The System Is Broken

by on July 25, 2022 · 23 comments

in Homelessness, Ocean Beach

All photos by Colleen Edwards.

By Colleen Edwards /Dead Foot Collective

Go outside and sleep on the streets. Sleep on the side of a dumpster. Sleep, but only where nobody can see you. Sleep, but with a knife because someone will rob you. Sleep, but with your children tied around your waist because someone will try and take them. Sleep, but only after having not eaten all day—hunger pains will keep you awake.

Welcome to the houseless experience.

I have been volunteering and working within the homeless system for the past six years. I’ve volunteered in shelters and on buses, I worked with homeless youth for a year and then switched to working directly with case managers, clients, and landlords. I studied journalism in college and spent two years reporting on people on the streets of San Diego.

I want to begin by saying I am nowhere near an expert on the homeless system.

The system is broad and incorporates different practices and strategies for each specific houseless subpopulation. Here are some experts in the houseless world that are worth a follow if you are interested: Ann Marie Oliva, Peggy Peattie, and Corianne Payton Scally.

I recently left my job working with Chicago’s homeless, and learned a lot in the past couple of years working directly in the system.

During the first year, it was my job to form a Youth Action Board. A Youth Action Board (YAB) is a critical part of Continuum of Care (CoC) funding for agencies to get the money they need to house people. It was December of 2020, middle of COVID, and I was assigned to go out and find homeless youth aged 18-24 to participate in the YAB. The YAB’s core function is to receive lived experience expertise from the youths who actually live on the streets. Remember, most kids are on the streets because they’ve been made to believe living on the streets is safer than any other option they have.

A lot of homeless youth were placed in hotels and motels during COVID, so I went out to see if any of them wanted to join the board. These motels were often in dangerous areas, and there were people and groups you knew to avoid. I’ll never forget the first two men I met who agreed to join. I carried around $25 gift cards from my organization to get them to speak with me for ten minutes about joining. One was 16 and the other was 18. They didn’t really have any family and both were working on figuring out a way to get to Oregon. I met with them about four times.

They were funny, sweet, and always willing to share their experiences. They had been on the streets for a year. They grew tiny tomato plants in the window of their motel room.

Every time I came with the gift cards, they would be happy, because it meant they would be able to eat that day. On one occasion, I brought donuts because one of them had a birthday coming up.

He looked confused and sad and happy at the same time. He whispered, “This is the first birthday gift I have ever received.”

Anyone who claims that homeless youth need to “grow up and get home” is an asshole.

One little girl, who was probably about 11 years old, met me in the parking lot of her motel for a gift card. It was probably 10 degrees with massive wind chills. (Chicago winters are no joke and the amount of homeless people that die on the streets is heartbreaking.)

She came out with no shoes and a flimsy little sweatshirt. She didn’t say a word. She was scared of the men standing around the parking lot. She took the gift card, looked up at me once, and left. Her face will forever be etched in my mind—she looked like she had the entire weight of the world on her and didn’t know what to do with it.

No hope, no wonder, no thoughts of ever believing anything could be different.

I regret not going to buy her shoes every single day. I think about her often.

A year later, I switched jobs and became a housing associate in Chicago. It was here that I really learned about the ins and the outs of the homeless services system.

I worked with a team of five women who were all around my age. It is difficult to explain the type of bond we had. When you work within the social services field, there is a different kind of understanding between coworkers. Every day, we felt the weight of human life in our hands. We heard our clients’ stories, we vouched for them, we struggled when landlords couldn’t see past what was on paper. My little group of coworkers will remain the most inspiring group of women I know. I was lucky to work alongside them.

We worked with different homeless service agencies, shelters, case managers, landlords, and property managers throughout the city of Chicago. The types of discrimination I saw were horrendous.

The one question I consistently get asked is “Why are the majority of people homeless?”

It’s not because they’re lazy. It’s not because they’re criminals. It’s not because they want to be on the streets.

I have spoken to hundreds of people on the streets throughout my life, and here are a few of the main reasons people are homeless:

  • They had a rough childhood (parents weren’t around, they were abused, had no support ever, etc) and aged out of foster care with no skills and nowhere to go.
  • They have paying jobs (this is the case for many homeless), but just don’t make enough money to afford rent or support themselves.
  • They are victims of domestic violence. The amount of women and children who are fleeing domestic violence is appalling.
  • They were evicted because they couldn’t pay rent (often they have serious health issues and their medical bills are exorbitant). If you’re evicted at any point in your life, it is close to impossible to try to get a new landlord to rent to you, no matter how far you’ve come since the eviction.
  • Homeless youths are typically running away from dangerous home lives, kicked out of their homes, or don’t have a home to go back to in the first place.

