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On the road in "Sharemerica": Down and out in San Diego

Editor’s note: Local photographer Bryan McCormick recently left Las Vegas on an open-ended journey into the nation’s “sharing culture,” which he plans to document in words, pictures and a variety of other media. He's also delving deeply into the places he visits. These are the ongoing chronicles of his adventures. In this installment, Bryan finds himself in a depressing part of San Diego, far from the tourist track.

One thing I promised I would do on this trip was to be as balanced as possible in covering a place. I had no desire to become a travelogue writer. I really wanted to see what was going on, and come to terms with some of the big issues of the post-financial-crisis world. One is poverty and homelessness.

I took a spot in downtown in San Diego, very close to the new(ish) library, but quite deliberately on the other side of the light rail tracks at Island Avenue and 12th. This seemed like a real dividing line in terms of neighborhoods, as I learned on one of many very, very long walks with Andy White, a former Las Vegan.

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I was in the East Village or Lower East Village, with Sigsbee Row, Barrio Logan and Logan Heights to the south and southeast. In between is an odd patch that is heavily transitional and without a name, really. It is home to new housing as well as services for the large homeless population. Quite naturally the concentration of services, whether shelters or other forms of aid or clinics, meant the population was focused there. But when you look at a map, it’s clear that they are also being encircled by rapid gentrification. The fit is thus not always comfortable.

Walking through the area can be unsettling. Not so much in terms of danger, but in the incredible contrast: lives of luxury on one side of the street versus down-and-out on the other. Sometimes the gap in physical distance was even shorter than that. At night, the sounds of the street were punctuated by screams and speeches of rage that only the rains dampened. Who wouldn’t be driven mad out there? Or by listening to them?

The Lower East Village is what you’d expect in a gentrifying neighborhood: very tall condo towers, the biggest fittingly called The Pinnacle, separated by a large footprint from the older low-rise buildings, and in some cases many boarded-up vacants. Luxury and poverty, side by side. There were many fenced-off lots that were soon to be under construction, with even more tower projects, one presumes. And there were more than a few restaurants, bars and boutiques opening, along with professional office space in newly renovated buildings that had spilled onto this side of the tracks from the better areas to the west and north.

There would be no story unfamiliar to most large cities if it were not for one thing. The exceptional number of tents that dotted the sidewalks on nearly every side street.

Walking down 12th Street toward National you find tents clustered together, along with “entrepreneurs” throughout the parking lots. It seemed like the central market for drugs and sex. Amazingly, the police were parked not far away, which did not seem to put a dent at all into the business transactions. The impression I had was that as long as there were no direct confrontations, the police stood down.

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As you walk onto National, the tent population increases dramatically on both sides. At a certain point, the tents vanished, as if a hard border had been drawn. In the scatter of older enterprises, the density of tents increased. Often, negotiating the sidewalks meant effectively walking through many people’s backyards. A Las Vegas parallel are the tents found on A Street between Washington and Owens. Although in San Diego, the density is higher and breadth greater.

Andy was kind enough to arrange an introduction with a group working within the Downtown San Diego Partnership’s Clean & Safe program. The program covers the 275 blocks of downtown. The estimated number of homeless within that footprint was then more than 800s, many concentrated in the shadow of gentrification.

The Homeless Outreach Coordinators were kind enough to speak with me at length; what follows is an abbreviated summary of their observations. The quotes are amalgams from that discussion.

According to the group, the East Village is where the outcasts of society have always gone. Gentrification, they felt, is only likely to accelerate, eventually pushing more of the homeless into Barrio Logan, Mid City, City Heights, and other less expensive areas. This process is leading to tension between the neighborhoods and the homeless. From my own observations of Barrio Logan, that neighborhood is experiencing gentrification on an accelerated time frame, with artists and artisanal businesses moving in rapidly. That has pitched neighborhood activists and long-time residents against gentrifiers, and seemingly everyone against the homeless.

At the same time that the problem is clearly too large to solve with current resources, the gentrifiers can be impatient with a lack of progress in “solving the problem” quickly. But as long as services for the homeless remain concentrated in the area as an attractor, the conflict between the neighborhood and the homeless will continue. Still, with the community properly engaged, homelessness can be substantially reduced. “If we committed ourselves to ending poverty, we could change the world."

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Education is key, the group says.  For example, understanding who the homeless are. Homelessness impacts not only single men — the majority of the homeless population — but also women, children, seniors, the LGBTQ community and entire families. An estimated 12 percent of the downtown San Diego homeless are veterans.

For another example, understanding how people come to be homeless in the first place.

“So many people are living paycheck to paycheck. And one incident — your car breaking down, a family illness — can completely change a person’s life … and they can become homeless.” One stat that the group cited: To pay for a market-value apartment requires working 96 hours a week at minimum wage. No wonder that the “at risk” population is so large and that even a minor life event can end badly.

A sizable portion of the homeless face mental health and addiction issues. Solving this problem is made very difficult by a lack of dedicated long-term care, detox facilities and mental-health beds. In the most recent survey, 17 percent of the homeless were identified as having substance-abuse problems and 19 percent were classed with severe mental-health issues, with overlaps between the groups. Given the low number of treatment beds, it can be a wait of weeks or months to get placed. If someone is ready and you can’t help them now by connecting them to services, that person might not be ready again for six months, a year — or perhaps never. A success for the program has been securing a privately paid detox bed shared with the police department. The most at-risk from a pool needing the bed can be plugged in first. This can lead to longer-term treatment and eventually, through transitional steps, to housing. But so much more needs to be done.

Another obstacle is that the shelter system is not set up for “intact families.” What this can mean, especially with male children over a certain age, is that a choice has to be made. A 13-, 14-, or 15-year old boy cannot come into the shelter with his mother and younger siblings. The older child would, if there is a bed available, have to go into a youth program, thus separating him from the family. The alternative could leave that child on the street. Couples are separated under most shelter rules, often meaning they will stay on the street together rather than be parted. A system that handled intact families and couples would be the most healing, the group noted

When, at the end of our discussion, I asked the homeless outreach coordinators what they wanted most to communicate to a general audience, it was this:

“Despite what we hear in the media and in the community, homeless people are not as violent and scary as we’ve been lead to think. Oftentimes they are the victims of crime themselves and are very vulnerable. … Remember that they are just everyday people struggling with so much. … A little grace goes a long way... No matter what, everyone out there is someone’s child."

I’ve included some photographs of street conditions for the story, something I almost did not do. After having spent a couple of weeks there, however, it’s far more likely that these few crude pictures dramatically understate the nature of the problem. The sensationalism is in the stark reality of the homeless problem itself, which pictures will always fail to fully convey. It’s something you need to experience for yourselves.

Special thanks to Lucky Michael, Kelly Knight and Arturo Quiros, homeless outreach coordinators with the Clean & Safe program. And to Andy White for on-the-street guidance and bringing the group together for our discussion.