The Face of Homelessness in San Diego – Part 2

by on February 17, 2016 · 14 comments

in California, Civil Rights, Culture, Economy, Environment, Health, History, Homelessness, Life Events, Media, Ocean Beach, Politics, San Diego

By John Lawrence

Dodge Mobile travelerI met Suzie at Panera Bread in Liberty Station. She is homeless but not vehicle-less. She used to have a nice home in Point Loma, had lived in the Point Loma – Ocean Beach area for years.

She has been homeless since last April when her boyfriend kicked her out of his apartment. When that happened, she got on Craigslist and bought an RV.

There are many levels and degrees of homelessness, and Suzie is on one of the better off levels. Some homeless persons live on boats in the harbor. So for some, homelessness verges on an alternative lifestyle, the key being whether or not they are forced into the situation or whether their situation is freely chosen.

Suzie grew up in Tennessee in a fairly affluent home. Her father and mother were both college graduates – he an electrical engineer, she a nurse. Her grandmothers were both nurses. Suzie is the second oldest of 5 siblings; she’s 59.

She went to college in Dalton, Georgia and became a nurse graduating in 1984. Although she hasn’t worked in 5 years due to health problems, she still considers herself a nurse, keeping her registration current, taking classes, reading articles and helping people when she can.

She was married briefly when she was 30. The marriage was annulled. She hasn’t married since and has no children. She loves animals and has a small dog which keeps her company. Pets, however, can be a huge expense especially if they need veterinary care which at some point they all do. A few years ago before she became homeless, one of her dogs ran up a $5000. veterinarian bill and then died. Veterinarians have recently caught up with people doctors in the charging department, and pet care among other expenses has forced people to either give up the only source of affection in their lives or become homeless. Many homeless people have chosen their pets over being domiciled.

A Promising Start in San Diego: Job, Home, Boyfriend

Suzie came to San Diego with a boyfriend. They moved into a home in Eastlake. They were both working – she the 3-11 PM shift, he the day shift. The relationship broke up in 1993 when he took off with another woman and left her. He wanted to get married; she didn’t. She was gun-shy from her previous marriage although she really loved the guy. After the breakup her mental state deteriorated. She’s never trusted another man.

RV in costco lotAfter that the men she dated left a lot to be desired; she attracted a stalker, and wasn’t able to find anyone to have a meaningful relationship with. She found solace with her animals living in an apartment in Santee with several dogs. In 1996 during a road trip, one of her dogs, who was taking a potty break along the freeway, somehow got away. After a desperate effort to try and find her, Suzie finally gave up. The emotional cost of losing this dog forced her to give up her job for awhile and go back to Tennessee for emotional support with her family. After 20 years she’s still upset about losing her best friend on the side of the highway. After this loss, she wasn’t able to work for several months.

Suzie met her last boyfriend in 2001 in Ocean Beach where she had moved. By then she had gotten her life back together and was working in the ER department at a hospital. She was employed there from 2000 to 2008. In 2008 she got sick and had to have surgery on her neck on two different occasions. While recovering from surgery at the hospital, she contracted viral meningitis, was very ill and remained hospitalized for some time.

Her health issues forced her to stop working. She had used up her sick leave. She was fortunate enough to be able to get on social security disability. On average SS disability pays around $1200. a month, not really enough to rent an apartment or even a room in a house and have much left over in San Diego. The lack of inexpensive SROs forces many into homelessness. City owned micro apartments as they have in Seattle might be a solution:

[A] development on 23rd Avenue East, opened in 2009 with 46 dormlike sleeping rooms with common kitchens.

It was the brainchild of the late Bellevue developer Jim Potter, who found a loophole in Seattle’s building regulations.

At the time, the city allowed up to eight unrelated people to live in one “dwelling” with a shared kitchen. The code didn’t say the rooms had to be tied together as a single unit, so Potter built a cross between an apartment building and a boarding house, where someone could rent a sleeping room as small as 100 square feet with a private bath and share a kitchen with up to seven other renters.