One day, I went on a ride along with a couple of case managers. They are assigned to check on clients on the streets. They usually know exactly where people are hiding. We went behind an abandoned house into the woods.

Here, an older man had been living in the forest for 25 years. He had piles of things. Old children’s toys, tremendous amounts of trash, tarps, and junk lying everywhere. He had an oxygen tank and was close to 90 years old. He was a math teacher his entire life at the local high school, but after his wife died, he couldn’t stand the thought of living in his house anymore. He left his house and retreated to the forest, where he has stayed ever since. Every time the case managers tried to get him into a shelter, he refused.

Grief, especially when you have nobody to lean on, can be all-consuming. Sometimes people just want to be left alone, and that’s okay.

The landlords were a different kind of abhorrent. Some of them were helpful and really did want to get people off the streets. However, most didn’t care at all, were just in it for the money, and didn’t give two shits about where they placed people or what condition their apartments were in.

It usually takes a bit of time to get people through the application process and into apartments. We hosted AMEs (Accelerated Moving Events) where people who had received housing vouchers would come in and pick which apartment they wanted to live in. We had anywhere from 40 to 60 people at each of these events, and after they were over, it was part of my job to send over the application to the landlord of the apartment that was chosen. Some landlords had extremely strict requirements, and some had almost none at all.

I had a landlord cancel a move the day before a client was supposed to receive his keys because he hadn’t paid his $35 portion on the voucher. His paycheck didn’t come until Monday. It was Friday. The move was canceled.

We had a landlord ask if clients were “professionally homeless.” What they meant by that was—we don’t want anyone in our buildings that has been on the streets for an extended period, or wasn’t receiving benefits, or didn’t have a job.

I worked with a family who were victims of domestic violence, fleeing a dangerous situation. It was a mom and her four girls and they were moved into an apartment building. Her apartment was broken into and her youngest daughter raped by another tenant in the building.

After countless complaints about safety, the landlord did nothing. That story still haunts me.

The system is broken.

Some people wait for years (sometimes decades) before they can receive housing vouchers to get into apartments. They are chosen for vouchers based on who is higher risk, and this can look different in certain situations.

Once they get these vouchers, they still face discrimination from landlords on all fronts.

So, when a client states they want to remain on the streets, it is often a result of how many times the system has failed them. They don’t want to get their hopes up anymore for something that may never happen.

Many people make the mistake of thinking they know exactly how to help another person. You need to ask what the other person needs instead of making assumptions based on your own biases and judgments. We often have no idea what kind of past trauma people carry, and this holds true for everyone we meet. Be gentle, be kind, and be understanding.

Honestly, I don’t have a lot of advice to give. However, I have listened to a lot of stories and experienced the system as a whole.

Here are a few things to remember:

  • Housing is a human right. 90% of the time, once an individual gets into housing, their mental, emotional, and physical health improve. If you had to fight for your life sleeping on the streets every night… What would you be like? How would you interact with others?
  • Help looks different for each individual. Ask. Listen to what they need.
  • Socks and toiletries are the most requested items at homeless shelters. Drop some off next time you get a chance. Pads and tampons are vital, too. So is sunscreen.
  • Do no harm. Loneliness is the biggest factor in mental health deterioration. Don’t criminalize the houseless.
  • A lot of people struggle with housing instability, couch surfing and living paycheck to paycheck. Just because you don’t see the struggle doesn’t mean it is not there.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” —Tenzin Gyatso (Dalai Lama)

Do not make people feel unloved, worthless, or anything less than a human beings. We treat stray dogs better than we treat some people. It is not that difficult to make someone feel like they mean something. Buy someone a new pair of shoes, give someone a dollar, or even just offer a smile.

Everyone needs a little bit of hope.

Colleen Edwards loves burritos, writing, and camping and is the niece of OB Rag writer, Bob Edwards. Until recently, she worked for Chicago’s Homeless Coalition to find housing for people who are in need. She hopes to one day write for National Geographic. Follow her on Instagram: @colleenedwards.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

triggerfinger July 25, 2022 at 11:53 am

Do you expect anyone to really be honest about causing their own terrible situation in life? Of course it’s always everyone else’s fault. All my shortcomings are everyone else’s fault too. I’m an asshole for wanting traveller kids with $1200 iphones to go home and be someone else’s problem? I guess that’s because of my tough upbringing, please don’t hold me responsible for my insensitivity.

