In a scene that has played out a couple of times a week for the past several years, Jeffrey Sitcov approached a young couple sitting on a wall in Ocean Beach on recent Sunday afternoon and made an offer.
“You’re an artist,” he said to the young woman. “If you come for six classes, you get free art supplies.”
The couple was intrigued.
“You can get a violin, or maybe a ukulele or art supplies,” he continued. “It’s great!”
Sitcov is president of Doors of Change, a nonprofit he founded in 2001 as Photocharity -- rebranded under its new name in 2013 -- to help connect local homeless youth with housing and service.
Through the nonprofit’s Taking Music and Arts to the Streets program founded six years ago, young people are offered free music and art lessons, and even free instruments and supplies if they stick it out, in hopes that they’ll also look into other programs that can lead to housing and overcoming issues that may have led to their homelessness.
Doors of Change focuses on 12 -to 24-year-olds, even younger than the 16-24 year-old group commonly called transitional-age youths. Sitcov refers to the population as invisible, often overlooked and underserved. They may be runaways or just aimless adventurers, and they usually aren’t as easy to spot as homeless adults.
Tyler Daniel, 22, took a flyer from Sitcov and said he might check out the classes happening that afternoon at the Episcopal Church Center on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard.
Daniel said he was a traveler, not unlike many homeless youth in the beach community, just passing through and living in his car.
“I feel like it’s more exciting than just living in a house,” he said.
Later that day, he and his female companion did show up at the church, where they found more than a dozen people doing artwork and getting one-on-one instruction in violin, guitar and other instruments.
Sitcov said getting wary young people on the streets to trust an older person who claims to be trying to help can be a challenge, and it takes time. As an incentive, he offers free instruments and art supplies to anyone who comes six times to sessions that are held 3-6 p.m. Sundays at the church. Expressive arts and yoga are offered at the church 3-6 p.m. Thursdays.
The programs had 1,800 visitors last year, and since the nonprofit hired its first full-time case manager 11 months ago, the nonprofit has found work for 37 young people, he said. Another 51 have moved into permanent housing, with about half being reconnected with family members or others through Travelers Aid.
Twelve found housing on their own. Another 35 found emergency shelters at PATH, Father Joe Villages or at San Diego Youth Services’ Take Wing transitional living program.
Sitcov said the program has grown 33 percent over two years, and each month helps an average of three people get addiction treatment, six get mental health treatment and 10 receive food or medical help.
In the wake of a busy year, Sitcov hopes to expand the program even more. He’s applied for $186,000 in Homeless Emergency Air Programs funding, a one-time state grant offered to San Diego and other California cities with large homeless populations. The city of San Diego received $14.1 million in HEAP funds and must allocate at least 5 percent to youth services.
Sitcov said he hopes to expand his program in Oceanside, South Bay or East County through the HEAP funds or other means. In about a month, he said, he’ll announce the Grammy-winning headlining act for what he’s billing as the “Concert to Transform the Lives of Homeless Youth” next January.
On a recent outreach in Ocean Beach, he was joined by Melissa Grove, who runs the Jason Mraz Foundation.
Sitcov said Mraz, who lives in North County, already has been a supporter and helped the nonprofit raise $18,000 by donating and signing three guitars for auction.
After years of doing outreach, Sitcov has picked up a sixth sense of who may be homeless and developed a technique for introducing himself, including a sly way of asking someone his or her age.
“Hi,” he asked a young man doing artwork by the pier. “When you were born?”
After the man said “1994,” Sitcov handed him a flyer with information about the art and music program and said, “Perfect, you can go to this.”
At the church, violin teacher Bill Fish said he volunteers because he sees many homeless people near his home by Balboa Park.
“What I love about this is that it’s a way to connect with young people and help them get off the street,” he said. “We don’t judge them. They know this is a place where they can trust us.”
Elliott Guist, 24, is formerly homeless and said he once lived in a tree in Vista. He discovered the program when he heard about the free meals.
“They didn’t see me coming,” he said. “They said, ‘We can teach you how to use these instruments,’ and I said, ‘I can teach your teachers.’ I was a little testy.”
They didn’t know Guist had been touring the country playing violin as part of a duo, and now he is one of the paid teachers in the program.
While programs that target homeless youth still are relatively few, the issue is getting more attention. Besides money from HEAP, local homeless youth programs will receive $8 million in a special allocation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
HUD awarded $43 million to 11 areas nationwide as part of its Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program, and the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless received the largest single grant of $7.94 million. The task force is expected to announce how the money will be allocated later this month.