A micro-housing building spree ensued that gave Seattle more such units than any city in the country. At last count, 782 micro-housing units were cleared for occupancy in Seattle, with another 1,598 units in the pipeline. No other American city comes close.

San Diego needs to update its building codes to allow micro apartments and Tiny Homes on public or private land with common sanitation and cooking facilities. The Homeless to Housed movement is attempting to bring just such a project to fruition, but will the Mayor and/or the City Council sanction it and change the municipal code? That remains to be seen.

Boyfriend Problems

no rv parkingSuzie met her last boyfriend in 2003; they were together until last year but didn’t live together at first. Until a few years ago she rented a beautiful house in OB. She had 3 dogs, a cat, 200 plants and a gorgeous yard. It was a “doll house.” She was there 8 years and then the rent went up to $2200. forcing her to move to a smaller home in Point Loma. She put much of her furniture in storage where it still sits.

In 2009 she had a bad fall from a ladder, while working around her house, breaking her leg. It required surgery and she was in a wheelchair for 5 months. She was living off savings. Her boyfriend didn’t want to take care of her. He said, “I didn’t sign up for this.” Even though she had to go to a nursing home for awhile, she stayed with the boyfriend.

Suzie hired a caregiver out of the parking lot at Home Depot. She had 3 dogs and a cat to take care of. Jose was a godsend. He came up from Rosarita Beach every day to help her. As her situation deteriorated, her main support system, her father died. She started having problems with her siblings over their inheritance. A whole series of problems ensued: sisters stopped talking to her, lost her house, lost her father, lost her job. Her dog died, and her long term boyfriend started getting abusive. Also she started having another serious health problem in her GI tract. Her health insurance, California’s Low Income Health Program (LIHP), would not cover the surgery she needed and still needs for that.

From 2010 – 2013, she and her boyfriend had 4 surgeries each. She nursed him through each one including 3 heart surgeries. They were always ill or recovering. She moved in with her boyfriend in 2010 at which point she had nowhere else to go. Things got worse from there. Suzie finally found a GI doctor at UCSD who was willing to do the surgery she needed. But the boyfriend wouldn’t let her do it because he was not willing to take care of her afterwards. They fought a lot.

He wanted out. She stayed so she could have a place for her animals. He said, “I can’t wait for all your animals to die before you leave.” Eventually her dogs and cat died. He retired in 2014 and that’s when his ex came back into the picture. The boyfriend left and went back to his ex. Suzie moved to a hotel, got on Craigslist and bought an RV.

sleeping in cars graphShe can’t afford an RV park so she parks on the street. The problem with parking on the street, in addition to the fact that the police can hassle you, is that the heat can be oppressive if you can’t plug in and run the air conditioning. We talked about a group called Dreams for Change which has provided safe parking lots in San Diego, Chula Vista and Vista. The San Diego location is at 766 28th Street just across from the New Life Church and just off the Martin Luther King freeway. They ask that you call (619) 497-0236 before you come. This is an option that Suzie needs to check out.

She showers at the YMCA which charges her only $16 a month based on her low income. The neat part of the deal is that she can use any Y in the County.

Suzie summed up:

“I wish I would have been stronger and made better decisions. It’s just too many things kept happening to me and I got so overwhelmed. I never thought any of this would occur. I’ve worked since I was 14 at many jobs. It’s just my mental reserves are just gone. Day to day is very much a struggle now. I persevere. I reached out to you.”

I asked her, “Is there anything you’d like to accomplish with this article ?” She replied, “I guess just to educate the public that not everybody they see that is homeless is down and out and uneducated.” The line between homelessness and an alternative lifestyle is pretty thin.

I asked her if she was still in touch with the abusive boyfriend. She said she saw him the other day for the first time in 6 months because he came fishing where she was camping illegally in OB. The visit was cut short when the Park and Rec guy told her “You’re not supposed to be camping here. There are signs everywhere.”