Regardless of how anyone became homeless, they need to be held personally responsible and invested in turning it around, in unison with whatever assistance can enable that transformation.

Making excuses runs counter to that effort.


Chris July 25, 2022 at 6:29 pm

Every situation is different. Yes some are homeless because of bad decisions but not all. It’s not a simple as you make it out. Also did you know BTW there are now period where active duty military go through temporary periods of homelessness? Yes it happens.


triggerfinger July 26, 2022 at 9:53 am

Agreed, but making excuses isn’t going to help their situation. i’d like to think that everyone has the same goal here of getting people assistance and self empowerment, and independence.

not giving an excuse and a dollar.


sealintheselkirks July 26, 2022 at 2:06 pm

This comment was so wrong and mean-spirited in so many ways that…I’m never speechless but the general blame-game you show in this comment requires some kind of response to the blatant ignorance and narrow-mindedness that dripped through your words.

Read these two if you will, and really think about what they are trying to get across:

Why the “Reagan Revolution” Scheme to Gut America’s Middle Class is Coming to an End

The signal was in Biden’s speech, but entirely missed by the press

Les Miserables, Living and Dying on American Streets


Dickie July 25, 2022 at 1:54 pm

This is an inspired and beautiful piece of writing. It is so choc full of information and concrete experience yet also expresses the kind of compassion and impatience that must drive our determination to resolve this intolerable situation. Thanks for sharing.


ChristoK July 26, 2022 at 3:36 pm

Your experience in Chicago has little to do with our local problem. The vast majority of the homeless issue here are not actually from here. They traveled great distances to crap on our community.

Want proof? Talk to that troll in the third picture. I have. Here is his story: Drove his old Toyota motorhome with Oregon plates here because he read how “cool it was to live at the beach in OB”. Squats his motorhome for weeks at a time in either the Tower 2 parking lot or at Rob Field right where our kids play softball. Claims he’s not part of the problem “because I pick up trash”.

He is a perfect example of someone who intentionally came to our home to take advantage of our community.


triggerfinger July 26, 2022 at 6:05 pm

I was wondering if the author and commenters even live here. They typically don’t, or used to back in the day. Total armchair quarterbacking. We see what happens day in day out and it’s inexcusable.


retired botanist July 27, 2022 at 7:14 am

Christo- Your POV makes me sad. Does it really matter where he’s from? Does that mean that if he grew up in SD, instead, and was characterized by one of the criteria Colleen points out, that you would then help lift him up? Something tells me you would still not want him in proximity to your kid’s softball game.
Is picking up trash a worthless endeavor; that is, is effort only valuable when its blessed by an office and a paycheck? Something tells me that if you were an employer, you would not hire him.
Colleen’s experience in Chicago is indeed relevant and has everything to do with homelessness everywhere in America, climate notwithstanding. Have you ever tried to rent a dwelling in the past 15 years? Do you have any idea what’s required nowadays, anywhere in the US?
Have you ever actually been in a situation where nobody cares about you, or what you do, or where you go? Because homelessness isn’t someone else’s problem, or somewhere else’s problem. Its a disgraceful, heartbreaking, national problem. I wish you could dig deeper and soften your heart.


Chris July 27, 2022 at 8:39 am

While ChristoK’s view is cold hearted, it sadly reflects a growing sentiment among many long time locals. Even in Hillcrest I have neighbors who in most regards have very progressive views but are expressing frustration with the growing homeless population. Some going so far as to say something to the effect of “the more these people are suffering the less I care about then”. In our alley, one homeless individual got punched and beaten. There will be no charges against the person who did the assault.


Frank Gormlie July 27, 2022 at 9:43 am

ChristoK – your assertion that “the vast majority of the homeless … here are not actually from here,” has been disproven by multiple surveys and studies, so your hardhearted response is way off base. Are you a Christian, as your name suggests, and if so, where is your compassion?


triggerfinger July 27, 2022 at 10:30 am

Are you a German sausage, as your name suggests?

Compassion seems to mean tolerating human depravity and self-medication/destruction, and it correlates with cities were homelessness is out of control. Maybe this sort of compassion is contributing to the problem.


Frank Gormlie July 27, 2022 at 11:46 am

Have you learned nothing about all of what’s been said of the houseless? Compassion means caring enough for those down and out because they’re human beings. (I also know that at times you make outrageous comments just to get a rise out of people. And yes, sometimes I long for German sausages. Actually, “Gormlie” is Irish and Scottish.)


