The Aliso Creek Rest Area. "The area is well lighted, has public rest rooms, twenty-four-hour catering trucks, running water, and a minimal police presence..."
“What is a bum?” asks Jo, a short, animated, talkative man of thirty whose troubled life has included a stint in prison for possession of illegal drugs, a broken marriage, and a recent flirtation with suicide. Jo says he is one of fourteen more-or-less permanent residents of the Aliso Creek rest area, located on northbound Interstate 5 about eight miles north of Oceanside. “I live here,” he says openly, insisting that he cannot understand why that would be a problem for anyone.
Jo works as a volunteer at a canteen truck operated by the New Hope Spiritual Center of Palm Springs. He’s an effective public-relations agent for the New Hope ministry, which he says has promised one day to find him an apartment and send him to school, where he can learn a marketable skill. In the meantime, he says, New Hope provides him with food, an interesting job, and the very clothes on his back — which he says is plenty compared to what he had before another New Hope volunteer, living out of a car with three others, rescued him as he sat one night about four months ago pondering whether to blow his brains out with a handgun he had stolen somewhere in San Diego. He frowns quizzically, holds out his arms, palms up, and asks how anyone could consider people like that “bums” just because they make their homes alongside an interstate highway.
Other rest-area dwellers say it was Jo who first offered them comfort and advice when they pulled into the Aliso Creek rest area in varying degrees of desperation during the last four months. There is the young couple from Washington who came to California “to start a new life” that has yet to materialize. When they drove into the rest area about two months ago, almost out of gas, they were without food, shelter, or money. In addition to helping them survive, they say, Jo tipped them to a way to pick up a little spending money: cleaning the windows of trucks for a two-dollar fee.
It was Jo who taught survival skills to a nineteen-year-old Minnesotan named Jeff when he drove up one night in similar circumstances. Jeff says he came to California a few months ago to visit his brother, a sailor stationed in San Diego. His stay is only temporary; he plans to drive his blue van back to Minnesota after spring. Jeff wants a chance to check out the women of Southern California when the weather improves before heading home, he says.
On a recent chilly night, Jeff pointed toward a distant corner of the rest-area parking lot and noted the flickering of a television set. The set belongs to another rest-area dweller, says Jeff, a sixty-five-year-old social security pensioner who hooks his TV up to the battery of his battered Dodge. “Pretty smart, huh?” Jeff asks in obvious admiration. “The man is smart. He knows what he is doing.” Jeff notes with pride, however, that, while the older fellow rarely leaves the rest area, he only stays there at night because during the days he scouts about for various odd jobs. Others living at the rest area include, according to Jo and Jeff, an artist and a mechanic.
The California Highway Patrol, which regularly polices the rest area, agrees with Jo’s population estimate of about fourteen permanent rest-area residents. The area is well lighted, has public rest rooms, twenty-four-hour catering trucks, running water, and a minimal police presence, all factors CHP officer Ted Mason says make the rest areas attractive for the homeless — especially since they often are rousted by local police when they attempt to live out of their cars in the cities.
Mason, whose patrol territory includes Aliso Creek, says the permanent residents are virtually invisible. “You might not even notice them at all,” he says, because there is nothing to distinguish them from other rest-area visitors except the length of their stays. Although in the jurisdiction of the San Diego County Sheriffs Department, the nearest sheriffs substation is about twenty miles south in Encinitas, so the CHP handles almost all primary law-enforcement activity at the rest stop until there is a crime of sufficient magnitude to summon a distant sheriffs deputy. “We have had everything from panhandling to robberies and murders,” says Mason. But he doubts whether what he calls “the rest-area people” are implicated in any of the serious crimes. In fact, Mason says, at least one rest-area dweller was the victim of a mugging that ultimately claimed his life. There have, says the highway patrol officer, been a few rock-throwing incidents among the rest-area people over territorial rights to collect aluminum cans, but even those incidents occurred at the southbound site across the freeway, which has fewer permanent residents and is generally a rowdier place.
Although the California Department of Transportation, citing the authority of the state vehicle and streets and highways codes, has posted regulations prohibiting stays of more than six hours in any twenty-four-hour period, Mason says, “We don’t look at that too hard.” Instead, he says, the CHP sticks to traffic regulation. “About the only way we get involved with them at all is if they have no current registration or have abandoned a vehicle,” he says.