I'm heated. SoCal was in the midst of a heat wave, but it had nothing to do with the weather. I shouldn't feel this way. It's was Friday in sunny San Diego and I had the entire day to explore the city. Yet, as I read the The San Diego City Beat, and heard what the locals had to say on the homeless epidemic , the activist inside me began to shine through. (Side note: I'm convinced that if you want to get a good feel for a city, check out their free, local magazine. Santa Barbara Sentinel, VC Reporter, etc). The local writers continue to write about the growing homeless scene in a city that is, because of the weather, arguably the best place to be homeless. (If there is such a thing.) Articles ranged from housing former veterans, a healthy dialogue on homelessness, and how the new mayor will attack this issue. Each of the writers continued to shine a light on an issue that must be recognized in a city that now has the fourth highest homeless population in the country.
My first few days in the city I wondered, 'where are the all the homeless?' I was staying in the Little Italy district, and as I walked around the Embarcadero, Balboa Park, and the Gaslamp neighborhoods, I saw only a handful of homeless individuals. I was perplexed. I'm not a math major, but the numbers didn't add up. I knew the data of the homeless crisis before coming, but I couldn't find the evidence. San Diego does a nice job of hiding their issues- just like any self conscious individual trying to keep up an image. For a city where tourism is the third leading industry, they sure know how to keep their homeless isolated from visitors. All the hotels are situated in the the previous neighborhoods mentioned. You don't see many visitors staying in the East Village neighborhood, and there's a reason for that.
As I rode past Petco Park, home to the 2016 MLB All Star Game, I made my way east to see what was out there. What I saw incited empathy, anger, sadness, but more than anything, it made me ask: why are things this way?
The East Village, which is the largest urban neighborhood in Downtown San Diego, houses all the homeless. Stretches of blocks from Imperial Highway to J Street are sprawling with tightly connected tents. This sight is reminiscent of Skid Row in LA, and The Jungle in Seattle- which both come in at first and third respectively for homeless populations in the country.
I rolled through the Village with my bike the day before, but now, with a slightly better understanding of the area, I planned on walking right through the thick of it. I was nervous- the area felt lawless. They play by the rules of the streets. Regardless, if you want to understand something, sometimes you have to jump headfirst into it. With my backpack strapped, and my shoes tied tight, here went nothing.
Before I got too deep into The Village, I saw a T-Mobile tent. I began asking questions. They were giving away free phones with unlimited calling and texting for a year. It reminded me of how Silicon Valley was trying to combat homelessness. I asked a few questions and the gentleman asked me "would you like a phone?" I guess I dressed accordingly, because he thought I was homeless. "No thanks" I replied and continued on my way.
Through the entire experience I was only spoken to once. An elderly lady asked me for a smoke. No one else paid me any mind. Just what I hoped for.
The disparity on the streets was striking. I saw blacks, whites, Mexicans and Asians. Males and females. Young and old. Homelessness doesn't discriminate.
The encampments lined 17th street all the way up to the 5 Freeway. Tents upon tents- with some more beat up than others. Trash filled the streets. The stench was strong. It smelled like a sewer, with bottles of urine in 20oz Coca-Cola bottles scattered around. People sat with their backs to the buildings or fence. The look of dejection was real- almost zombie like. This life won't change for most. Some will die this way. Housing may come, addictions may be conquered, and mental health might be addressed, but the chances of all of that are unlikely.
On the bright side, I saw people working together. A younger male helped an elderly women get her shopping cart full of her belongings off the street and situated amongst the crowd on the sidewalk. As I turned and walked up J Street I heard a a lady remark to a small group, " I want to grab [her] some shoes and a 'new' shirt." She went in her tent and did exactly that. Here was a lady who herself did not have much, but she had something to give that would benefit someone else, and that's exactly what she did. There seemed to be a sense of community out there. They were all in it together.
As I made my way to the outskirts of The Village, I stopped at the Central Library.
The structure was built in 2013 to help revitalize the East Village. It's an architectural beauty. I love going to public libraries because that's another chance to better understand the public in that city. I saw multiple men washing their clothes in Portland's Public Library. In Seattle, I saw men and women alike sleeping- trying to stay awake in an attempt to not get kicked out. San Diego was no different. A large congregation- the span of the block- congregated on the other side of the street. A cop walked through the thickness, but there was nothing he could do- they weren't breaking the law.
Petco Park was also built with hopes of revitalizing the East Village. Signs for construction of new high rise apartments were on multiple blocks near the ballpark. More apartments for those making good money. No affordable housing. No housing for the homeless. No housing for the veterans, which were promised by the Mayor.
Nope, just another 'hip' city that has a growing interest of young adults looking for a place downtown in a beautifully situated city.
I don't blame the tenants. Actually, I don't know who to blame. The city should shoulder the blame, but it takes two to tango. I write a lot about helping the homeless, but I am not naive and know that some people are the streets are not always helping themselves. Some are literally unable to, while others just push the help away. The truth is in the numbers. Homelessness is continuously growing in both San Diego County as well as Los Angeles County. As a state, we must do something, but those in positions of power are still unsure of how to properly help.
With the revitalization of East Village, and without the proper attention paid to the current street occupants, those men and women will be pushed further and further to the outskirts of society.
These are the people that need love.
These are the people that need care.
These are the people who need help.
These are the people who need housing.