Chris July 27, 2022 at 11:50 am

Somehow I know that this craving for bangers and mash to be washed down with a Harp.


triggerfinger July 27, 2022 at 3:57 pm

It’s well past due that we quit excusing this lifestyle, and put a stop to it. Time to quit being nice and kind and time to get mad and take action, and keep those who control the resources on task. All hands on deck. Whether it’s in the name of compassion or just sick of seeing it in your community, the answer is the same – People cannot be allowed to live in squalor on the street.

Caring without action is a bun with no sausage.


Frank Gormlie July 27, 2022 at 4:01 pm

Okay – good quotes: ” Whether it’s in the name of compassion or just sick of seeing it in your community, the answer is the same – People cannot be allowed to live in squalor on the street.
Caring without action is a bun with no sausage.”


sealintheselkirks July 27, 2022 at 5:07 pm


I’ve been homeless, flat out sitting with a backpack & sleeping bag along with my skateboard, surfboard, and wetsuit on the edge of Manhattan Court & Bayside Walk in MB in 1971 with not a dime or a job at 16 yrs old (you can’t legally work or rent anything at that age anyway). And it was Nixon’s Stag-flation with few jobs for adults much less a teenager. I had not a goddamned clue what the hell to do after the parents split up and moved in two different directions in a very ugly divorce.

You have no fricking idea what these people are going through, what they’ve gone through. No clue at all. I do, I know exactly what it feels like and what it does to the inside of your mind. It’s…devastating. The utter hopelessness that comes out of realizing that nobody gives a damn about you is…boggling.

A few years later two people, James the drummer and redhead Pam on Lido Court, put out their hand and helped me to come back into the world when they realized I was a pretty dang good fiberglasser fixing dings on boards. If not for those two humane beings…

Sometimes all it takes is someone with kindness inside who sees YOU to change a life.

But more to the point is that you don’t care. Unless we somehow figure out how to start caring for everything on this planet not just homeless people, you can count on extinction of the species because we were always about tribal/community supporting one another. When we lost that (and we have, nearly completely), we became less. Where we are at now I think is absolutely horrifying.

Right now it is 106.2F on my front porch thermometer at 5 pm because the wealthy sociopaths that grabbed the power to rule this world by trampling on everyone else don’t care about anything but their wealth and power and profits at all costs. Did you read the articles I posted? Especially the first one would be good for you I think.



triggerfinger July 28, 2022 at 4:25 pm

Yes I did actually. And it sounds like you are still stuck on blaming everyone else for your situation in life, yesterday it was Nixon, today it’s the wealthy sociopaths. Who will it be tomorrow?

Yes community is great and we should invest as much as we can, but when push comes to shove there is ultimately only one person who is responsible for your path in life.


Chris July 28, 2022 at 6:14 pm

As much as I don’t agree with anything triggerfinger ever posts, going back to Nixon is kind of a stretch and I think it weakens your point to bring him up. The situation you described in your story sounds like a typical dysfunctional family situation (new many people in the Navy from that kind of background) which IS a big cause of youth homelessness in all generations but has nothing to to with Nixon’s policies, as F****d as they were.


sealintheselkirks August 1, 2022 at 9:26 pm

You know something, Chris? We are such a short-lived species that generally speaking we only seem to be capable of thinking in tiny increments of time. Which leads us to not being able to connect dots because we act like history isn’t all connected. Which leads to trigger-type thinking…

And for you, trigger guy, chew on this article and LISTEN to the words in the vid link in it for a while because you need to see how history connects and influences all our lives. Being ‘stuck’ on blaming others for ‘my’ situation in life shows a distinct lack of historical background that is quite apparent in your reply, and your last sentence is ridiculous because if you’re walking down the sidewalk and get run over by a drunk that turns you into a paraplegic you certainly aren’t exactly the ultimate “only person” responsible for your path in life. Random chaos seems to be more of the rule than new age crap sayings like that. Except when it’s set up by those that profit from such a system that traps you like a spider web…

Words of wisdom from a president that I didn’t exactly like then, either, though like Biden it was either him or Ford and four years later the MUCH MUCH worse Reagan that really set us up for destruction… But Carter has certainly done a lot of redeeming of what he supported back then since that even this jaded cynical past & current history reader applauds him.



triggerfinger August 2, 2022 at 7:26 am

I’m not too interested in what commenters that lived in OB once upon a time 30 years ago have to say about our homelessness crisis.

