Psychiatric help added to outreach team. ‘Being homeless is traumatic’

SAN DIEGO —  He’s known as the Chicken Man, a lighthearted fixture along San Diego’s waterfront…

Psychiatric help added to outreach team. ‘Being homeless is traumatic’

He’s known as the Chicken Man, a lighthearted fixture along San Diego’s waterfront who amuses passersby with goofy puns and a collection of rubber chickens arranged in silly poses.

“It’s about smiles, you know?” said Scott Vicki, 40, who wears a chicken suit for his performances at Roucco Park.

His audience usually responds with small tips and departs smiling. They are unaware of the pain behind the act.

“My wife passed two years ago tomorrow,” Vicki said, growing somber.

He came to San Diego from Virginia to scatter her ashes in Ocean Beach, one of her favorite places, and he never left. Among other health issues, Vicki said he has post-traumatic stress disorder from his wife’s death, but his anxiety has prevented him from seeking psychiatric help.

But earlier this year, psychiatric help found him.

Father Joe’s Villages launched a street medicine team in 2019, and in December the nonprofit added psychiatric mental health nurse Michele Padilla.

“About 90 percent of my patients have some sort of trauma,” she said. “Definitely co-occurring disorders, because they self-medicate because of something that’s happened, or maybe they are depressed.

“Being homeless is traumatic,” she continued. “Having to sleep with one eye open at all times. You don’t know if your stuff is going to be stolen, if you’re going to be stabbed in the middle of the night. Now they’re not sleeping, and it can lead to hopelessness and depression.”

Padilla began working at Father Joe’s Villages medical clinic in July and said she was eager to join the street team. She goes out with them for a half day every Monday and sees three to five people on a regular basis.

Deacon Jim Vargas, president and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages, said the new effort was launched because the street medicine team saw a need.

“About a third of the population out there has some level of mental health challenges, and our outreach team has seen that since 2019,” he said. “And these are individuals who won’t access medicine in a traditional brick-and-mortar way.”

Scott Vicki holds his "emotional support chicken."
Scott Vicki holds his emotional support chicken during a mental health session at Ruocco Park in San Diego. He said his late wife loved chickens, and he keeps a collection of rubber chickens in her memory.

(Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Padilla’s partner is outreach worker Michelle LeFever, who builds trust with people on the street and recognizes who may need mental health help. She came to know Vicki, who after a while realized he could benefit from talking to someone about his issues.

He has had sessions for about a month and a half with Padilla, who has prescribed medication that Vicki said is helping.

“I have less night terrors,” he said. “PTSD is down, the bipolar is more level.”

Beyond the medication, Vicki said he appreciates the one-on-one sessions with Padilla.

“Having somebody else who cares about me, who comes out once a week,” he said, his voice trailing off.

Padilla’s first outing in the field came last year when People Assisting the Homeless reached out to the Father Joe’s Villages clinic for help with a pregnant homeless woman who needed psychiatric care.

“She didn’t even know she was pregnant,” Padilla recalled. “She thought they were tactile hallucinations. That’s how ill she was.”

With her help, the woman was placed in a psychiatric hospital, where she was stabilized and gave birth.

Another early success came when a man LeFever had been working with for more than a year in Balboa Park finally accepted that he needed help.

“He didn’t want to get into a shelter,” LeFever said. “All he trusted and was comforted by were his friends at Balboa. But at the same time, he was being harmed, sexually abused. He was being given drugs. All these things that are unthinkable. And I kept going back, kept going back, until it got to the point where he said, ‘I’m done. I need help.’”

The man had suffered a traumatic brain injury from a skateboarding accident, and the two women helped him get admitted into a psychiatric hospital. They repeatedly kept him from being discharged from programs and stayed in contact as he was transferred to a facility in Riverside, and they anticipate he will eventually come to Escondido for a traumatic brain injury program.

After her session with Vicki, Padilla sat at a park picnic table for a session with one of his friends, who has become a regular patient. She and LeFever then returned to their van and headed to Balboa Park in search of another patient.

Scott Vicki hugs psychiatric mental health nurse Michele Padilla after a session.

Scott Vicki, dressed in a chicken suit at Ruocco Park in San Diego, hugs psychiatric mental health nurse Michele Padilla after a session.

(Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Padilla said many of the people she sees are methamphetamine users, and LeFever said dealers pushing fentanyl on the street have become more brazen.

“By the library, we were seeing some clients, and these two gentlemen were walking by going, ‘Fenty, white,’” she said, referring to street names for fentanyl and meth. “Some of my clients say, ‘I’m trying to stay clean. How can I stay clean when I can’t walk to the bus without someone offering it?’ I don’t think it used to be so open.”

LeFever and Padilla were at Balboa Park earlier this year when a man they knew rushed up to their van, banged on their window and said someone in the park was down and not responding.

Padilla said they were too late — his face was blue and he had no pulse — but she administered CPR for six minutes as his friends looked on.

“I was still going to try,” she said. “I was going to do all that I could, because those are his friends.”

The two walked across Park Boulevard to an encampment on the east side of the street, where they met a patient Padilla has been seeing regularly. They sat quietly on a tree trunk for several minutes. The two then stood, hugged and said goodbye. Padilla left hopeful.

Michele Padilla (left) hugs a patient as outreach worker Michelle LeFlever looks on.

Michele Padilla (left) hugs a patient as outreach worker Michelle LeFlever looks on.

(Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“She never spoke with behavioral health,” Padilla said about the woman. “She’s told me, ‘I’ve never talked about this with anybody.’ Speaking about feelings wasn’t something she does.”

Padilla said the woman has been homeless seven years, and she believes her situation has contributed to her deteriorating mental health. But after meeting with her for the last month, Padilla said she has become more positive and outgoing.

Besides the Father Joe’s team, other local strides have been made to help homeless people with mental challenges. The county and city of San Diego have opened a shelter behind the county psychiatric hospital on Rosecrans Street and a smaller harm-reduction center on Sports Arena Boulevard, which both have a focus on mental health and addiction. They also recently opened an 11-unit safe haven to provide longer term, residential care for people with addictions and mental health issues.

Getting people into any of those facilities, however, often is a challenge itself.

“I have an issue with doctors,” Vicki said at Ruocco Park after meeting with Padilla and LeFever. “I hate doctors. But the compassion they show me makes me more trusting of them.”

While the medication that had been prescribed to him seemed to have had positive effects, Padilla said he needs therapy. With this visit, LeFever agreed. After his talk with Padilla, Vicki set up an appointment for his first session with her at the Father Joe’s medical clinic the next day, the anniversary of his wife’s death, a day he knew would be tough to get through.