This is not an article laced with numbers, statistics, and quotes from various sources. In writing this, I am reaching back into my own experiences over the last year and a half as a social worker who happens to live in OB and putting the truth out on the table.
For those who have complained about the influx of “drug crazed” (mostly young) transients infiltrating our neighborhood, you are finding it difficult to hold someone accountable for the disturbances and quality of life issues this population has brought to OB. You want them gone, out of here, ejected. You don’t care really where they go, so long as they are not bothering you anymore.
Guess what? You are to blame. The NIMBY attitude that has pervaded the governance of this City and County has reached a tipping point; the outcome of supporting politicians who reflect a lack of compassion towards the homeless are that there are not adequate services – housing options, medical treatment, food sources, etc. – in San Diego for what is one of the largest homeless populations in the mighty U.S. of A.
Bravo! We have successfully forced people to panhandle and sleep on our beaches without a viable avenue to look towards a better life. Point the finger not at them, but at yourself. Because you were unable to understand the consequences of pushing homeless shelters out of your neighborhood, or enacting a no-booze ban on our beaches, or any of the other short-sighted policies that many have supported over the last decade, we now have an explosive and divisive dynamic building here in the wake of one of the worst economic recessions in history.
One can assume that a large portion of the houseless in the area would refuse to access services in the first place. It is one of the biggest challenges in working in the social service field, and it is a source of constant frustration. I have such a big heart and idealistic attitude that I forget there are plenty of people who do not want help. I still look at each situation with a fresh perspective, and as I speak with my coworkers – equally frustrated by the unmet needs of America’s Finest City’s most vulnerable – I know I am not alone. It seems, however, that compassion is lost on many in my own neighborhood. And now I write this rant as a realist; as someone who can look at the reality and not figures or statistics, and honestly say that our problems are a reflection of the attitudes of our city. Is there a way to turn it around? I really don’t know.
The term “Kerouacian” has come up a number of times on our own community forum, and this is an interesting way to look at the young transients who call our little beach community home. It is non-threatening way to describe these kids as relatable in some way to a literary genius who was also a transient for much of his young life, but it is a disservice to them. This population is nothing like the Keroucs, or the Ginsbergs, or even the Hippies/Yippies of the 60’s and 70’s. These kids are a reflection of their generation: lost, forgotten amidst the corporate growth of their parents’ careers, technically homeless – but many never felt like they had a home in the first place.
Why not call them “Obecian?” Why do you automatically assume that because someone has rolled into OB from another place, they are not part of our community? Like it or not, OB has a reputation of being a place that welcomes people from all walks of life. In the 60’s, OB faced a similar situation. Surfers, business owners, landlords, and “regular” citizens were faced with an influx of dirty, smelly, jobless, houseless, “dopers”.
What happened? The community fused with the new émigrés, creating a loving, progressive, compassionate, political, and self-policing community. Have we forgotten the roots of OB? Do we complain, dispel, and propose ejection of what is obviously a population that lacks any permanence in their lives, or do we engage, explain, and demand better for and from them? I guess that is where we find ourselves now: those of us who feel they deserve respect as human beings, and those who see only the public drunkenness, drug use, litter, and smell and thus assume they are subhuman.
I am able to have compassion because I count my blessings, despite living paycheck to paycheck. I lay my head each night knowing that below my window, there are one or two people sleeping in a nook between my building and a tall wooden fence. I get to cuddle up in a bed with my cats and my girlfriend, a couple pillows and a comforter, with a good book and a piping hot mug of tea, while my counterparts, no less than 10 feet away, lay their head on a rock, against a concrete wall, with maybe a 40 ounce Mickey’s and a lost and found blanket to keep them warm. If you wish these folks out of your neighborhood, then you are ignoring their suffering. If you assume that there is somewhere else these people can go, then you are assuming your own attitudes are unique and forget that there are people like you everywhere.
How about we step up as a community and take action, instead of shuffling them around from ‘hood to ‘hood, city to city, ensuring that the cycle continues for decades? The weathered faces of the homeless seniors (many of which are war veterans) who live on the streets should be reason enough to at least have SOME compassion. You don’t want it in your back yard? Honestly, neither do I – but “it” is in our backyard, and isn’t going away. “It” is on our beaches, along the cliffs, and in our alleys. We have a responsibility as human beings, as a community that has a history of taking in strays and welcoming them in as equals, to do something other than bitch. At the very least, understand their condition and have a little bit of humanity.
The Regional Task Force on the Homeless data indicates that on any given day, there are about 8,000 homeless people in San Diego County. This is who they are able to count; there are thousands of people who go uncounted, and they are unable to approach or count people under the age of 18. Thus, subpopulations like the one that many Obecians have been complaining technically don’t exist. Services for teen runaways are nonexistent. Services for the homeless are amazingly few and far between, and aside from the clergy and members of OB’s churches (including a sometimes locked port-o-potty at the corner of Saratoga and Sunset Cliffs) a small food pantry, and some compassionate residents, OB lacks any real homeless services.
In East Village, where the majority of our city’s homeless folks sleep each night, one can see the outcome of years of lacking services: tent cities, entire parking lots full not with cars, but with shopping carts and sleeping bags. This could be OB in the future. The City Council continues to fight over what district should house the Winter Shelter – a tent with about 250 beds – completely and purposely ignoring the fact that there is need for MUCH more than that.
District 2 is the primary location for at least half if not 75%, of the city’s openly homeless folks. The city’s only real services for those living on the street (non-profits like St. Vincent de Paul, SD Rescue Mission, etc.) are all in the East Village/Downtown area. Yet Kevin Faulconer and the other council members are complacent with the current lack of services, urged to move the shelter by the gentrifying real estate developers and yuppies moving into the neighborhood. In fact, Faulconer has suggested that each district rotate the tent each year. Remember, this is a tent that can sleep about 250 people, in an area where there are thousands of people living on the street. The argument shouldn’t be about where the tent goes – it should be about how many more need to go up.
For those of you who look at the homeless and want them out of your backyard and into someone else’s, this is the outcome. That is why there is an enclave of young transients in OB, and they are not getting the help they really need. Your attitudes have infiltrated the governance of our city, and it has made it difficult for our community to offer anything except maybe some spare change and some hand-me-down clothes.
Spare me the bitching about panhandling and open drug use. Spare me the complaints about the behavior of a population that is generally misunderstood, many of which suffer from mental illness, and for the most part, have long been neglected. Most of all, spare me the bitching about how little the police do to fix the problem. They enforce the law, hand out tickets even when a simple parking violation could easily be overlooked, and overreact to simple acts of defiance, as we saw recently when one naked man almost caused a riot. From first hand experience, however, I can tell you that the police here give the homeless folks in OB way more respect than its residents. I mean, lets not forget – they sleep on the street every night. Imagine that was your condition. Imagine you slept on the street or on the beach at night, woke up in the morning, and had nothing but your clothes and a few friends. Spare change – yeah you would ask for it. Booze – yeah, you would drink it. Hard drugs – natural progression.
You want this to change? Demand better services from the city and the county. If we don’t get better services, the cycle will continue and homeless folks will continue to flood our streets. It took years for things to get this bad, and will probably take years to weed out the campaign financers, business owners, real estate developers, politicians, and hate-filled residents who have prevented persistent quality services from existing and instead move forward with policies that have the long-term interest of all San Diegans – our homeless included – in mind.