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Invaders from Vermont Street bridge knock on our door

I break up canyon camp

We’d grown accustomed to having hundreds of strangers pass fewer than 20 feet from our front door, every single day, and into the late hours.
We’d grown accustomed to having hundreds of strangers pass fewer than 20 feet from our front door, every single day, and into the late hours.

The first time he knocked, my wife and I were brainstorming dinner ideas. He must have approached cautiously, or the creaky porch would have given him away. As it was, our conversation choked to a halt at the abrupt tk tk tk on the glass front door. The raps were assertive, but not urgent; only his knuckles on the glass, not his palm or fist.

“Delivery?” I wondered aloud. We’d been in quarantine, and it had been days since anyone had knocked for any other reason. I peeked through the blinds to see a tall man with blond hair, wearing long denim shorts and a navy windbreaker. He stood just below the porch, with a foot planted on the second step. One hand shielded his eyes from the porch light, the other held a skateboard loosely at his side.

He’d been saying something, but it took me a moment to process exactly what. So when he repeated himself, he shouted. “Call me a taxi? Yellow cab? Will you call me a yellow cab? I lost my phone over….” He gestured back to his left, pointing toward Hillcrest, which sat just on the other side of the pedestrian bridge that emptied into our front yard. It starts where Vermont Street ends, and we lived in the last house on the street — a pale blue bungalow at the very edge of University Heights.


The Vermont Street Bridge spans some 416 feet over both Washington Street and an on-ramp to the 163. On one side: a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes situated on quiet streets that dead end into ravines. On the other: the commercial heart of Hillcrest. More specifically, the parking lot behind Trader Joe’s, which itself sits at the rear of a busy retail center on University Avenue. The Hillcrest History Guild notes the cobalt-blue-and-steel concrete bridge was completed in 1994, to some design acclaim. The entrance is marked by cobblestone columns that echo elements seen in many of the craftsman homes found nearby. The length of its span is lit by vintage-style streetlamps. As you walk across, steel and plexiglass panels offer quotations extolling a good walk, offered by everyone from Pythagoras to Dr. Seuss.

It wasn’t the first pedestrian bridge to connect the two neighborhoods. A wooden trestle bridge erected back in 1916 had remained in service until termites made it unsafe in the late ‘70s. According to an SDSU study, the original bridge was trafficked enough to attract a Sears Roebuck store to its Hillcrest side. Its replacement was built in conjunction with the Uptown District, the mixed-use, condo-and-retail development that occupies those grounds today.

At the time the first bridge was torn down, it’s said 400 people crossed it each day. These days, I’d call that a slow Saturday evening. We had a little couch on our porch, a cozy spot to sit, sip beer, and people-watch. There would be neighbors from the University Heights side, crossing the bridge to shop or dine. And from the Hillcrest side, dog walkers would come in search of grassy lawns. Mornings and afternoons, commuters crossed on bikes or scooters in high volume, usually not at safe speeds. Late at night, we’d hear drunken revelers laughing their way home from Hillcrest bars and clubs. And on weekend mornings, our side of the bridge proved a common starting point for the Seven Bridges Walk, a popular urban trail that loops around over this and several other pedestrian bridges strung across the city’s uptown mesas.

Some people showed up to hang out on the bridge itself. More often than I would have thought, it became a backdrop for photographs: an engagement announcement, or an influencer fashion shoot involving multiple costume changes. Or a workout video. Around midnight, couples would appear: sometimes for a first kiss, more often for a final argument before walking away in separate directions. This happened often enough that the kids took to calling it “the breakup bridge.”

Point is, we’d grown accustomed to having hundreds of strangers pass fewer than 20 feet from our front door, every single day, and into the late hours. Most were decent enough to leave us alone. But it was only ever a matter of time before the someone didn’t.


“Yeah, okay,” I told the stranger who was knocking for a cab. Leery as I felt toward the out-of-sorts skater, it wouldn’t cost me anything to help him out. I looked up the number for Yellow Cab and called as the dude paced aimlessly on the sidewalk beside the bridge entrance. Since he was respecting the six-foot quarantine rule, I opened the front door to engage him face to face. “Cab company is asking for a name,” I told him flatly. “What name can I give them?”

Unless I see an obvious crime, why call the police on someone? Why call the police when it’s unlikely they’ll show up before a person wanders away?

Dean, I think he said. Anyway, that’s the name I gave to the dispatcher, taking a longer look at Dean as I did so. He was lanky, wiry, hale and youthful in appearance except for the eyebrows, which were fixed in a hard scowl, and a sunbaked face showing the first, puffy signs of middle age.

