Dusk at 28th and L, at least during my brief visit, was peaceful. Residents chatted in subdued tones; a nightly reunion, of sorts. Surveying the lot, I saw a cluster of black folks socializing as if coming from church. Near me was a guy in his 60s, deeply tanned and wearing a tank top; he looked as if he’d spent the last decade fishing off the pier, and I might’ve asked, but something about his face told me that, even in this public space, there were remnants of privacy. He unlatched the tailgate of his beat-up pickup, crawled beneath the dented camper shell, and eased down until his back was flat and his toes were pointing up into the westerly breeze.
A few feet away, Smith, along with a paid staffer and a volunteer, sat at a table near their old van. It felt more like a trailer park on tranquilizers than a homeless encampment. Although adjacent homes had bars on the windows, it didn’t seem threatening — locals barbecuing, Norteño wafting from across the street, and kids scurrying around on bikes.
Smith notes that the site hasn’t been uniformly serene. “At the beginning, we had some shootings and stabbings in the neighborhood. But it’s pretty quiet now.” Osiris Murillo, for one, appreciates the security. “When I was staying in my car on the street downtown, people tried to break in. I could only sleep for ten minutes at a time; I tossed and turned all night.” But safety has its price: on the Dreams for Change lot, there’s a long list of rules, including zero tolerance when it comes to booze and drugs. Smith defends the paternalistic approach, which bars even a casual drink or two. “Their focus should be on things other than partying.”
According to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, San Diego County plays host — with varying degrees of hospitality — to around 9000 homeless people. (The latest HUD-mandated yearly tally, the “Point in Time Count” — done at the end of January 2011 — recorded 9020, with 4039 in shelters and 4981 elsewhere.) For 839 of the “unsheltered” (to use task force lingo) home is in a vehicle. When I asked Peter Callstrom, executive director of the task force, whether living in one’s vehicle offers any advantages to shelter life, he replied, “Either situation is the last place anyone wants to be.” Callstrom says that most of the county’s motorized transients congregate in the city proper, with a concentration downtown and at the beaches — Mission, Ocean, and Pacific. But wherever the downwardly mobile (some call them “rubber tramps”) hang, the common thread is the constant battle to stay invisible, as far away from the prying eyes of nosy neighbors, thieves and marauders, and patrolling cops.
It’s the police that make things tough, say car-dwellers, by issuing sleeping-in-a-car citations. Lars, a trim, 40ish fellow with a silver ponytail, said, “Around Pacific Beach, everyone knows about ‘Sergeant Summers.’ She’s infamous for hassling people who live in their cars.” To be fair, he notes that not all San Diego Police Department officers are malevolent when it comes to dealing with (or better yet, ignoring) locals who live in their cars. “Cops are people like everybody else. Some will go out of their way to help you.” But, according to many who live in cars, when the long arm of the law extends to those at the bottom rungs, bad situations have a way of getting worse.
“Bad situations,” car-dwellers will tell you, always start with the prosaic, the mundane — jobs that disappear, roommates who don’t pay the rent. For Lars, it was the demise of his employer in October 2010, which in turn led to unemployment benefits, the typical series of futile job applications, and then, the inability to pay rent. Lars says, “I was working as a shuttle driver at the airport for a rental car company. Then they folded. I’d been living in a studio apartment in Little Italy, but unemployment doesn’t go very far in San Diego, so I moved in with a girlfriend up in Escondido. Then, some things happened, you know…”
What does local law enforcement have to say about San Diegans who live in vehicles on the street? Many of the mobile homeless are convinced that the San Diego Police Department targets them for harassment. (Warren says, “I believe that 50 percent of the cops in San Diego, their job is to get the homeless out of the state.”)
However, according to Sgt. Rick Schnell of the SDPD’s “HOT” — Homeless Outreach Team — that’s not the policy. Schnell, who speaks with palpable sympathy for San Diego’s down-and-out, states: “We don’t have patrols going around looking for people living in their cars. If an officer comes out, it’s because of a radio call, a complaint. Someone will call and say that there’s a guy sleeping in a car in front of a home or a business.” But it’s a low-priority item, says Schnell. “We typically deal with people who are worse off, those who’ve already lost their car.” Still, now and then — perhaps two or three times a year — the Homeless Outreach Team encounters families with kids lodged in a vehicle on the streets. “We refer them to the [San Diego County–run] Family Resource Center at 12th and Imperial. Not that it’s illegal to have kids when you’re homeless.”
Schnell acknowledges that, due to what he calls a “series of bad events,” a car may be impounded if the registration has been expired for a year, or if five or more parking tickets have accumulated. When a car is seized, “it makes things even tougher for them. Now [they really are] homeless — they have nowhere to go. It’s the last straw.” On the other hand, Schnell also suggests that a vehicle can be a hindrance for the otherwise dispossessed. “A car can be an anchor, because some people have to spend all of their money on gas and repairs instead of food.”