealth of services to displaced citizens (such as showers and basic medical care), but is also a bit on the rough-and-tumble side (robberies and assaults have been reported with enough frequency to require a consistent police presence). While Smith enthusiastically declares that the majority of their customers are well behaved and courteous, there’s still a sense of uneasiness at what lies ahead.
“Trust is really important to the success of this program,” she says. “A lot of homeless people have been burned before by people offering help and not coming through, so they can be leery. We provide a service, and over time, they learn to trust us because we’re there consistently. Same time. Same place. That’s key to breaking down a lot of the barriers.”
That’s what happened for Chris, a former youth program counselor who’s been homeless for several years now. Initially incredulous about both the food truck and its affable head honcho, he’s since become Smith’s eyes and ears on the street, and an integral part of the truck’s success as a volunteer short-order cook.
“I really didn’t know what it was all about at first,” he recalls curbside as a recently arrived Smith and her team are opening the truck for business. “But they kept showing up every week, and I got to know Teresa. She doesn’t just provide food, she provides inspiration and hope for a lot of people.”
Around these parts, both are in extremely short supply.
Hope, Hot Off the Grill
Smith’s game plan seems simple enough: allow San Diego’s homeless population access to hot and healthy meals, and let them pay for them by using their CalFresh Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards (previously known as food stamps). However, in order to legally provide freshly cooked fare to low-income, federally assisted customers, commercial businesses need to jump through a whole host of logistical hoops. And considering that the food offered must be priced below market value, the end just doesn’t seem to justify the means.
But Smith is an admirer of outside-the-box thinking (she holds a PhD in Life Physics, after all), and, with the help of some intrepid and energetic students from SDSU and the Cal Western School of Law, she devised a plan to create a mobile food business that could do well by doing good. “A lot of (homeless) people weren’t aware of the resources they had available to them from the government, and the food truck program provides us with the opportunity to sign them up for the CalFresh program, and generate a profitable business by utilizing those benefits to pay for the meals we make them.”
Hot off the grill and made-to-order, the meals cooked up within the truck’s cozy confines (maximum occupancy during food prep is three people, tops) are the best bargain in town. Every entrée is priced at $3.50 or less, and drink prices top out at $1. While her profit margins may be modest, the financial bottom line is just a small part of Smith’s overall plan.
“As a nonprofit, our goal is to bring everything back into the community, and so a big part of the truck’s long-term viability is workforce development,” she says during a brief break from taking food orders from the growing line of hungry patrons. “As we bring on more business and start making a profit, we’re looking to hire and train the homeless to operate the truck and eventually take it over, so it becomes their business.
“Ultimately, this project is about providing those less fortunate the opportunity to redevelop their employable skillsets, as well as their dignity and self-respect.”
That mindset sums up exactly what USD’s Center for Peace and Commerce is all about: promoting Toreros who are making a difference with their ideas and actions. And when Smith submitted her food truck business plan for consideration in the center’s Social Innovation Challenge — a contest that rewards student proposals for developing workable solutions to world problems such as poverty — things really started to get rolling.
“I heard about the Social Innovation Challenge via an email, and I knew that we had a lot of what they were looking for,” Smith says. “Did I think we had a chance at winning? Not really, but I think it helped that we had a ‘hit-the-ground running’ project that was well-researched, and they were impressed with how far we were able to come in a short period of time.”
A socially minded and self-sustainable enterprise, the mobile food truck plan won the Social Innovation Challenge’s $10,000 first-place prize. Those much-needed dollars have gone a long way in helping propel the business toward profitability. Just as important, it’s allowed Smith time to focus her energies on her other job: providing personal and financial support services to displaced individuals and families living in their cars — or, as she likes to refers to it, help and hope.
“The food truck’s been my day job lately, but you should come by the Safe Parking lot tonight. Trust me, it’s a lot better than the parking lot where we met this morning,” Smith says with a grin before racing back inside “The Fresh” to help her volunteers handle the lunch rush.
A Safe Haven
Maybe it’s got something to do with the clear, bright autumn evening and the friendly Friday night vibe, but as parking lots go, the space on the corner of 28th and L Street looks and feels exactly how Smith and her team at Dreams for Change would hope: welcoming.
A steady stream of cars arrive just prior to the lot’s 6 p.m. opening, and a cluster of volunteers and patrons gathered out front engage in easy, amiable conversation. Smith waves you in with her customary grin, and offers up an interesting tale on one of this evening’s tenants. “See that space with the cone? That’s reserved for a guy who works at a big concert hall here in town setting up and taking down stages. Works crazy hours. He’s been doing it for, like, 20 years and has met all kinds of big-name rock stars. Pretty cool, huh?”
Since the first car rolled through the gates in the spring of 2010, this lot has served as the hub for the Dreams for Change Safe Parking program, which provides a secure environment for transitional homeless who, through unforeseen and often tragic circumstances, are forced to live in their vehicles.
During 2009’s drastic economic downturn, Smith and Dreams for Change co-founder, Sara Kelley, began to notice an increasing number of formerly self-sufficient Southern Californians being forced to relocate from their homes. Most were completely unprepared for the dire situations that followed.
At the time, Smith was a program manager for Home Start, a nonprofit organization that provided low-to-moderate income individuals and their families with the education and information needed to organize their finances, taxes and assets. Her workload was growing at a seemingly exponential rate, and that wasn’t a good thing.
“Two issues were consistently presenting themselves; people were having trouble managing what financial resources they had left, and they were also having trouble finding places to stay. We knew we had to do something, and that was really the beginning of Dreams for Change.”
Over the last three years, Smith has committed herself to providing transitional homeless with the resources and support they need on their road to recovery. Along the way she’s experienced successes and failures — and has emerged with a much clearer understanding of what’s needed to affect immediate and sustainable change in her clients’ lives.
“We screen our clients in the Safe Parking program prior to admitting them, and you hear all kinds of stories,” she says between greeting some of this evening’s lot tenants. “Transitional homeless populations tend to be a much different breed than ‘chronic’ homeless (those who have been homeless or displaced for an extended period of time at least twice in their lives) because they really don’t understand how they got here, and what they need to do to get back on track. I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress in streamlining that process.”
Whether it’s providing her Safe Parking program clients a place to stay or teaching them the basics of budgeting, credit use and money management, she’s always there when they need her, a fact not lost on Ken Friend, a former tenant in the Safe Parking program who has since found long-term housing, thanks in large part to the efforts of Smith and her Dreams for Change cohorts.
“There’s absolutely no way I’d be where I am now if it wasn’t for Teresa,” Friend says. “The Dreams for Change program is great, because they don’t just offer you food and a place to stay, they stay with you through the whole process of getting your life back together.”
The evening is winding down and many of the Safe Parking tenants are dispersing to their cars in preparation for the 10 p.m. “lights-out” call and some much-needed rest. Smith is ready to call it a night herself, but before she leaves, a simple question is posed: Does this line of work ever get the best of her?
She gazes downward in a moment of reflection, and then offers a genuine and heartfelt assessment. “Whenever I get down, it just takes a night hanging out here at the lot, or on the truck, listening to people tell their stories about what they’ve been through, and it makes me really appreciate what I have. All the small things we have should matter, you know what I mean?”