“Thanks,” he muttered, doing his best to sound at ease. “I can’t call because they got my phone.” Again, he pointed vaguely in the direction of Hillcrest and its many drinking venues. Whether he slurred a bit, or whether I simply presumed he was drunk, I can’t be sure. I almost asked, “Who got your phone?” but then I thought better of it.

“Cab’s on its way,” I told him instead, “They’ll look for you in front of the bridge. Probably be like 20 minutes. Take it easy.” I shut the door.

The small, two-bedroom rental had an open floor plan: the front door led directly into the living room, which connected to the dining room, and on to the kitchen. Due to the constant foot traffic, we kept the blinds closed as a rule, especially at night. Otherwise, once we turned on the lights, everyone crossing the bridge would be able to see right in, clear to the back door. All our blinds were closed that evening — I double checked before we started cooking dinner. But protecting our privacy also meant we couldn’t see what was happening outside, where this not-quite-trustworthy guy waited for his taxi.

Bam bam bam! came the second knocking, prompting a squeal from my wife. Bam bam bam! with his whole fist this time. “Where’s the Yellow Cab?” he bellowed. “You said you called the cab!” I hurried across to the front door and peeked through the blinds. There was his face, forehead pressed to the other side of the glass, three inches away. He sounded menacing enough, but his eyes took pains to avoid mine. “I just need to get home,” he groaned.

“What you need to do is step back from my door!” I shouted back, in a voice deeper than my natural register. “I’m trying to help you out, man!” It worked. He stepped back, and down the steps. I opened the door a few inches, keeping my shoulder braced against it. “I called your cab,” I told him, firmly. “I can’t control when it gets here. You just wait over there and you won’t miss it.” I pointed across the mouth of the bridge, to the empty sidewalk in front of the cobblestone columns. Dean muttered, and cast glum glances back at me as he ambled to the sidewalk. “Don’t knock again,” I told him from the doorway. “Yellow Cab already confirmed it’s on the way.” I shut the door, making sure to lock both the deadbolt and chain. We went through the motions of cooking dinner, but really, we stood around, nervously, waiting.


For a dozen years, I had coveted a home in this part of University Heights. Whenever I’d find myself between rentals, I’d scour the listings for anything within four blocks of the bridge, here on the residential side. I relished the idea of being able to cross back and forth from the quiet to the bustle. It seemed almost like a superpower: the ability to live in two neighborhoods at once. You could have it all: restaurant options and nightlife on one side, charming architecture and stillness on the other, and a clear delineation between them.

As it happened, by the time I got my house by the bridge, I was less interested in nightlife. I’d married a single mom who happened to live there, and my lifestyle had taken a U-turn into domesticity, including shared custody of her children. Nevertheless, I was glad to have landed in the prime location of that walkable, 2-for-1 neighborhood of my dreams. Perks included a pick of happy hour and date night destinations without having to consider parking, rideshare, or designated driving. We had a large backyard and a driveway, but I could set out on foot, and within five minutes, arrive at a bank, pharmacy, coffee shop, liquor store, FedEx, UPS, or post office. Tasked as handyman for the first time, I soon learned could make it to Ace Hardware and back twice in a half hour: crucial for a guy who reliably picks the wrong tool or fastener on the first try.

Most convenient were the grocery stores. I could walk over and replace a missing dinner ingredient within ten minutes. For bigger hauls, I would simply push my loaded shopping cart from the checkout line all the way to our front porch. In time, I came to recognize a handful of regular shoppers who had figured out they could do the same thing. I’d see them park in our cul-de-sac, walk across, then return minutes later with groceries, preferring the bridge walk to the hassle of dealing with that parking lot. I’d have to push the empty shopping cart back of course — not everyone did — but the return trip paid off. Month after month, an app on my phone noted that my daily step count had more than doubled from the same time the year before.

It took me a little longer to realize that my fantasy bridge life had a downside, or rather, an underside. I’d lived in high population density neighborhoods before, and I accepted the risks: crime, homelessness, and assorted street disturbances. But most potential dangers occurred at random, diffused by time and space across many square blocks. Living at the mouth of Vermont Street Bridge, they were more likely to funnel into a single, little cul-de-sac, with my house as the first stop.