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Eric Kaufman February 17, 2016 at 2:03 pm

Excellent article. Regarding “The line between homelessness and an alternative lifestyle is pretty thin,” I couldn’t agree more. One of the very legitimate arguments I hear from folks not inclined towards social programs is “why should tax payers have to subsidize someone who’s purposefully choosing an alternative lifestyle?”

I don’t think the entire homeless population should be conflated into any particular population (ie: all homeless are victims, or all homeless are devious and capable of holding a job), but a strategy really should be provided that handles the complexities of the issue, and doesn’t outright ignore viewpoints that we might not agree with.


Sarah G February 19, 2016 at 6:46 am

Well stated, Eric.


Lori February 17, 2016 at 6:36 pm

WOW!!!! It sure sounds like you have had a rough go at it….some bad luck. I personally do not think that living in ones vehicle should be illegal. Yes, it can be slightly frustrating if people park in front of your house for days on end taking up a spot….where spots are hard to come by, but most living in their vehicles are respectful and move on after a day or two……..we need to have compassion for those that choose that lifestyle or do not have a choice…..I will not judge you, but welcome you in true OB spirit!!!!!!


Rufus February 18, 2016 at 5:00 am

Oh save me from the drama!

This lady’s life serves as a warning to others. Plan for your future, save for retirement, pick your mates well, foster your relationships, think twice before moving away from your family, don’t burn your bridges, don’t get a pet unless you can afford it, practice moderation, understand that life is hard, and not fair sometimes, and finally, unicorns are not real.


Marc Snelling February 18, 2016 at 6:17 am

How do you plan for surgeries and medical costs? American medical insurance that actually covers you is from the same land as unicorns.


Rufus February 18, 2016 at 7:05 am

Go to school and complete your education, get a job that offers health insurance, work hard, promote, make healthy choices in your life, build good relationships with others, be prepared, and take freaking responsibility for yourself!!


Marc Snelling February 18, 2016 at 8:34 am

Health insurance is no guarantee, if you get sick and they deny your claim, then what? Who are you even talking to with your advice? This story is about someone who completed an education, got a job, worked hard and has relationships with others. There is no planning you can do for a car accident, cancer or medical emergencies. Just take freaking responsibility? Suuure.


Larry N Maggard February 18, 2016 at 9:46 am

Life is not scripted and shit happens. We create legislation to criminalize our social issues because it’s easier than dealing with the reality. Homeless is far more than not having a home. It’s the most difficult situation I’ve ever had to deal with. In the US/A Homeless = NO rights.

Try being homeless for 24 hours, no cheating, then post a comment. I dare ya.


William Joey Dorsett February 18, 2016 at 12:12 pm

God what a hate you are Rufus.. People do what you say all the time.. I know people that spent years and years in school and still can’t get the job they where trained for and work 60 hours a week plus to live and pay student loans.. Also have you ever lived outside of san diego… its hard for people out there.. its hard for people everywhere.. don’t be so judging against people.. all it takes is a little landslide to happen for things to get far over your head.. and saving money is hard when you make just enough to get by day to day. week to week, month to month… then some bullshit comes along and screws everything up for you… That is all it takes… Educations cost money, which if you are barely able to make ends meet on 60 plus hours a week,. how are you going to have time and money to work on your education??


Susie February 19, 2016 at 1:20 am

FYI : I was able to save my dog because I had a retirement account & used a very small percent of that. It becomes more evident when you speak that you do not , Perhaps have a good grasp of reality. The story is accurate to a point but a lot is left out. A whole lot. I left home at 21 with my parents blessing and financial help as they wanted us all to be independent.
No bridges were burned on my part, know that.
My pets are cared for and always have gad the best care.
And there is no way to determine if a mate will lie, cheat or have an addictive or abusive behavior as some are very good at hiding a personality disorder.
That’s a whole other story.
No drama here only facts. I suggest you do some volunteer work at a local clinic & talk to people so you can get in the real world and understand what’s occurring right before your eyes. Educate your self, learn Empathy, stop being defensive and a Bully. I can spot Bullies a mile away. Stop Judging me when upy Do Mot know my entire story. I don’t know you but I bet I can profile You & be spot on.
It’s really better if I do not respond too much as I will just chew you to & spit u out. Idiocracy is very abundant.
Be Well. I’m sure you will need it.


