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While San Diego’s homeless people wait for the City to provide winter shelter, they need, among other things, to go to the bathroom. And there are precious few places to do it. Anyone who meanders through East Village knows the dispossessed aren’t the only ones who suffer from this situation. As I mingle in a crowd of homeless folk in the shade of trees across from the Neil Good Day Center on 17th Street, light breezes carry the odor of human waste to everyone’s noses.

There are scores of people lingering aimlessly on both sides of the street. Stephen, a lithe young man with a curious twang, tells me what happens after Neil Good closes for the night. There are two Porta Potties in the area for 300 to 600 people, he says, “during that critical time between eight at night and six in the morning.” Lines form to use the facilities, says Stephen, but they’re not too long “because by the time people walk several blocks from where they’re sleeping, they can’t wait anymore.”

The outhouses were installed in September 2008 by David “Water Man” Ross, now notorious in San Diego for advocating relentlessly on behalf of those without homes. The City will not allow Porta Potties on its property and has refused to provide financial help to put them anywhere else. So Ross, who is 71, cut a hole (with permission) in the fence that surrounds God’s Extended Hand, an organization that feeds people daily at 16th Street and Island Avenue, and placed the toilets just beyond the sidewalk. Last April, Ace Parking allowed Ross to put two more Porta Potties on its lot at 11th Avenue and C Street. He pays the $300 monthly rental for each set largely from his Social Security income.

Kelly Myers, 33, who has been on the streets since 2004, remembers the times before the Porta Potties arrived. People would excrete almost anywhere on the ground, she says, “behind Dumpsters, between cars, in the bushes. If the cops see you going to the bathroom outside, they can arrest you for indecent exposure. There are pregnant women out here and women with bad bladders who can’t hold it. It was so terrible. So I really appreciate the Porta Potties, even if there aren’t enough of them.”

In 2000, Myers came to San Diego from Oklahoma with her mother, father, four siblings, and a one-and-a-half-year-old child of her own. At first they all stayed in a motel — until the money ran out. “We had no understanding of what rents were like out here,” says Myers. “After a while, we’d have to leave the motel and sleep outside. Both my parents got terrible spider bites lying on the ground. Then my father would send all us kids out to ‘spange’ [beg for spare change]. You could sometimes make $50 a day by spanging. Other days you might make a dollar.”

I speak with two dozen people. One man tells me he had a successful contracting business. “I kept learning new construction skills,” he says, “but I couldn’t handle the business side, all the paperwork, and I went under.” Then came a breakup with his wife.

The homeless population seems to divide roughly into three categories: the mentally ill, the long-term unemployed, and alcohol and drug abusers. Kelly Myers has little use for the addicts. “They’ll come and steal your stuff while you’re sleeping,” she says. “You might wake up and have no shoes.”

Many of the people I’m speaking with come from other parts of the country — Wichita, Kansas; Saint Louis, Missouri; Illinois; the Northwest. They come for San Diego’s warmer weather and then discover what it’s like to spend all night outside in January. “It has become a tsunami of people swarming into East Village and moving closer and closer to the edge of downtown,” says David Ross. “That’s why I wanted one set of Porta Potties near the City College trolley station.”

Ross attended a special city council meeting in mid-September to hear Mayor Sanders’s first proposals for where to put this year’s temporary winter shelter. When a suggestion was discussed for putting the shelter in an old warehouse near 14th and F streets, a woman came forward and argued vehemently against the idea. According to Ross, she was a young “classy looking” lady who “every morning before work descends the stairs of her new condo building to take her dog for a walk. And she said, ‘The first thing that hits me when I turn the corner to go up the street is the smell of urine.’ ”

Other people, “dressed in fancy suits and Guccis,” says Ross, testified about last year’s tent at 16th and Island. Druggies and dealers moved into the area in droves to take advantage. For four months, the elegant neighborhood they were promised in East Village was ruined, they said.