Is there a local cause for you to get involved in?


retired botanist August 5, 2022 at 4:09 pm

Wow, Trigger, you do yourself a big disservice with that statement! Its a shame, as I think you are probably smarter than that vapid, glib comment. Whether you agree with Seal or not, if you read his comments, you surely can’t help but notice they are supported by links to further reading, links that verify his data, and usually a pretty thorough knowledge of historical politics. You may not agree with his sources, but where is your reasoned rebuttal? You aren’t interested in people who have lived and experienced the subject at hand? You aren’t interested in the subject as it applies anywhere else in the country? And finally, while it seems your point is “its not the crap that’s thrown at you, its how you deal with it. And homeless people aren’t dealing with it!” Aka “not my problem”. When people who don’t know, or people who don’t care, or people who don’t understand, respond to a POV they might not agree with, they usually fall back on a shallow comment. One can, indeed, point a finger of blame on historical events, without necessarily wearing the cloak of victimhood. And as to your previous comment on the issue of homelessness and the unsheltered, its NEVER time to quit being nice. But at least we DO agree that people should not be living in squalor. Please expand on YOUR action efforts to change this sorrowful state of affairs- that is a genuine ask and I’d like to read about it. :-)


sealintheselkirks August 2, 2022 at 2:50 pm

Of course you don’t. I expected nothing else.

Some people are born and raised in a place that stays in their heart forever. OB and MB certainly did that to me. I’m really not sure if that’s a good thing but believe me there were homeless and poverty and overdoses and brain-damaged alcoholics back then, too, that were all over the beaches. Worse when Gov. Reagan closed all the state mental health and dumped even more into the streets… That it has only gotten worse now because of the corrupt violent political/economic system we all live in…is a travesty. Forty years of neoliberal Reaganism obviously hasn’t worked worth a damn.

That I haven’t been down to OB since 2001 to bury my last relative doesn’t mean I lost the last connection, dude.

Up here we have people freezing to death every winter because it goes below zero. When people step over them they don’t even notice that they are frozen solid… Ever take out a homeless person for a meal? To a grocery store? I’ve been delivering weekly for a food bank up here since…about 2010 I guess. At one point a few years ago I had 19 families on my list in of stops, 72 people, with 35 kids all within about 15 miles.

A couple of the kids now have kids of their own and haven’t forgotten that they used to see me every Thursday with a truck full of boxes… I bumped into one yesterday who was five that did a classic double-take and hesitantly said “SEAL?” and then Milly started chatting as if it hadn’t been 7 years since I saw her last. Her mom came up and gave me a hug, too. One of those cool moments we have now and then, ya know?

There’s also a ‘houseless’ encampment 2.5 miles down the dirt road where families have parked campers and travel trailers and tents into the small tree groves who can’t afford the ridiculous rents being demanded but still go to work every day some driving 50 miles south to Spokane because that’s where the jobs are. They are squatting on corporate timber company land…

It’s everywhere, dude, countrywide, and it doesn’t look likely that it will get any better soon because, well, you of course listened to the vid of President Carter, right? Extrapolate from there…



sealintheselkirks August 5, 2022 at 2:54 pm

Reading a bit about this subject again today and this popped up. Just another reason why homeless and houseless people have been thrown off the cliff and all you see is it getting worse not better, triggerguy.

Politicians, EVEN WHEN they get the damn funding from the federal government to do something about homelessness that they’d been moaning and whining they can’t afford to do, go and dump the majority of the federal cash into what? The damn militarized police state.

Think what one would find if they traced all the funds given to cities to ‘rescue’ people, eh? Has anybody seen a list of what San Diego did with their portion? I’d be curious… Hey Geoff, here’s a challenge!

Note: I do not know the difference between Fire ‘Sworn’ or Fire ‘civilian’ but you’ll notice that Fire civilian ended up with a pittance in comparison.

So much for the American Rescue Plan Act money, eh? What you want to be
a cut:

How did Los Angeles spend the $1.08 billion it got in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds? Nearly 2/3 ($696 million) went to LA Police and Fire Department salaries. Another $240 million went to cover salaries in other departments. None went into to housing or homeless shelters.

The list:
FIRE (Sworn) $372, 262,878.00
Police $317,365,185.00
Parks & Recreation $87,696,271.09
Library $70, 597,579.62
Transportation $61,014,098.00
Sanitation $21,347,862.68
Fire (civilian) $6,911,622.29
ADMIN Costs $1,200,000.00
ADMIN Costs $181,304.80

Ain’t De-mock-racy fun? Doesn’t seen too democratic, does it.



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