Asking that her name be withheld, a woman emailed us a few months ago about a liquor store that was “bad, bad news for the community and the south end of Balboa Park.” The writer’s biggest complaint was that the liquor store “is where the homeless go to get their daily dose of alcohol and cigarettes.” Presumably, she believed the homeless took the booze into the park. For she wanted the situation corrected: “God bless America,” she wrote. “I want to get Balboa Park back. What can I do to help?”
Hoping to learn more, I asked the writer to elaborate. But two email requests yielded no response.
An old Bob Dylan phrase popped into my head: “A bullet from the back of a bush.” Nevertheless, over several days and evenings, I spent some time in the liquor store’s environs. “Be careful and don’t go into the park at night around there,” a neighbor told me. “The homeless can get violent.”
The City Liquor House is located on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Elm Street. There are two bars in the block, on the same side of Fifth. The SRO Lounge is City Liquor’s next-door neighbor. Brothers on Fifth, a more typical neighborhood bar that served food, was farther up, almost to Fir Street. (In March, the bar became Tin Can Alehouse on Fifth.)
Sixth and Elm forms the southwestern corner of Balboa Park. There, the park ground rises. I climbed a flight of stairs leading onto a shaded area. I sat on the grass in front of two men and surveyed the street, as they seemed to be doing. A number of joggers and folks walking their dogs went by.
After a while, I followed the path farther into the park. It took me to lush green lawns where five or six people sat in the sun with their belongings. None of them wanted to speak with a reporter about sleeping in the park.
To the north are a parking lot and, next to it, the spot where the park road doubles back on itself. This part of the park is called Marston Point, but two San Diego Park and Recreation workers said they call it “the loop.” They told me that cops patrol the area looking for troublemakers and people who try to camp overnight.
But as I headed for a ramp that led back down to Sixth Avenue, I saw in the bushes a small encampment with cardboard flooring. Nobody was at home.
Descending the ramp, I noticed a man on the side of the hill watching me intently. Later, upon leaving the area, I noticed him again, following my movements out of the area.
Over on Fifth Avenue, I bought a Coke in City Liquor House and stood outside. A sign on the door announced “No Loitering.” But two men sat next to the door, one in a wheelchair. As I eavesdropped, the second man asked his friend, “You want another beer?” And getting the go-ahead, he entered City Liquor and came back with two 20-ounce cans of beer. The men were still sitting and drinking when I left ten minutes later.
I came back the next day. On the corner of Sixth and Elm, in front of the park steps, I saw a man lying on the ground. A loaded pull-cart lay on its side next to him. At least he was breathing. “I’m his friend,” said a disheveled man coming up behind me. “He’s okay. He does this all the time.”
Suspecting the real action was late at night, I came back on Friday after ten. I saw few people on the street and fewer going into City Liquor House. It was early in the month, so you’d think some homeless people would still have had a little money from government checks. But outside Brothers on Fifth, a young man assured me that on other nights many homeless sat against the wall on the opposite side of the street and drank openly or out of containers in paper sacks. Even on “this side,” he said, they congregated. Then he told me that “last night two drunk guys were having sex right here on the sidewalk.” The barmaid called the cops, who came and took the pair away. It was a story that several other people repeated.
Inside Brothers, I met Leo Johnson, a retired carpenter who lived in the New Palace Hotel on the northwest corner of Fifth and Elm, across from City Liquor House. “It’s not really a hotel,” he said. “I’ve been living there for the last 12 years.” Johnson grew up in Illinois during the Depression and came to San Diego after a 20-year career in the Marine Corps. “I liked it out here because you could work all year around.”
Do the homeless who drink, I asked, cause problems in the neighborhood?
I expected Johnson to bring up the sidewalk sex. But he thought the homeless problem in his neighborhood was overblown. “There are homeless people all over San Diego,” he told me. “You know that. For instance, they’re sacked out all around where the old California Theatre used to be at Fourth and C Street downtown.”
We went outside, where we could hear each other better. Johnson lit up a cigarette. The woman I mentioned, he said, might have gotten into a conflict with the liquor store. “Or maybe she has no compassion for the homeless,” he said. “She’s probably one who’s been well taken care of during her lifetime and she just resents homeless people. So she wants to make trouble for them in some way or another, instead of leaving them alone. If you don’t like somebody, leave them alone. Most homeless are just on the downside and they can’t find a way out of it.”
The lady seemed to believe the homeless are ruining Balboa Park, I said, perhaps making it a dangerous place. But Johnson thought the park was more dangerous for the homeless than for the general public. “During the day,” he said, “homeless people lie around the park because it’s open to the public. At night, that’s not supposed to be. So they hide somewhere in there, wherever they can flop. Now that would be normal, wouldn’t it? They look for wherever they can get out of sight. Sometimes they stick to doorways. When the weather’s good, they know where to be. When it’s bad, they know where to be.
“And there are idiots who attack them. Now those guys are sicker than any homeless. They just want to kill somebody. So they pick on the homeless. ‘Who wants ’em? I’ll stab him or shoot him or pour gasoline on him and light it.’ That hasn’t happened too many times in this city, but it has happened. Some of that violence was probably over booze or dope, where the homeless got into conflicts among themselves. I remember a guy in Balboa Park a couple of years ago got stabbed over a cigarette.”
But in Johnson’s view, the homeless were not more dangerous than others. He believed that disrespectful behavior sometimes provoked conflict with them. “When asked for money,” he said, “someone will say, ‘Get away from me, tramp.’ Statements like that could set off someone who’s potentially violent, especially if they are bipolar.”
I told a story about an incident that happened years ago while I was on the town with a group of people. A filthy-looking man approached us and asked for spare change. The most professional man in our group reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked to be 15 pennies. He flung them on the ground before the man and walked on laughing.
“Yeah, stuff like that,” said Johnson, “you want to set off a potentially violent homeless guy, sneer at him with something like ‘Get a job, you bum.’ ”
I asked about the City Liquor House and its owners. “Oh, Chris and Adrianna are great people,” he said. “They don’t sell alcohol to anyone who looks too drunk.”
Back at the store, the couple’s nephew Ramiz told me he’s even tougher. “If some guys bought three beers an hour ago and they’re back in the store wanting more, I won’t sell to them.”