As an accompaniment to John Moores’s Petco Park and high-rise condo buildings, the Centre City Development Corporation, in the late 1990s, started promoting a new luxurious East Village. The corporation promised that, in response, the homeless would eventually move out of the area. It started making it rough for campers on the street, enlisting the police to keep them moving and forcing charitable organizations to cease their meal services. In late 2004, Centre City told the Salvation Army that its meal program at Seventh Avenue and E Street violated its conditional-use permit. The Army said it intended to be “civilly obedient” and stopped serving the food. Several months later, the meals began again and are still being served today.

Now similar tactics are turning up. Several months ago, a condo owner came out of his building near a spot where David Ross was handing out bottles of water. “I could see him heading in great anger right toward me,” says Ross. “He accosted me, got right in my face, and began screaming, ‘You’re the one who’s keeping all these street people here.’ I told him I only wanted to help a few hot and dry people quench their thirst. And that the real reason he was angry was that he bought into the East Village hype the City fed him and now knows he can’t get back half the value of the condo he bought. But he kept coming at me, and I thought I’d get a whooping for the third time down here. First I got stabbed. Then a cop threw me to the ground only because I questioned why he wouldn’t let me hand out water bottles. That one I finally won in court. Ironically, the only way we got rid of this new ruffian was by someone calling the police.”

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Michael Hemmingson Oct. 14, 2009 @ 3:12 p.m.

Joe -- Good piece. I have noticed, the past year or longer, an increase of downtown's homeless, obviously a result of the economic downtown, with many people looking newly homeless with packed suitcases. I have also noticed a tent city has formed at night by the downtown library and post office, two or three blocks worth, and I've never seen this before downtown in the past 15 years.


SDaniels Oct. 14, 2009 @ 4 p.m.

Hey Mike Hemmingson, an off-topic question for you:

You have written books focusing on the 60s, and I want to check out "Sin-a-Rama" for sure. Deal is I am working on the diss, and topic is Robert Smithson, earthworks artist who referenced a lot of 60s paperbacks in his 'high' art writings, and slipped funky sci-fi-and other mixed genre-related 'essays' into non-literary mags. Ed Ruscha and Dan Graham did the same kind of thing; have you explored this brief 60s phenomenon? Know anyone who has? Many thanks if you are able to give me anything, and apologies to Joe Deegan for temporary hijack of thread :)


Bookwarren Oct. 14, 2009 @ 6:20 p.m.

It degrades our city to have visitors see all the homeless on the streets panhandling. As you know, they are mostly either mentally ill, jobless or addicted. The mentally ill should be institutionalized, the jobless should be helped and given a place to live, and the addicted should also be institutionalized. Instead of a prison,if they don't want to quit, they should be put to work doing some of the assemble work we send out of the country, and be given what ever drug of their choice they need to keep working. I saw this in a prison in Mexico. This way everybody is happy.


antigeekess Oct. 14, 2009 @ 7:23 p.m.

Thanks for this story, Deegan. To recap the most horrifying parts, for those too lazy to read the whole thing:

"Five days later, Waste Reduction showed up with garbage trucks on 16th in front of God’s Extended Hand. Several homeless people tell me they were already inside participating in a required prayer service before eating, having left their belongings across the street. They came out to see their sleeping bags, shopping carts, and other items being thrown into the trucks and crushed.

Those who witnessed it say a police car led Waste Reduction’s truck and another trailed it. “They waited until those poor people went in to pray,” says Ross. “The City forces were lying in wait....

“One woman lost $4000 dentures she was still paying on. Gone in all those people’s belongings were items of sentimental value. A mentally ill woman came to me and asked if she could get pictures of her father and mother back. And worst of all, she and many others had their medications thrown out. Lots of these people don’t operate on all cylinders even while taking their meds. They won’t be able to get new prescriptions anytime soon either. And the City,” asks Ross, “wants to improve the homeless situation by throwing their meds away?"

America's Finest City? Really? What's so "fine" about it? How is it you measure that, and justify this at the same time?

And to Bookwarren, who pecked: "It degrades our city to have visitors see all the homeless on the streets panhandling."

What degrades San Diego is activities such as those described by Deegan above. Heartless, callous, selfish, and shameful. If the city of San Diego could legally get away with perpetrating outright genocide against these folks, surely San Diego would do it.