At last, my phone rang: the cab dispatcher, calling to tell me a car was two minutes away. This disturbing episode was almost behind us. Except not quite: I looked through the front door blinds to find that Dean was no longer visible. Our porch stretched across the entire front of our house, and I became aware that it held blind spots. I peered through different sets of blinds, from different windows throughout the house. I listened for the creak of a porch plank, feeling like the cornered outlaw in a western who is trying to count how many riflemen the sheriff has brought with him. There was no sign of Dean. Finally, I opened the door, only to find both the porch and cul-de-sac empty. No one on the bridge or nearby sidewalks, either. “Hello?” I called out, “Dean? Your ride is here. man!” On cue, the taxi rolled into view, slowing to a crawl as it approached the bridge.

Moments later, dispatch called again. “I don’t know,” I told her. “The guy was here a few minutes ago.” I stepped out to look across the bridge, then over the fence into the canyon. No one in sight. “Maybe he got into a different cab?” I suggested. She chided me for wasting everyone’s time. The taxi driver glowered at me from behind the wheel, then drove off.

“Dude is gone,” I assured my wife, “But I don’t think Yellow Cab will be taking my calls anytime soon.” We returned to making dinner, for real this time.

Probably, we shouldn’t have been surprised, but we were, when, five minutes later, Dean was back, not knocking but pounding, louder than before, and without rest: bam bam bam bam bam bam “Taxi!” came his anguished howl as his fists beat the door frame. “Why are you lying to me!?” It felt like the whole frame of the old house was shaking.

I watched on my phone screen as a gaunt man wearing a leather jacket over a hoodie, crept up our steps — just six feet away from me, on the other side of the blinds. He was holding an open garbage bag, and the first thing he did as he crossed the threshold to the porch was examine the spot where we’d been keeping our shoes.

My wife grabbed her sharpest chef’s knife and ducked behind the kitchen island. Dean and I shouted over one another through the door, until he finally stopped pounding long enough for me to explain the taxi had already come and gone. “It’s too late,” I told him, pitching my voice low again, “Go find a cab on University. Don’t come back here.”

Dean stood a few moments in silence, mulling. I could see his breath fogging the glass. Then he spoke, his voice now gravelly and detached. “If there’s no taxi coming, then you better call 9-1-1, or things are gonna get bad.”


Contacting the authorities has never exactly been my go-to move. A few of the times my car has been broken into, I’ve submitted online police reports to report a theft. But when I see someone loitering, or panhandling, or looking through trash bins for recyclables, it easier to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude. I live in a big city. I know that walking on big city sidewalks sometimes means you have to step over or around some sleeping bodies. I’ve done this in Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Golden Hill, North Park, and East Village more times than I can count. But unless I see an obvious crime, why call the police on someone? Why call the police when it’s unlikely they’ll show up before a person wanders away? Why call the police about someone who is obviously dealing with mental health problems? What can the police really do about it, anyway? But this guy was begging for it.


“Call 9-1-1!” he was shouting now, “Yellow Cab now, or 9-1-1!”

“Are you hurt?” I asked, my anger and fear muddled by a moment of compassion. I looked through the blinds again. His face had reddened beneath the blond crew cut. Veins throbbed at his temples.

“Just call!” he cried hoarsely. “If you can’t get me a cab right now, you’re gonna need 9-1-1!” He raised up the skateboard like a blunt weapon, and started taking swings at the door frame, CLANG CLANG CLANG. “I’ll hit the glass next time!” CLANG CLANG CLANG. “I’ll shatter this door, and you’ll all be FUCKED!!”

He didn’t need to ask again. I dialed 9-1-1. Trying to speak calmly through the adrenaline, I explained the situation: that a man was threatening to break in and commit violence if we didn’t call the police to stop him. There was no sign he had a gun. I’d lost sight of Dean by this point, but I could still hear his wailing, and the sound of his skateboard hammering against we didn’t know what.


On a different day, a different knock had come at the door. Polite, followed by a friendly shout, “Hello? It’s your neighbor!” We didn’t recognize him, so he pointed to an unseen home around the corner — on the University Heights side. He identified himself as a volunteer with the University Heights Community Association, a community group that, among other projects, had adopted the bridge and its upkeep. Periodically, I would see them, painting or repairing the light posts lining its span, covering up graffiti, emptying trash cans when they started to overflow. In the days leading up to Christmas, they would decorate the bridge with tinsel and festive lights, and carolers would sing beside it.

