Rose Harrell and her son Loren sit at one of the shaded tables in downtown's Civic Plaza. They both wear floppy cotton hats to protect them from the heat; a cart holding their possessions sits just off to the side.
'Start from the beginning, mom,' Loren says as Rose, who'll be 80 in December, tells the story about how they ended up homeless.
A few years ago they were living in a trailer park in Chula Vista. 'We're not trailer-park people,' Rose says in a low voice. Theirs was a well-kept place with a small garden outside. But then they started smelling chemicals, kind of like diesel fuel, Loren says. They suspected the trailer park's manager was spraying chemicals into and around their trailer. They called the police, the District Attorney's Office and the county, but no one believed them. After Loren found Rose passed out inside the trailer, resulting in a two-week hospital stay, the two fled to the East Coast. The landlord, they said, sent two men to follow them, first to North Carolina, then to Florida then back to San Diego. He threatened to kill them. So they sold the trailer and moved into a low-rent apartment complex downtown. There, they started to smell chemicals again and noticed suspicious-looking people following them. They told the police, but, again, no one believed them. 'They looked at us like we were crazy,' Rose says.
They left the apartment and have since lived on and off the street, in shelters and temporary housing. They get by on Rose's monthly $450 social security check. Loren, who's 45, has been looking for work but doesn't want to leave his mom alone—she's been attacked and had her arm and foot broken; and then, they say, there's the former landlord's hired spies always lurking nearby. With a little extra money, they could move into a residential hotel and Rose would be off the street while Loren goes to work. But first he has to work for a couple of weeks to get a paycheck. A county social worker urged them both to sign up for disability checks by claiming mental illness; they refused. 'You say you're crazy and get money?' Loren scoffed.
If Rose were on her own, she could probably get into senior housing, but she doesn't want to leave Loren. Recently, she spent a week at St. Vincent de Paul's shelter while Loren slept on the street. He was arrested and thrown in jail for five days, charged with illegal lodging, but Rose didn't know that—there was no way for him to get word to her. 'I was going out every day looking for him,' she says.