From ‘Sleeping Under Bushes’ to Her Own Apartment: One Woman’s Story

Her apartment is modest, nearly unfurnished.

But Melanie Bryant is thankful. Months prior, she was sleeping underneath bushes and bridges on the streets of El Cajon.

Bryant is one of hundreds of people who have found a stable place to live thanks to Project One for All, the County of San Diego’s extensive effort to house and provide needed services to homeless people with serious mental illness.

Multiple Drugs and Diagnoses

Bryant started hearing voices at the age of 10, but she tried to suppress them. As a teenager, she started using marijuana and other drugs. By her early 20s, she was hooked on meth.

“I did it to self-medicate. I did not want to feel anything,” said Bryant, 47.

Sitting on the floor of her one-bedroom apartment, Bryant shares her story of drug abuse and recounts how she was raped and molested when she was young.

Later, Bryant was diagnosed with schizophrenia, multiple personality and bipolar disorders. She was prescribed medication.

Along the way, Bryant had three daughters, but lost contact with two of them because of her continued drug use.

“We would get into arguments and physical altercations,” said Bryant, adding that, in addition to doing meth, she was not taking her medications. “It hurts but I can’t change that.”

In 2008, she had a nervous breakdown.

“I’ve had a rough life. It caught up with me,” Bryant said, adding that while she had used drugs most of her adult life, she was able to stop periodically.

She ended up living in Santee with her oldest daughter, her boyfriend and their two children.

Bryant continued using drugs. Her relationship with her oldest daughter came to a halt in 2017, with Bryant’s daughter moving to Arizona after a dispute.

Bryant thought she could hold on to the apartment in Santee, but she was not able to get a roommate. She got evicted.

“Losing my apartment was very hard. It was devastating,” Bryant said. “People treat you like trash. Literally, I was sleeping under bushes.”

Helping the Homeless

In San Diego County, 9% of adults report a serious psychiatric distress in any given year. More than 4% of adults in the region are estimated to have a serious mental illness. Also, 9% of adults in San Diego County are estimated to suffer from substance abuse disorder.

More than 16% of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 report serious psychological distress during the past year. Seven percent are estimated to have a serious emotional disturbance. And about 8% are believed to need help with alcohol and drug abuse.

According to the 2019 Point-in-Time Count conducted in January, a total of 8,102 men, women and children were living on the street or in shelters. It is estimated that about 25%of them suffer from mental illness.

Over the past few years, the County has made significant investments in outreach, treatment and housing services to people who are homeless or are at risk of homelessness.

Since Project One for All began, 852 homeless people with serious mental illness and experiencing homelessness have been housed with treatment.

In addition to Project One for All, efforts include identifying excess County properties to build affordable housing, and development of the Whole Person Wellness, Drug Medi-Cal Organized Delivery System, and Stepping Up programs to assist people who are homeless or are at risk of homelessness to obtain and sustain housing.

These actions align with the County’s Live Well San Diego vision, which aims to ensure that vulnerable populations have assistance and support to access services that meet their needs.

This coming fiscal year, the County will be adding $50.3 million to Behavioral Health Services, bringing to $708.5 million the annual budget for mental health and substance use, with emphasis on crisis stabilization efforts and expanding the continuum of care.

Currently, the County is providing housing and services to more than 1,900 clients with serious mental illness.  The homes are funded through the Mental Health Services Act.

Supportive housing is a model that provides housing and integrates mental health services, primary health care, alcohol and drug services, case management and social services to help homeless people living with permanent disabilities gain stability and live more productive lives.

“What we really are trying to do here in San Diego is break the cycle of homelessness, but also of repeated visits to the emergency department and hospital” said Luke Bergmann, director of County Behavioral Health Services. “The idea is to help people stay connected to ongoing supports so that they are able to live on their own and remain healthy.”

New Connections

After over a year of being homeless, Bryant lost all hope. Last November, she tried to kill herself.

“I was so desperate. I was homeless. I was on drugs,” she said. “I didn’t want to live that life anymore.”

She went to a bridge, intending to jump. Luckily for her, some people intervened.

Bryant entered a psychiatric hospital, where she was connected to mental health services. After a brief stay there, she was linked to the Alpha Project, a County contractor and partner in helping people get off the streets.

“That was the turning point for me,” Bryant said, adding that she’s been in recovery since.

She stopped using drugs. She began seeing a psychiatrist. She got back on her prescribed medications.

With help from the Alpha Project and the County Housing and Community Development Services, Bryant received a hotel voucher and began to process her Section 8 housing application. She found her new apartment in El Cajon in less than a month. Because of her diagnoses, Bryant relies on her Supplemental Security Income. The rent is $1,360 a month, but Bryant’s share is only $275.

‘I Cried and Cried’

“When I got my apartment, I cried and cried,” she said. “It was a miracle. I was so in awe and so thankful.”

Slowly, Bryant is starting a new life. She recently got an old television, which sits by her window in the living room, decorated with a small table and lamp and several wall stickers with inspirational messages.

On her wall, there’s also a drawing from one of her two grandchildren, whom she’s babysitting occasionally once again.

She has reconnected with her older daughter, who’s now 27. Her other two daughters still don’t want any contact with her.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow, but I have to let go,” Bryant said, explaining that she’s also let go of practically all her friends. “The friends that I had I used drugs with.”

Bryant continues to see her psychiatrist, take her medications, and attends group therapy.

“When I am on medication, I am OK,” Bryant said.

She’s also trying to help her brother who is also homeless and using drugs.

Bryant said she agreed to share her story in hopes that other people in her situation realize that there is help and hope.

“There are people and programs that work for you and care for you,” Bryant said. “There’s a way out of this.”


José A. Álvarez is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact