San Diego 'I love to read," says Beverly Griffin, with a glance up from the bedding she is arranging against a chain-link fence behind the sidewalk on Front Street. As many as 40 homeless people will sleep tonight on this stretch of Front between A and B streets downtown. "A homeless woman is not going to read a book," continues Griffin with indignation in her voice. "Is that what people think?"
Others begin meandering over to the curbside site and settling in for the night. It is 5:45 p.m., 15 minutes past the hour the campers say police have told them they're allowed to arrive. Behind their hangout are two parking lots that serve San Diego Central Courthouse employees. At Front's intersection with A, several men sit on their belongings, smoking and gabbing. In the middle of the block, a man lies on his side staring into a folded newspaper.
From the placement of her bookmark, Griffin appears to have read the first third of Sandstorm, a thick novel by James Rollins. "I read to escape, to get away from everyday things. I don't read the regular things. And I don't read romances," she says.
Griffin, who is 45, characterizes Sandstorm as "an adventure novel. Action, adventure, very nice. And you notice it's from the San Diego Public Library," she tells me. "Every year or two, we have to get our library cards renewed. Last year I got my card renewed, but my address is Rachel's, a [daytime] shelter [for homeless women]. That's the only mailing address I have. So the library considers us transients. They were going to limit me to two books a day. And I told them, 'I've been living here 20 years. Why should it make so much difference, now I'm homeless, that you're going to limit me to two books?' They said, 'You might lose them or might not bring them back.' And I asked them, 'Can't that happen if you're living in a home too? All kinds of people don't bring back videos or books or whatever.' So they lifted their restriction for me. But other people, like my friend Blanca, can only check out two books at a time."
Blanca Parks, 42, leans against the fence several feet away. She is paging through Handicapping by Example: How to Pick Winning Horses in a Variety of Situations Where a Standard Handicapping May Not Apply. The book's author is William L. Quirin, Ph.D. "My dad used to train horses, but he passed away about five years ago. I got the book at the library. No troubles there," says Parks, insisting she always takes books back on time.
I ask Parks how long she's been on the streets.
"Homeless three or four years," she says. "What caused it? My stepmother hit me in the back with a broomstick. She was drunk, and I kept telling her I was getting sick. My cholesterol was going up, but she didn't listen to me. So I called for help, and they took me to the wrong hospital. The doctor, he gave me the wrong pills, penicillin, and I got sick. I got my eyes like this, real bad. My friends are worried about me."
Parks pulls thick glasses aside to show me her left eye. It appears to have shrunken in its socket. I want to know more about her going to the hospital. "Was it something about the cholesterol?"
"Yeah, it started from right here," says Parks, pointing to her calf. "I was too fat right here then. And I thought, 'Maybe it's from the cholesterol or something.' Really painful. It made me go down, and I told [my stepmother] so, but she didn't listen, and I had to go by myself. But the doctor gave me the penicillin. I'm allergic to it now."
I ask the men talking at the corner how safe this stretch of Front Street is throughout the night. Eddie Richardson, 43, points behind us to a courthouse wing on the far side of the parking lot. "They have wall cameras up there that watch us. There was a time when we had a problem. Some young kids were going around kicking people, and the sheriffs just came running out of there, because they saw it on their cameras. I've been here at this spot for almost ten years, off and on," he says. "The sheriff's department lets us stay here. And it's pretty safe."
Beverly Griffin agrees, but for a different reason. "The people here aren't doing drugs or drinking, most of the time," she says.
"Does it help," I ask, "that sheriffs are nearby?"
"No. Matter of fact," she says, "I think some of the prisoners leave the [county jail] down the block and come over here to sleep. Those are the guys who don't have blankets or anything. You figure they just came out of jail. 'Cause they'll be out here in the middle of winter with nothing to sleep on or sleeping on the edge of our blankets."
I spot a woman toting a paperback that must be three inches thick. She doesn't want to speak of the novel -- or about her personal circumstances. But she does want to discuss how she thinks safety for homeless women is compromised by occasional police "sweeps." "I reminded a police person," she says, "who I think was from the sheriff's department, that by telling us women every now and again that we have to move and cannot stay here any longer he was forcing us to move to more dangerous areas. We would have to go down to Imperial Avenue or Market Street, where there are empty lots and people who do drugs and commit a lot of illegalities. Here the ladies pick up after ourselves, and we try to get out of here as early as they want us to. It used to be 5:30 in the morning. Now it's 5:15."
Ruth van Duyne, 60, tells me that she doesn't read much, except classified ads, especially those advertising jobs and apartments. "But in 1988," she tells me, "I saw this bag lady on TV, and I said to the Lord, 'I want to become a bag lady.' I didn't know He was going to take me at my word. Well, I became a bag lady."