About a year ago, during a staff meeting, we came up with the idea for a new feature: Each week, one of us would find someone who's homeless, get that person's story and boil it down to 400 words-long enough, we hoped, to get a point across, short enough to appeal to the average reader.
We didn't give much thought to the name of the feature, dubbing it "Homeless Person of the Week." It was an obvious title, but, if we had to do it again, we might come up with something that didn't have the potential of coming across as glib.
The goal of the feature was simple: We wanted to put names and faces to San Diego's homeless population-a group too often viewed as a homogenous population, maligned as "bums" and sometimes described in sub-human terms. As one commenter to a recent San Diego Union-Tribune story on homeless services put it: "Only by making it uncomfortable for these leaches [sic] will we get rid of them."
In all, we talked to 34 men and 15 women. The oldest interviewee was 80-year-old Rose; the youngest was 24-year-old Adrian. In each interview, we tried to get the person's backstory: How'd you get to where you are? While each person had a unique story, there were common themes, like drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness. Too many guys we interviewed were Vietnam vets suffering from long-term physical injuries and obvious (or admitted) post-traumatic stress disorder. Generally, people living on the street are folks for whom there was no safety net when they most needed it. A few talked about being bankrupted by medical expenses, such as Skip, who was in a serious car accident three decades ago at age 29. A musician with no health insurance, his medical bills ate up his savings and a permanent injury kept him from ever again working a steady job. A few female interviewees described being left in a bad financial state by a husband, boyfriend or male companion. Wheelchair-bound Sher'riee, for instance, who recently arrived in San Diego with her mentally handicapped son, said the money she'd saved up for an apartment was stolen by a guy she thought was her friend. When we met her, she was panhandling and saving up her disability checks in hopes of getting enough cash together to rent a small room.
A couple of folks mentioned making a pass through treatment programs but, for one reason or another, reverted to old habits. One man, Doug, was on his way to catch a bus to enter a program at the Rescue Mission. The last we heard, he'd successfully completed the program and was looking for a job.
Rarely did we meet anyone who claimed to prefer life on the street. The few who were able to work hoped to find a job and a place to live but recognized the paucity of affordable rental options.
Because of time constraints, we tended to focus on Downtown when looking for people to interview. There, the most lucid subjects were often near the harbor or City Hall. East Village seemed like an obvious destination to find people to talk to, but it's also where we came across folks who were too far-gone, mentally and physically, to communicate coherently.
It should be noted that no one was interviewed on-the-record or photographed without their consent, but often we were left with the uneasy feeling that some of the folks who agreed to talk to us didn't fully get what was going on.
It's estimated that between half and up to 90 percent of homeless people are mentally ill to some extent. Experts will tell you that even if a person hits the street mentally fit, after awhile the stressors that accompany homelessness are enough to trigger the onset of mental illness. But though the media lead us to assume otherwise, the mentally ill homeless are prey more often than they're predators. In a recent piece in The American Prospect, psychiatrist Richard Friedman pointed out that only 3 to 5 percent of violent crimes are committed by people who are mentally ill (housed or not). "The fact is that you have far more to fear from an intoxicated businessman in a suit than from a homeless schizophrenic man muttering on the street corner," Friedman writes.
Friedman's homeless schizophrenic would likely fall under the category of "chronically homeless"-a person who, by the Department of Housing and Urban Development's definition, is mentally ill or physically disabled and has been homeless for more than a year. We estimate that maybe three-quarters of the people we interviewed fit that definition.
A lot of lip-service has been given to the problem of chronic homelessness, most significantly by the Bush administration-which, not surprisingly, hasn't backed up words with any sort of substantial increases in funding.
Rather, that responsibility's been pushed off on state and local governments, which, at least as far as California and San Diego are concerned, don't have the money to boost services or the political will to move forward with innovative programs. Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated funding for AB 2034, a successful program that provided $55 million annually statewide to help get homeless mentally ill people off the street. Meanwhile, the city of San Diego cut its social-services budget in 2005, and it's remained at zero ever since. The county-the social-services provider for the region-has no dedicated homeless-services agency.
Indeed, a rather lofty goal of ours was to spur civic leaders to do something more about homelessness. But, like on the federal level, there's a lot of talk about what should be done and not a whole lot of action. San Diego's "plan to end chronic homelessness," which we first reported on in March 2005, seems to be perpetually stuck in a planning phase. Having such a plan in place was, to an extent, required-cities and counties that lack one won't be eligible for certain federal dollars they used to receive. The plan is based around the "Housing First" model (get people off the street and into stable housing, at which point other issues like addiction and mental illness can be addressed). The county of San Diego has yet to endorse the plan-and likely never will-and the city of San Diego handed over leadership to the United Way two years ago.
It's easy to argue that local governments are strapped for cash, but it's equally easy to say that funding social services is the right thing to do (and, actually, does result in significant long-term savings in jail and emergency-room costs, as one oft-cited UC San Diego study showed.) There's no magic bullet to solving the problem of chronic homelessness; it's an issue that requires patience. Indeed, reports from cities that have tried new programs or dedicated significant amounts of money to combat homelessness see incremental progress.
The lack of a quick solution may be why so few elected officials are willing to enact bold public policy. This lack of expediency becomes maddening when individual stories come into focus-like Henria Wilson, the former home-care nurse with cancer who lost her room at a Downtown residential motel after an extended hospital stay and for whom shelters aren't an option because of her weakened immune system (she combats street-level germs with Pine Sol spray and hand sanitizer). Henria simply needs a clean space with a bed, a bathroom (she's forced to use a bucket) and, ideally, a stove where she can cook the curries she learned to prepare in her native Barbados. She said she's on the waiting list for a Section 8 housing voucher, a process that can take up to three years. The homeless vets, obviously, deserve better from the country they served. And the fact that an 80-year-old woman is sleeping on the street at night reflects poorly on us as a society.
We've decided to end the feature-it was an assignment that none of us looked forward to for a variety of reasons. It's safe to say that we're ending on a note of frustration. As CityBeat arts editor Kinsee Morlan put it:
"It was difficult not to get involved with some of the people I met. After chatting with them, sometimes upwards of two or three hours, I felt like I couldn't just turn my back, but most of the time that's exactly what I had to do. There were a few CityBeat readers who contacted me and asked how to get in touch with some of the homeless people I wrote about, but as far as really affecting any sort of change, I'm not convinced."
To read our series on homeless people in San Diego, click here.
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