Mitchelle Woodson: Executive Director of Think Dignity

Think Dignity is a San Diego-based nonprofit that works to create systemic change for people experiencing homelessness. They provide a variety of resources to help individuals in the short-term, including pro bono legal services, while advocating for lasting change. Think Dignity has helped over 1,000 individuals with legal support, given over 500 people access to safe storage, and provided 3,700 showers. They are ingrained in the community to understand the intricacies of homelessness and work to help people with what they need most.

Can you tell me about some of the services you provide?


What makes us unique is that we provide both social and legal services. We have a transitional storage center for people to safely store their belongings and a mobile shower trailer to provide access to basic hygiene. We do health screenings, pet screenings, provide undergarments and menstrual products, and have a street cafe with healthy food options. We do a lot of impact litigation and direct representation for criminal defense matters, all pro bono. We pair each client with an attorney and an advocate who can connect them with proper social services. For example, I represented a pregnant woman who was convicted for sleeping on the street three times. With each charge, she received probation and a stay-away order that prevented her from being in downtown San Diego, which is the hub for social services. When she finally got accepted to a shelter, she couldn’t go because of the stay-away order. We were successful in terminating her probation and stay-away orders so she could access the shelter and other services.


How does your strategy create long term change?


If you look at cities who have successfully addressed homelessness, they have adopted the “Housing First” model, which requires that you house somebody first and then stabilize them with the resources they need. Here in San Diego, it’s the opposite. In order to qualify for housing, you have to meet certain requirements which leaves so many people falling through the cracks. Our work focuses on the decriminalization of poverty. For example, folks experiencing homelessness can be arrested for sleeping on the street even though they don’t have another option. If you have a criminal record, you can’t access county benefits or qualify for subsidized housing. The laws further entrench people in poverty, and it has to change. We have a multi-prong approach to help people with their immediate needs while also advocating for permanent change.


What are some of the issues Think Dignity advocates for?


As an advocacy agency, we work to create system level changes, like working with council members to create a “Housing is a Human Right” resolution. Resolutions are not binding documents, but a north star for the community to follow. We also partner with Planned Parenthood, San Diego State University, and a coalition of other organizations to advocate for 24-hour public restrooms to increase access to basic sanitation. Having somewhere to use the restroom and wash your hands is pivotal in public health safety. We also want to change the norm of having police officers address quality of life calls. When it comes to people experiencing homelessness, the first responders should be health care professionals instead of police. Our work gives us a look into what people really need, and we can expand our issue areas based on what needs changing.


What is the best part of your job?


I’ve always wanted to work for the public good, it motivates me. The interactions I have with the people that we serve and seeing their transformation is amazing. The most powerful thing is seeing people’s light shine brighter when they find people who are willing to advocate for them. A lot of people ask me how I measure success in this job, and I have plenty of data to show our success but it doesn’t show the real impact. The real success, for me, is when someone leaves our program and says we made them feel human again. It’s so simple, but so powerful. It’s amazing to see their resilience despite going through so much.