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."
"Why," I ask, "did you say that to yourself?"
"It looked exciting," van Duyne replies. "She was a woman with a shopping cart. She had all these bags. It looked like she had troubles but freedom at the same time, and no obligations. You know, she didn't have to pay rent and didn't have to worry. So in due time I became homeless because of drinking alcohol and losing my footing in life, mainly jobs and getting involved in the wrong relationships. And I went downhill, ending up in hospitals with depression."
A man is lying back with Stephen Dobyns's Church of Dead Girls, which a reviewer on Amazon.com calls a "psychological thriller." Richard D. is a fan of Michael Crichton and Stephen King too. A Vietnam vet, Richard came to San Diego from Florida, where he worked 15 years as a nurse before losing his license for cocaine possession.
"The homeless all know one another," says Richard, "so they tend to stay in groups. But the police are starting to crack down. They are trying to move us from place to place." Richard checks his books out of the public library.
It occurs to me that I should pay a visit to the books' source, the library on E Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. On my way along Seventh the next afternoon, I meet a diffident reader. He sits with a friend in the shade. He has a thick but cropped reddish brown beard and the bluest eyes I've ever seen. Though he won't talk to me about his reading, he does show me the book. It is Chuck Logan's Price of Blood. From several reviews on Amazon.com, I gather that the book is a "thriller" about a Vietnam vet turned undercover cop.
"Oh, he has five or six more books in his backpack," says Tony, 43, sitting next to his friend. "I'd rather play solitaire on this," he continues, lifting up a handheld device. "There's the Vegas or the standard type. You get more points on the Vegas. With the standard solitaire, you can deal through the deck as many times as you want, but with the Vegas you can only deal through one time. Then you lose," he says with a chuckle.
Tony doesn't want me to think that playing solitaire is the only thing he does. He says he doesn't think he will be "out here" that long, since he's looking for work too. In the meantime, at a friend's house, he keeps a collection of old National Geographic magazines. "The oldest one I ever had, when I lived in Texas, was from the 1940s," he tells me.
Tony and his friend stay most days and nights on Seventh between E and F. I wonder whether the police ever bother them. "Not very often," he says. "They'll come by to see how we're doing. They'll ask if anybody's been bothering us. It's the San Diego Partnership, they're the ones who come around and want you to move from here to over there, even if it's only five feet. If you don't move, they'll threaten to call the cops." On its website, the Downtown San Diego Partnership says that it "is a leading advocate for the economic growth and revitalization of Downtown."
When I reach the library, I see a man sitting in the sun across the street in front of the post office. The violet umbrella he holds to shield himself from the sun catches my eye. Terry, 48, tells me that "a lady in her early 20s gave it to me one day. She was going to the library. When she came out, I said, 'Young lady, you sure do have a pretty smile.' She said thanks and went to her car. She came back with an orange and the umbrella. She said, 'I can't offer you financial support, but I can offer you this.' "
Terry sleeps nights atop the post office's northwestern steps. "If it rains," he says, "I go underneath the entrance cover of the library."
During the day, Terry often goes into the library to look at newspapers and magazines, especially the bound Life magazines. He remembers seeing issues from as far back as 1936, but his favorites date from the 1960s and 1970s. In them, he can read stories about "the moon landing, the Beatles, the clothes and fashions of those times, the cars. The magazines have the costs of things back then too, which is interesting for comparison." Other homeless people Terry knows "jump on the trolley and go to libraries all over the city. Some have laptops and take them into the libraries to work," he says.
Until four months ago Terry had a telemarketing job raising money for homeless veterans. He has a good chance, he says, at "getting another job fund-raising for blind kids, if I can get a roof over my head. Things will work out."
The cops don't bother Terry much at night, asking him at most occasionally to " 'take your stuff and move on.' But it's hard to sleep here on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night. A lot of the clubs are west, closer to downtown, on E Street. Where do they park? Where it's quiet, away from the clubs. But sometimes there are fights between the guys who've been drinking -- and the girls too. And in this wooded area behind me," he says, turning toward the post office shrubbery, "there are 1000 rats, at least, that live underneath the ground. At night they come out looking for food. The girls -- and some of the guys -- start screaming when they see them. And since they've been drinking, they'll squeal out in their cars or throw up around here. Last week a guy threw up in somebody's car. And you hear the sound, the retching, I guess."
Toward evening I wander back to Front Street, where the few homeless who have arrived so far are fretting over a rumor that the cops plan a sweep tonight. I learn that, although the police do issue tickets for sleeping on the streets, they are mainly looking for felony warrants. Nevertheless, one man tells me he doesn't want the cops to disrupt his sleep. "The judge is going to rule on my case in the morning," he says. "I'm trying to get 12 years' back SSI [Supplemental Security Income]." The program, according to its website, "is designed to help aged, blind, and disabled people who have little or no income" with "cash to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter."
I run into Beverly Griffin again. She has a different James Rollins book. It's called Excavation, another adventure. "I told you I don't read real-world stuff," she tells me. "I wouldn't read something like The Color Purple. If I can, I'll get a science fiction book, so I can even get off the planet."
In the meantime, police have scattered the Front Street group. Many of the homeless moved one block over to Union Street. A week ago the police came again, taking their pictures and demanding they move on.