Frank Fitz February 19, 2016 at 5:32 pm

Let me jump in here, I think I can repackage what Rufus is trying to say in a kinder and gentler way.

Suzie, nobody should have to work hard all their lives only to wind up living in a motor home on a strictly limited income. Looking back, how can we learn from your experiences? What would you have done differently? How can we help you?

And Marc and William, I hear ya. But we can’t throw up your hands and say that “shit happens” or that say that life isn’t scripted. That sort of thinking surrenders the power you have to direct your own life and effect change. I want you to think that the glass is half full, not half empty.

Yes, we get beaten down by the daily grind or from bad luck, but we have to try and rise above our circumstances while rejecting blame or excuses. We have to try and move beyond believing that we can’t and believe that we can. And we have to learn from each other and take care of each other.

Suzie, I wish you nothing but fair winds. You live in a beautiful city with really good people. Ask for help and build partnerships with others who can assist with your daily life challenges. Wake up each morning with optimism and understand that there are people out there who are on your side.


Marc Snelling February 24, 2016 at 12:33 pm

What are you talking about with your half full glass analogy?

All I said is don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, and that health insurance is not a shield from poverty.

The power of positive thinking helps you accept your circumstance. It doesn’t make an insurance adjuster approve a claim.

Why does everyone assume Susie wants something beyond telling her story?


Susie February 24, 2016 at 2:28 am

I used to ask for help B 4 this All came crashing down, mostly w my md who asked a social worker who had very limited knowledge of all the groups out there. I knew more than she did since I have always worked the front lines of one of SD major hospitals in the ED. A woman’s shelter in my case was never an option for many reasons but mostly due to pets & the fact I am not a drug abuser so I would not and could not live around that enviroemt even if I had not had pets.
It’s all very convoluted to understand if you are not thrust into that situation.
My parish had knowledge but again, there was no help there. Being without a home is very upsetting to people when they see it. Most would not even look me in the eye.
All of this has been a very humbling experience and I am just learning alot & trying to have good adventures not any horrible ones.
So far, I have only told a few people, its a private thing & I don’t expect anything from anyone. My main goal is to be safe & healthy.
As for building partnerships & asking for help, ???
Ha ! I did. I went to my OB parish, shared what was happening to me w the priest & others to explain if they could speak to him re his abuse & I was then informed by him that she, a lay leader, had told him to give me a 30 day notice to get out. That was so hurtful & unbelievable. This was in 2014. Also, another person asked me what u had done to upset him that was making him abuse me. Yes, all true. She didn’t fully understand or grasp severity of situation since she was a Nun & has zero knowledge of domestic violence.
Ignorance. I am better living this way as his abuse was so pervasive it has taken me a long time to just get to a stable point to even be able to think clearly.
You have no idea & that’s ok. You don’t need to know all.
As far as surrounding myself with people $ asking for help ….
No I don’t . I don’t go anywhere there are too many people. And I don’t know that many people too. So I feel stuck. I don’t feel sorry I just try to do what I need to do to get thru each day to survive & be ok. Rereading what you wrote makes me also know that while you mean well, you can’t possibly understand either.


Michael May 4, 2016 at 12:03 am

None of you know homelessness. It can be soleless and hollow . One winter I layer in snow covered walkway of a church . They were holding an a.a meeting there I had walking pneumonia. Just to get up would cause hyperventilation. I basically didn’t care anymore. When they finished it was because one woman cared enough about me to give me food and $20. Wow. The next morning I literally forced myself to the hospital. When I walked in to harborview they instantly put me in a room and I v after iv. That woman saved my life . I would really love to thank her for me caring again. I just needed someone to care about me. It’s lonely when no-one loves you.


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