People in Your Neighborhood: Community advocate Caryn Blanton works to bring hope to those without homes
Caryn Blanton doesn’t like to refer to herself as an activist.
“I will say I’m an advocate, not an activist,” she says.
The difference, in her mind, is that “activist” connotes a more “in your face” style, while an “advocate” takes a more positive approach.
“I would say I’m an advocate for my neighbors who are experiencing homelessness. Where they might not have a voice, I can have a voice,” Blanton said.
Her passion for helping marginalized groups began in childhood. Blanton lived with her family in a Detroit suburb that she described as a “very White suburban neighborhood.” The family lived down the street from an orphanage, which made an impact on the young Blanton.
“That was profound to me, that there were children living in this place all together without parents,” she said. “I always had something in me, like, ‘Why wasn’t I that? Why am I here in this house in this beautiful bedroom, but they’re not?’”
She also remembers seeing photos of young children in impoverished nations and being struck with the same feeling.
“Seeing pictures of kids in Africa with their little bloated bellies and flies swarming around their eyes — there’s something not right about this,” she recalled. “Quite honestly, my first job right out of high school was a professional ballet dancer. It wasn’t like I was some person out there in the mission field. I was a glitzy ballerina.”
But Blanton replaced tutus and pointe shoes for a life of advocacy. She’s the head of Shoreline Community Services, a nonprofit group that helps Pacific Beach’s homeless and underprivileged population.
“We’re not the people who have homes for you to live in. We don’t have medical services,” she said. “We’re connecting people to those resources and those services, being out and being with the community and rallying the troops to say ... ‘Here’s where we’re going, who wants to be a part of this?’ I feel like that’s probably what I’m best at, engaging the community and the work.”
Brian White, president of the Pacific Beach Town Council, which often collaborates with Blanton and her work with Shoreline Community Services, agrees.
“Caryn is a beacon of light for our neighborhood as a leader who finds innovative ways to help PB’s most marginalized,” White said. “With her body of work over the years, she’s consistently made a positive impact over the lives and outcomes of many of our unhoused neighbors. It’s inspiring to watch someone have that kind of impact. She’s consistent, she’s persistent and she is a fighter.”
Before working with Shoreline Community Services, Blanton was making an impact through her work with Pacific Beach Street Guardians, a group started in October 2016 that employed homeless people to clean up neighborhood streets.
Throughout her years with that group, she estimates she had 64 homeless people on the payroll.
“Some of the churches started hiring us to do janitorial and custodial work,” Blanton said. “I had a property manager here in PB ... we took care of 18 of his properties on the outside, keeping the alleys clean and doing windows. So it turned into kind of a big thing.”
Ultimately, the group grew so much that Blanton found herself doing less of the work she loved and instead spent most of her time in front of a computer, writing grants and figuring out budgets.
“That is just not my sweet spot,” she said.
In March 2019, the group disbanded. But Blanton’s advocacy work in the community wasn’t over.
Early this year, Blanton began working with Shoreline Community Services. And now, a work program similar to what Pacific Beach Street Guardians did is in the works at Shoreline.
Other Shoreline programs include coordinating food distribution with local churches, starting a local bike registry to help cut down on stolen bicycles and chop shops, and training volunteers to work one on one with homeless people to help them gain access to programs such as CalFresh and MediCal. Even getting an unhoused person’s birth certificate or Social Security card can be challenging, so volunteers are needed to walk them through the process.
“If we have relationships with people, people can make changes,” Blanton said. “You can’t make changes floating out there in the middle of the ocean alone, right? I gave a presentation somewhere and I said, ‘You can be an alcoholic and be working and not be homeless. You can be a drug addict and still have your family around you and you’re not going to be homeless.’ But when you start peeling away those relationships and you’re just floating around out there on your own, that’s when bad things happen, when you’ve lost connection with your relationships with your people.”
Getting people to understand that concept is what Blanton finds most rewarding in her line of work, she said. She explained her theory on the importance of relationships at a Shoreline Community Services meeting in early July.
“The one thing people kept coming back to me and saying was, ‘I never thought of it like that, like the change that happens in relationships,’” she said. “People aren’t homeless because ... they’ve got a criminal record. It’s because their relationships have all gone away and there’s nobody there.
“So, I think it’s that ‘a-ha’ moment of somebody saying, ‘Oh, now I get it and now what can I do to help?’ I think that’s probably the best thing, the most rewarding to me.”
Though the homelessness issue can feel overwhelming at times, Blanton said she remains optimistic that it can be solved in Pacific Beach and beyond. It’s just going to take a lot of work, collaboration and focus on the areas she serves: Pacific Beach, Mission Beach and La Jolla.
“It’s sort of like, if you look at a pie, that’s just a little piece of the pie,” she said. “I can’t look at what’s going on in downtown [San Diego] or what’s happening in East Village. I think if I saw what’s going on down there every day, I would probably stay in bed with the blankets over my head. But I look at what’s happening here in my neighborhood and I think it’s doable. ... If we really focus and we pull ourselves together, I think we can nail it down here.”
She hopes the results of her efforts in Pacific Beach yield the opportunity for people in other parts of the county to see how they can stop the cycle of homelessness in their neighborhoods. She wants Shoreline Community Services to come to be regarded as the authority on ending homelessness.
“Maybe people will look at us and say, ‘What are they doing in PB, what are they doing at the beach? It’s working there,’” Blanton said. “Maybe there’s somebody who’s passionate about it in another neighborhood. I’ve had those conversations with people in Clairemont, and then fanning out in North Park or South Park. ... It would look different in each neighborhood because every neighborhood is different and the people in the neighborhood are different.
“I’m eternally optimistic. I feel like we can do this together. But we have to do it together.”
For more information about Shoreline Community Services, including how to volunteer or make a donation, visit shorelinecs.org.
— Editor’s note: PB Monthly’s People in Your Neighborhood series shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.