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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Trying to end homelessness is one of the great challenges here in America. After decades of rhetoric and anti-homeless programs, some 650,000 people in this country still live in shelters and on the streets.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Today, NPR's Pam Fessler begins a three-part series on homelessness and a broad national campaign to end it. She starts with a close-up look at one man's tireless efforts on the streets of San Diego.

PAM FESSLER: It's dusk downtown, and hundreds and men and women are staking out their spots for the night - in empty lots, beneath the interstate, and on a sidewalk by the library, where a couple of people are wrapped in blankets next to shopping carts. Others sit alone or in pairs, waiting for the library to close so they can take shelter in the entryway.

Things are quiet until a wiry man with dark glasses approaches.

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, David. Oh my God. David.

FESSLER: It's David Ross, better known here as Waterman Dave. For years, he's handed out hundreds of bottles of water a day to those living on San Diego streets. He drives around in an old, beat-up car - his homeless Hyundai, he's calls it, although he's not homeless himself.

Unidentified Woman: Hi, Dave.

Mr. DAVID ROSS: Hey, baby.

FESSLER: Gray hair sticks out from under his Detroit Lions cap. The word peace is embroidered on the arm of his sweatshirt. It looks like he hasn't shaved for days. Waterman Dave is 75 years old, a retiree who's made it his mission to help the homeless.

Mr. ROSS: I'm doing good. I got some juice and stuff for you.

Unidentified Woman: OK.

Unidentified Man #2: Hey, brother.

Mr. ROSS: I got some juices. Tell him I'm going to come back around here in a minute.

Unidentified Woman #2: Do you have my cheeseburger and curly fries?

FESSLER: On these streets, things can change in an instant - burgers and fries one minute, life and death the next. As Waterman Dave chats with those hanging out by the library, one man, Mark Chapman, quickly pulls him aside. He says he's worried about his friend Randy, and he points to a young, bearded man who sits curled up on the curb, his head hanging down.

Mr. MARK CHAPMAN: And he already took out a knife and...

FESSLER: Chapman makes a quick slicing motion along his wrist.

Mr. CHAPMAN: I was able to stop him from it. I put some paper towels. But I said, please, give me that knife. I can't get it from him. You know, I mean, I'm really worried about him, really worried.

FESSLER: As Chapman talks, his friend can be seen fumbling with a pocket knife on his lap. Chapman says they were both released from the country mental health center that afternoon and decided to go drinking - a bad move.

Waterman Dave sits down next to Randy to see if he can help, and finds out he has a sister.

Mr. ROSS: If we could call her and let her know, would that be OK with you if I did that, to talk to your sister?

FESSLER: Randy nods, then he looks up.

RANDY: Why are you worried about me?

Mr. ROSS: 'Cause I love you, man. I used to be...

Mr. CHAPMAN: Because they care about you, that's why, dumb (beep).

Mr. ROSS: I care about you. Hey, let me ask you something, Randy, if I was laying out here in your situation, would you help me?

RANDY: Yes.

Mr. ROSS: I know. God bless you, man. And that's why I'm helping you 'cause we brothers.

FESSLER: But it's not easy to help in a city where, as in many others across the country, social agencies are swamped. There are about 4,600 homeless people in San Diego. Many are substance abusers or mentally ill. There are programs to help them, but not nearly enough. Sometimes an old, somewhat-eccentric do-gooder is the best help you're going to get.

Mr. ROSS: I'm calling from San Diego, California, and I have your brother here...

FESSLER: Waterman Dave tells Randy's sister what's going on. And she says he suffers from mental illness and has tried to kill himself before, but she's on the East Coast. So Ross calls the police, his only real choice this time of night.

Unidentified Man #3 (Police Officer): OK. You're not under arrest, but I do need you to put your hands behind your back, OK?

RANDY: Yes, sir.

Unidentified Man #3: All right. Fair enough.

Mr. ROSS: You good?

RANDY: You, you - my sister?

Mr. ROSS: Yeah. No, she's not mad at you. Tell her that. Tell her...

RANDY: I love you. I'm going to - I don't know where...

Mr. ROSS: They're going to get you to the shelter.

FESSLER: But the shelter is full. The police take Randy to the hospital emergency room instead. But he can't be held there against his will, and he soon returns to the streets. Randy doesn't know it now, but it'll be weeks before a police outreach team runs into him again and finally gets him into a treatment program.

Waterman Dave is discouraged. On the night before, he took me to a nearby underpass, where almost 100 people were camped out for the night. He says the city keeps promising it's going to fix things.

Mr. ROSS: Here we are. This is after a 10-year plan to eradicate homelessness forever. I wish somebody could tell me at about what level we are now in that 10-year plan.

Ms. ROBIN MUNRO (Businesswoman): While I understand the skepticism, it's different now.

FESSLER: Robin Munro is a local businesswoman who's driving me around these same streets. She's the leader of a new effort in San Diego to end homelessness downtown, an effort we'll hear more about later today. Munro says that homelessness has gotten so bad that people in the city have finally pulled together - government, businesses, nonprofits - to do something.

Ms. MUNRO: For the first time, we have made it one of our top priorities to solve this problem.

(Soundbite of chatter)

FESSLER: The homeless here say they'll believe it when they see it. At a winter shelter for homeless veterans, Waterman Dave's greeted like an ice cream man on a hot summer day. Dozens of men line up - less for water than for a chance to joke around with the Waterman. He greets one long-haired man with a big hug.

Mr. ROSS: Now look, is that Willie Nelson or what? See?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #4: Where's my hat?

FESSLER: Bruce Bowman, another veteran who's been homeless on and off for 20 years, says it means a lot to these men that someone's looking out for them.

Mr. BRUCE BOWMAN: They'd die on the streets out here, OK? If it wasn't for Dave, there would be nobody out there except for maybe some church groups, and they're like a hit and miss.

(Soundbite of crosstalk)

Mr. ROSS: No, we're leaving now. We're leaving. OK, honey.

Unidentified Man #5: We love you.

Mr. ROSS: I love you, too, man.

FESSLER: But some people here think in away Waterman Dave is part of the problem, that people like him make life easier for the homeless, so they're less inclined to seek help and programs that have rules - like not drinking. With his own money and donations, he's provided port-a-potties in neighborhoods where the homeless hang out, and he successfully sued the city to get a place where the homeless can store their belongings. Why? So they can go to job interviews or doctors' appointments without bringing a shopping cart.

Waterman Dave says if he's an enabler, so be it.

Mr. ROSS: An enabler - I've been called a whole lot worse than that. I was a car dealer; give me a break.

FESSLER: In fact, that's what he used to do before retiring. Waterman Dave says he helps the homeless now because he had an unhappy childhood, spending time in a boys home. He understands what it's like to be unloved and discarded.

Under the highway bridge, Waterman Dave sighs before getting out of his car. He knows the score. Indeed, two of the men outside this car right now will be dead within three weeks - one from alcohol poisoning and exposure, another of an apparent overdose.

Waterman Dave admits he doesn't have the answers.

Mr. ROSS: It makes me so sad. But I don't sit around and think about this, I just do it.

FESSLER: A homeless man knocks on the window as we talk.

Mr. ROSS: It just makes me so sad because when I got out of this car with you right now, the only thing I can bring to them is a smile, a hug, little encouragement, and a laugh.

FESSLER: And, he says, a bottle of water.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: This afternoon on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we'll hear about an innovative program in New York to house the homeless. It's being used as a model in dozens of cities, including San Diego.

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