In November, shortly before Thanksgiving, the City of Chula Vista sent heavy equipment and personnel to clean out homeless encampments in the Lower Sweetwater Valley. Tractors and trucks worked all day and then returned about a week later for another sweep. The area is an open-space area, partially owned by the city, which is used by bicyclists, joggers, and birders.
After the city was done, eviction signs were posted at the entrance to the valley: one forbade trespassing and the other notified people that they had 72 hours to pick up their belongings.
Throughout 2013, the number of people without homes increased along Chula Vista’s main drag, Third Avenue. A favorite hangout for many is in front of the city’s museum, which has limited weekly hours.
The Third Avenue location has two benches that catch the early morning sun; there used to be a public fountain, but the city removed it; there used to be tables, but the city removed those.
Early on January 3, homeless people began to emerge from self-made shelters. I tried to speak with a woman wearing oversized blue sunglasses and a red hat who was scootering from trash can to trash can searching for food; she declined to speak.
When I approached the museum area, which fronts Memorial Park, there were three people: one young, long-haired person lying behind a bench and two men sitting on the benches, soaking up sun.
I said I was from the Reader and I was interested in learning what kinds of Chula Vista homeless services they were using, if any.
Suddenly, a man rushed over to tell his story. Thin, with smudgy glasses and a Levi’s jacket with a sooty faux-fur collar, he said his name was Kenneth. He said that he and his wife and son had lived in an apartment not far from the park, at 527 Park Way.
He said on that September 13, 2013, a fire broke out in the apartment. His wife, who was 58, died in the fire. He hopes to succeed in a wrongful death lawsuit.
After the tragedy, Kenneth said he went and stayed in a homeless center in Oregon for a while.
“They fed me well, but the place had bedbugs.”
He returned to Chula Vista on November 18 and said he takes comfort in sleeping near the apartment where he lost his wife.
“Christmas was a very somber occasion,” said Kenneth. “I didn’t get a Christmas dinner, and this is the first time in 23 years I haven’t been with my family.”
Asked if he’s accessed any homeless services in Chula Vista, Kenneth said he hasn’t thought to yet. He’s aware of St. Vincent’s downtown, but “they kick you out at 6:00 in the morning to wander the streets of San Diego.” Kenneth said he has lived in the area since 1968 and considers Chula Vista his home “whether I’m sleeping on the side of a building or in a mansion.”
Eddie has become almost a permanent fixture on these benches. Everyone who passes by greets him by name. He said he’s originally from Los Angeles, but the Navy brought him to San Diego.
“I was in the regular Navy for ten years and then in the reserves for another eleven.”
Eddie said he’s had a string of hard luck. He’s been on the streets since June, when he and his girlfriend lost their apartment; before then, he lost his wife and then his job. He said, as far as services go, he gets food stamps and that two churches in Chula Vista (St. Rose of Lima and another one on Fifth and E) give food to the homeless several days a week.
He thinks he may be eligible for veterans’ benefits but he needs to go online to sign up for them. I suggested he use the computers at the Chula Vista library, but he said, “Have you ever tried to use them? They’re slow as a snail. They’ve got so many viruses in their mainframe, it’s not even funny.”
Another complication, Eddie said, was that his bicycle is crucial to getting around and it transports all of his belongings; parking his goods outside the library for a prolonged period would be risking everything.
Eddie said he sleeps in a walkway with a pretty good eave. When it rains he has a mylar blanket.
“But New Year’s Eve was cold, down around 35 [degrees]. I crawled in my mummy bag and usually I get warmed up, but not that night…. I was afraid I was going to get hypothermia…. There’s some buildings here,” Eddie said, gesturing to Third Avenue, “that don’t have any occupants. Chula Vista could open one of them up for the homeless to stay in. And, I suggested it to a detective that came here one day.”
Eddie said many of the people who hang out in the area have been ticketed. “Officer O’Neill drew the short straw for harassing us. He’s wrote so many tickets, that many of his tickets was dropped because he doesn’t show up to court.”
Eddie said he and a few others have received tickets because their bicycles weren’t registered.
“There’s definitely been an increase of homeless in Chula Vista,” Eddie said. His observance corresponds with the annual count done by the San Diego Homeless Project. The count is done only one night a year. In 2012, the number of homeless counted in shelters, vehicles, or hand-built shelters in Chula Vista was 426; in 2013, the number rose to 495.
The Reader made a public record request to the City of Chula Vista to find out what agencies operate to assist the homeless that are funded by local, state or federal money. Below is the response:
“In fiscal year 2011-12 and 2013-13 the following agencies received funding from the HUD Community Development Block Grant and Emergency Shelter Grant funds to assist local agencies in providing homeless services. Following is a list of the agencies:
CDBG: Regional Task Force on Homeless: $3,000 (11/12) and $3,000 (12/13)
CDBG: Lutheran Social Services Project Hand: $10,000 (11/12)
CDBG: South Bay Community Services Food Program: $10,000 (11/12) and $10,000 (12/13)
CDBG: Interfaith Shelter Network Rotational Shelter Program: $10,350 (11/12) and $10,350 (12/13)
CDBG: South Bay Community Services Homeless and At-Risk Youth Services: $34,550 (11/12) and $34,550 (12/13)
ESG: South Bay Community Services Casa Nueva Vida Shelter/Services: $83,621 (11/12) and $83,621 (12/13).