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.”
On September 17, the City’s Waste Reduction and Disposal Division posted notices in East Village that soon “City-owned property will be abated of all waste.” If “items of personal value” were not removed in time, stated the notice, “They will be removed by City forces.”
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. The sad part is that former Central Division police captain Chris Ball would never have done something like that. He was such a great help to the people down here, and they respected him for it.”
But only weeks ago, Ball was transferred north to a beach community. He was replaced by Captain Mark Jones.
“The changeover in the Central Division was not simple career planning,” says Ross, who claims the department has recently betrayed a realization that taking people’s property was counterproductive. “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?
“In defense of the police department,” he continues, “I will say this. For years, the City has failed to adequately address the homeless problem. Then, every once in a while, it tells the police to go out and do something about it.”
The dodgeball approach to homelessness seems to be playing out again as Mayor Sanders tries to put the onus of finding a winter-shelter site on councilmembers, while they in turn have refused to identify possible sites in their districts. So the mayor gave them a list of 27 sites that are spread throughout the city. He demanded they choose one of them by Tuesday of this week.
Councilman Kevin Faulconer made it clear he didn’t want the temporary winter shelter in his downtown district anymore. He offered to allow the long-planned homeless “intake facility” to be built in his district. But he sometimes talks as though the existence of a permanent facility near downtown would be a convenient excuse for bringing back illegal-lodging arrests for those who don’t make it into the shelter.
Faulconer has also said he’s not interested in temporary solutions. Problem is that the permanent shelter is probably four years away.
“We have immediate needs right now,” says David Ross, “and bathrooms are high on the list.” By staking out his Porta Potties for a few hours occasionally and observing their use, Ross has estimated the number of times they have been used in a year. His figure is 130,000 times. “If you brought in moving vans and filled them with the human waste that would otherwise remain outdoors,” he says, “they would haul away 30 tons. But Faulconer isn’t interested in temporary solutions. It would cost the City no more than $40,000 to get the shit off the streets. My problem was that I didn’t ask for $40 million. Then I’d have probably had it the following afternoon.”
Outside God’s Extended Hand, I speak with Dennis and Cassandra, a married couple who met on the streets. Dennis, originally from Iowa, served three tours of duty in Iraq before being discharged from the Marines at Camp Pendleton two years ago. He then got several sales jobs, which he lost before becoming homeless. Cassandra is a Navy veteran who went to work as a hospital nurse after her military service. But she quit, she says, after a doctor at the hospital repeatedly harassed her sexually.
Cassandra is now pregnant. “If she or any other pregnant woman out here takes her pants down in the bushes to go to the bathroom,” Ross tells me later, “she is vulnerable to psychopaths who might rape her or punch her just for the fun of it. If she tells the cops about any incidents, they’re likely to say, ‘Don’t take your pants down in the bushes.’ But where is she supposed to go to the bathroom?”
Meanwhile, the Water Man has taken another beating. Early last week, Ross says, he was handing out water bottles when he spotted a woman being kicked to the ground near 15th and C. “I yelled at the guy to stop,” says Ross, “so he came after me, hitting me on the side of the cheek bone and then running off. I got one good punch in, though. It was about nine o’clock, when these drug dealers start showing up down here. They’re like cockroaches, waiting until dark to come out.”
After a trip to the doctor, Ross learned his cheekbone had been pushed into his nose. Both were broken.