“Yeah, she’s helping so many of us homeless people living in the riverbed that we call her, ‘Saint Sally,’” chimed in his pal, Lane.
I was immediately intrigued by the enthusiastic heart-felt respect that my homeless clients felt for Sally Dunn, licensed mental health clinician for the San Diego County Homeless Team. In the world of homelessness, relationships built on trust and respect are few and far between. Yet, often these relationships are vital for homeless people’s recoveries. When homeless people trust service providers, they can make real progress quickly. When their respect is reciprocated, they usually know it.
I was delighted to met Sally Dunn, the woman who was providing such invaluable assistance to people living outside and in shelters. I felt and feel that there are not enough superlatives to describe Sally and her work. However, I can say unequivocally that Sally’s clients are sincerely grateful for the help she gives them. They trust her and feel that their respect is reciprocated. They genuinely love “Saint Sally.”
Born July 14, 1956, in Rangely Colorado, Sally and her family moved to Palo Alto, California when she was just six months old. Her father had just gotten out of the Navy and had become an aerospace engineer. Her mother was one of the first female stockbrokers and wanted Sally to follow in her footsteps. Eventually, Sally chose quite a different career path from those chosen by her parents.
After graduating from high school in Coronado in 1974, she attended one year at Oregon State University where she played volleyball. She continued her participation in volleyball during her second year of college at the College of San Mateo (CSM). It was at CSM, that Sally became so inspired by her psychology professor, who happened to be a quadriplegic, that she became a psychology major.
Her remaining years of college were spent at San Diego State University (SDSU) from which she graduated in 1979. Later, Sally received her master’s degree in psychology from Texas A & M.
At twenty years old, Sally had her first job in the mental health field when she worked in a locked psych ward – a challenging job because there were so few medications available that could help the mentally ill patients. Married in 1983 to a Navy pilot, Sally moved with her husband to Guam where she worked in special education. Upon their return to the San Francisco Bay Area, Sally became employed with child protective services.
Sally has three adult children: her eldest son is a Japanese major at SDSU; her second son lives in Idaho near his father’s family; and her daughter is a physics and math major at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD).
For the past twelve years, Sally has provided counseling and support to thousands of homeless people in the County of San Diego. I once asked Sally exactly how many clients did she have?
“Well in response to your question” she replied, “I can only tell you how much geography is involved – an area larger than Downtown San Diego. I used to supervise a team of seven people, but due to cut-backs, I’m now the only San Diego County mental health clinician for all of the homeless people living in this area.”
Besides being a natural beauty, Sally is brilliant, knowledgeable and extremely practical. She helps homeless people match their needs and goals with existing opportunities and services. Sally continues her relationship with her clients, supporting them through their initial referrals and guiding their next steps to achieve self-sufficiency.
In addition, Sally facilitates group sessions. Her clients find her assistance invaluable as can be seen by the following comments.
Henry, one of Sally’s clients, says, “Sally’s great. She’s great. Astounding. I’ve been with Sally for three years. When you deal with Sally once a week, it takes away the urge to use drugs. I know to keep sober and straight. I couldn’t face her if I messed up. You don’t want to see Sally if you mess up. I’m afraid to mess up because I know I have to see her.”
“She’s my good friend. I love her.”
Linda, another client of Sally, shares, “She’s done a whole lot for me. Sally’s opened up a new world. She’s always positive. We just connect. Our group is wonderful. She knows her stuff. I don’t like phonies. Sally knows where it’s at. She tells it like it is… She’s the best counselor I’ve ever had. Sally talks from the heart.”
Sally is also much admired by her fellow professionals as shown in the following examples.
Kelley J. Gebbie, Resource Specialist, Rachel’s Women Center, Homeless Women’s Services for Catholic Charities, Diocese of San Diego, relates,
“Sally has never failed to come to the table with her vast knowledge of mental illness in the homeless. Her passion is readily shown when she finds a much-needed bed for those that have [nothing], either financially or physically. Sally has gone out of her way to find the right solution for someone. That solution could be weeks away, yet she continues to find it.
“An example of this came about when a mentally ill participant needed help. When the police were not the answer, she responded with a courier to transport this woman to a much-needed mental health facility. There was follow up when she walked away, never forgetting that this woman was in need. The saying, “no one left behind” finds itself on Sally’s shoulders often. She continues to help those that cannot help themselves who find their way to her doorstep.”
Lucky Michael, Caseworker, Rachel’s Women’s Center ,Homeless Women’s Services for Catholic Charities, Diocese of San Diego, says,
“Once in a while we get to meet people who make an art out of service. At Rachel’s Center, Sally is an artist. “Sally comes in as the statuesque blond wheeling her black briefcase with a world of information. All the women know who she is and know that they will receive a valuable answer even if it’s not a permanent solution, at minimum it’s a safety plan.
“I have so much respect for Sally. [T]o me she is more than a social worker but a leader and mentor. Sally is Picasso in her ability to think outside the box and Rembrandt paying close attention to details. The canvas is painted with pain and in the picture is a group of women validated, not necessarily healed but definitely heard.
“We love Sally and our program wouldn’t be what it is without her valuable art!”
Sally’s colleagues recognize her efforts to help people in need. Homeless people trust and know that Sally will do her best to help them. In the words of her client, Susan, “Sally has helped me perform miracles. She’s an angel!”