VISTA — Arranging the clothes at the Hope Boutique in Vista, Kathleen Higgins, executive director of Operation HOPE, perused the selection at their annex location. She paid particular attention to the children’s section.
“We are really in need of shoes and clothes for boys,” she said.
There is a long-standing belief that the homeless are mostly nonworking middle-aged men. According to Higgins, for the last eight years, the average age of a homeless person is 9 years old.
“So, who’s homeless is not who we think is homeless anymore,” Higgins said.
The need to support the homeless in North County is ongoing. Organizations are doing what they can to raise awareness on the issue.
Higgins understands people from middle and upper middle-class communities are surprised to hear about this happening in their communities.
“You may think you don’t have homeless people where you live, but I guarantee, you do,” she said. “They’ve been counted.”
Once a year, in the middle of the night during the month of January, the number of homeless people are counted across the entire U.S.
“We’re even counting in towns like Encinitas and Rancho Santa Fe,” Higgins said. “We could be counting the housekeeper who is living in a trailer on the back of a property or staying overnight in their car.”
Higgins pointed out that another scenario may be a family who has lost their home, and they are squatting somewhere until someone comes and removes them.
While there may not be any infrastructure in a particular city for the homeless, they have to travel elsewhere to find it.
And that’s where Operation HOPE comes in. The organization serves North County, and at times, it does take families in from San Diego. Operation HOPE offers families private rooms. In 2003, Higgins said the city of Vista identified a homeless need. A year later, a rental warehouse shelter was utilized.
In 2012, Operation HOPE then purchased its own shelter property in Vista. The programs and assistance Operation HOPE provide, helps families toward empowerment and independence.
Higgins shared that when someone is homeless, they learn quickly to fly under the radar, so others do not see them.
Still, the homeless activity is identified around certain parts of town.
“Around 8 o’clock at night in some of the shopping centers, you’ll start to see cars pull up into the fringes of the parking lots of the shopping centers, and people are getting comfortable,” she said. “And that’s because they’re going to sleep in the parking lot that night with their family. And unless you’re actively looking for it or you know what you’re looking for, you don’t even realize it’s happening.”
Higgins wants people to know that somebody does not set out in the morning to become an alcoholic or a drug addict. And the same holds true for those who have been self-medicating to relieve themselves of whatever physical or mental ailment is ruining their life.
“By the time you see them as an alcoholic, it’s because something terrible has happened to them, and nobody has ever helped them deal with it,” she said. “What they need is the help.”
Higgins said another demographic needing care are seniors. In the last six months, they have had a few clients who were 65 and older.
“They were living in their cars illegally and got ticketed,” she said. “When they got too many tickets, their cars got impounded, and then they had nothing.”
Higgins wants people to know that there are many ways North County residents can get involved and help those in need. Fundraising and volunteering are two huge ways to assist Operation HOPE and all its efforts.
To learn more about Operation HOPE, visit OperationHopeShelter.org or call (760) 536-3880.