Rolf Benirschke has scored again. The beloved former San Diego Chargers kicker and team Hall-of-Famer helped fund a pizzeria/print shop that will train and employ youths living at a downtown homeless center.
The grand opening was May 2, 2023. It kicked off with a performance by Voices of Our City Choir and included appearances by San Diego Padres officials, the team’s Swinging Friar mascot and pitcher Nick Martinez.
The nonprofit enterprise is called Timmy’s Place in honor of Rolf and Mary Benirschke’s son, who struggled with homelessness and addiction.
Ever opined that homelessness could never happen to you? Consider that it happened to the son of an NFL star who once hosted the daytime version of Wheel of Fortune.
Benirschke spoke candidly about his son at the grand opening and went into detail with the San Diego Sun about his family’s experience with homelessness.
“It’s easy to pass judgment,” Benirschke says. “We’re all guilty of it. The reality is 85 percent of people who are homeless have experienced some sort of trauma. It can lead to a series of things that happen that are out of their control. And then it’s a spiral down. But at the end of the day they are still people. And we need to treat them that way.”
The Rolf Benirschke Legacy Foundation partnered with The Lucky Duck Foundation to create Timmy’s Place. The pizzeria and print shop are managed by the Union of Pan Asian Communities (UPAC).
The new businesses are located side by side on the ground floor at 1404 Fifth Avenue. A 70-bed homeless youth center run by Urban Street Angels is located above the shops.
Rolf and Mary Benirschke adopted two boys from Russia who were 5 and 3 years old. Rolf says the orphanage they came from offered children the bare minimum. Kids were often cold, scared, wet and hungry. It hard-wired them not to trust the outside world, he says.
“My wife is a speech pathologist and a child behavior expert,” Rolf says. “And as much as we poured into Timmy, he started to drift away, rejected the family and ended up living homeless in Salt Lake City for five years.”
The Benirschkes are acutely aware of the magnitude of the homelessness problem in San Diego.
“Because of our son, we recognize that homelessness is the number-one issue we face in San Diego,” Rolf says. “We don’t understand it. It’s very complex. There’s lots of nuance to it.”
San Diego’s struggle with homelessness is omnipresent. Especially in the urban core, where monthly tallies by the Downtown San Diego Partnership regularly count close to 2,000 people living unsheltered in the streets.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and District 3 City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn are determined to pass an aggressive ban on tents on city sidewalks. (Even though a similar ban already exists and is randomly enforced.) Concurrently, there’s a severe shortage of shelter beds for people living on the streets.
I ask Benirschke if he’s following the politics of homelessness.
“I don’t know that I’m qualified to speak on that,” he says. “I understand how complicated the situation is. And I feel for the city residents whose lives are impacted. It’s hard. You walk outside, and there’s homeless people there, and you don’t know: Are they on drugs? Are they dangerous? Yes and maybe. But then…they’re real people.”
Urban Street Angels founder and CEO Eric Lovett estimates there might be 1,000 unsheltered local youths out on the streets on any given night.
Benirschke sings the praises of The Lucky Duck Foundation.
“Lucky Duck is the leader in our community that funds high-impact, homeless-related organizations,” he says. “We went to them, and we had this idea in mind to create this social enterprise idea. Lucky Duck connected us to the Urban Angels, and then UPAC.”
Timmy’s Place is a chance for young people–who’ve aged out of foster care–to develop transferable job skills, Benirschke says. And a chance to hope, again.
The former Chargers great can relate through his son’s experience. And on another level, he personally remembers what it was like to lose hope.
Recall that during the 1979 NFL season, a 24-year-old Benirschke underwent two surgeries for ulcerative colitis. He had part of his large intestine removed and spent weeks in intensive care. His return to the field later that year was dramatic. There were few dry eyes in the house.
“I’d lost hope, and should have died, but people wouldn’t give up on me,” he says. “This community supported me in such a powerful way. It’s a privilege to be involved in supporting other organizations that are the fabric of our community that people don’t know much about–but are there to catch us when we fall. And that’s what we hope Timmy’s Place will be.”
There’s not one solution to solve homelessness, Benirschke says.
“It really needs to be a myriad of people doing what they can in different ways,” he says. “The cool thing about Timmy’s Place is that it’s an aggregation of people trying to do something. Their resources. Their skill sets. Connecting together and collectively lifting this population.”
Benirschke offers an analogy that motivates his actions.
“There’s a story of a kid walking on the beach after high tide,” he says. “And a bunch of starfish washed up on the shore are going to die. One by one, he throws them back in the ocean. A couple walk by. They say: ‘What are you doing? There’s thousands. You can possibly save them all.’ And he replies: ‘That’s true. But I can save this one. And I can save this one…’ And that’s where we are.”
Timmy’s Place serves pizza, sandwiches and more. The print shop will have high-capacity screen printing machines that can produce thousands of units and do customized projects.
The Pizzeria & Print shop is open for business and also accepting donations through this link.
Final note: Benirschke says his son is “thrilled” about being the enterprise’s namesake. And that Timmy has been clean from addiction for three years and currently holds two jobs. SDSun