The great irony is that San Diego isn't even one of those California cities of "heathen liberals." It's a red city that votes Republican. One might also guess that it considers itself a "Christian" city.

Nice going, Christians.

"I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

-- Mohandas Ghandi


speakouter Oct. 15, 2009 @ 12:06 a.m.

To Bookwarren: You think you have such a simple solution. You obviously do not know any homeless people or have not spent any fair amount of time around them. As far as stating that the mentally ill should be institutionalized, you are extremely ignorant. Yes, maybe the super psychos, the ones that are really bad. But some of these people have more simpler types of mental illness, that are not a threat to anyone, nor do they talk to themselves. For instance, PTSD, which affects not only the military, but also affects women, who had super violent ex-husbands whom they had to go in hiding from and constantly look over their shoulder. I know many of them. They are messed up with flashbacks, etc., but they don't cause anyone any trouble, and they do not deserve to be institutionalized. The flashbacks are very troubling, even with medications, and they have not been able to maintain employent. They are waiting on their SSI, and have no where safe to go, as the available shelter beds do not even put a dent in the homeless population. They don't bother anyone, don't beg, they stay clean, they try their best not to pee and poo on the ground until they find a bathroom, but that's not always possible to get to in time. As far as helping those who have no jobs, that's a good idea, but how? There's people with homes who can't find work, because there are way less jobs than there are people available to work. Who's going to help them? There just is no simple solution because homeless people are not just lumped into 3 separate categories.


Russ Lewis Oct. 15, 2009 @ 12:40 a.m.

(#4) AG, as of the November election, over half of San Diego County's electorate was registered Democratic.

P.S.: Matthew 7:20.


Michael Hemmingson Oct. 15, 2009 @ 3:01 p.m.

Bookewarren: while your categories of the homeless hold truth, it's not true for all...we need only look at how many people have been forced into homelessness the past two years, in every city and town in the U.S., as a result of the economic collapse. The same happened in the 1920s -- not all those homeless were mentally ill, addicts or "jobless."

Many of the "new" homeless I have seen carry around suitcaes and travel bags that appear to be newly stuffed, as if they suddenly became homeless because of a loss of a job, the loss of state support, or rent that's too high. There are homeless with jobs and they jobs are either part-time or don't pay enough for people to get a room or pay first and last and security on an apartment. And if you have been homelss for a while, and your credit is nill or bad, it's tough to get an apartment. It almost becomes a Catch-22 situation.

It's too easy to label people that way. Each person out there has a unique story. Many of them are there because they messed up one way or another -- some of them are victims of the current economic climate.


Michael Hemmingson Oct. 15, 2009 @ 3:03 p.m.

SDaniels --

No books that are 60s specific, but am working on a critical look at 60s paperbacks, but the texts, not the art. SIN A RAMA, that I contributed to, is about the art and is a good one to check out.


SDaniels Oct. 15, 2009 @ 7:25 p.m.

Thanks, Mike! I'll do so, and look forward to your new book, too--which sounds like it might deal with some of the genres I'm looking at.


toshi Oct. 16, 2009 @ 4:53 p.m.

mikeh, I too have noticed an increase in the "newly homeless" since the recession began last year. These people are clearly distinct from the mentally ill and drug addicted chronically homeless. I can only hope that the city provides adequate services that will help these folks get back on their feet quickly.


cre0 Oct. 23, 2009 @ 10:38 a.m.

Please read my "blog comment" to auntsandiegospeaks about "Is San Diego a haven for the Homeless?" Please know, we don't want to be homeless. The bottomed out economy put us here.


a2zresource Dec. 1, 2009 @ 3:50 p.m.

Nobody really talked about it when I was in City College student government back in the late 80s, but we did know of some homeless students who signed up for PE classes to have a place to shower and change across the street from the Cavers' San Diego High.

Back then, clever downtown workers would sign up for any class and get the San Diego Community College District parking permit before bailing out, knowing that enough students would otherwise drop out after the first quiz to insure themselves a daily free parking space downtown for the rest of the semester.


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