The Association published a monthly newspaper, which regularly provided detailed, hyperlocal reporting on homeless activity within the neighborhood’s canyons, including under the bridge. The man at my door wanted to ask me a favor. He told me the community had been working for some time to try to keep the bridge area clean and safe, and that drug users and others would make encampments under the bridge. He told me about a retiree who had lived across the street and worked to beautify the bridge by planting a garden viewable between its columns. It was being trampled by the men who hopped over the rail to scramble down the canyon slope, there to camp beneath its concrete substructure.

He told me something to the effect that the city tries to keep the canyon clear, but people keep coming back. “Given your great vantage point,” he said, “you’re in the ideal position…” He was asking me to see something, say something. To make a call to let the city know when I spotted activity under the bridge. It made sense to ask. If activity picked up, we’d be the ones to see it. I had seen it already: a guy suddenly stopping at the end of the bridge and hopping out of sight over the rail. The same routine was more surprising when seen in reverse: the bridge would be empty, and a man would suddenly appear over the rail and be on his way. Impressively athletic, some of these dudes.

I wondered how far my stewardship was supposed to extend. Many days, one or two people camp out on the top side of the bridge, sitting on tarps or blankets and letting passersby walk around them. If you stop to look down from the center of the bridge, you can see evidence of human activity within the narrow, five-acre strip of wooded land where Washington Street and the freeway ramp diverge. The uneven ground, bordered on all sides by speedy traffic lanes, tends to be peppered with the blackened remains of fire pits, with scattered garments and trash, and makeshift outdoor toilets. From our backyard, we would occasionally see some shadowy figure moving about, lurching through the trees like a sasquatch.

Evidence of homeless encampments under the Vermont Street Bridge, including a makeshift toilet.

I told the man I would consider calling when I saw something amiss, but made no formal commitment. I was hesitant to make people’s lives harder than they already were, even if I knew whereof the man spoke. Dean hadn’t yet knocked on our door yet, but we had experienced increasingly close encounters — even if they weren’t the sort that might warrant a phone call to the authorities. It was more amusing than anything else when we woke to find several pairs of shoes stolen from our porch. They were old shoes, flip flops and slip-ons we’d wear if we stepped outside the house to let the dog out, or get something from the car. It was less amusing when my wife walked out onto the front porch to find a stranger asleep on the couch. Or when another a shirtless man with a shaved head and several missing teeth called out to me as I got into my car, aggressively demanding cash. When I told him no, he charged the car, and spit at my driver’s side window a few times before stomping angrily across the bridge to Hillcrest. Still, while these were unsettling incidents, they seemed too ephemeral to stop. Imagine asking police to investigate the guy who ran away after sleeping on your porch.


We stayed away from the windows and kept low, waiting. Dean seemed to grow fatigued; at least, he stopped hitting things. As the scene grew quiet, every creak emanating from the old house sound like a threat. I clenched a hammer in my hands, nodding reassurance to my wife while kicking myself that I hadn’t gotten the larger model. At last, red and blue lights reflected off the back of the front blinds. The next knock would come from uniformed police officers.

They had found Dean sitting on the curb a couple houses over. He had told them he was a Navy vet, that somebody had him under surveillance, that he’d abandoned his phone at the bar in case they could track it. “Had a rough night,” the patrolman told me. “Says he doesn’t know you. Seems like he just knocked on your house because it was the first place he saw.” They said they would get him out of our vicinity. They took statements, and took Dean. The block grew empty and quiet again.


A few days later, I installed one of those motion-activated video doorbells, the kind that records with a wide-angle camera. I wanted to, at the very least, see who might be outside on the porch next time. I connected the motion sensor to a spotlight as well, counting on the sudden bright light to deter anyone who might get the idea to do some creeping. That night, I was watching TV in that front living room area when I got a notice on my phone. From the couch, I watched on my phone screen as a gaunt man wearing a leather jacket over a hoodie crept up our steps — just six feet away from me, on the other side of the blinds. He was holding an open garbage bag, and the first thing he did as he crossed the threshold to the porch was examine the spot where we’d been keeping our shoes.

The motion light flared to life, but he didn’t startle. Instead, he tilted his head up to look up at the bulb, and then back down to look directly into my camera — almost like he was watching me back. His face betrayed no emotion or expression, but after a few moments, he turned around and casually walked away, taking his garbage bag with him, walking deeper into University Heights. He’d left without anything but a minor provocation, but it was too easy to imagine him scouring the porches of my neighbors’ houses. I uploaded the image of him on my porch to a neighborhood social network, and hoped he’d been deterred.

Soon after, I would call in a report about men dropping behind the bridge. But when the neighborhood associate asked me for vigilance, he did not mention, nor it did not occur to me, that the number you call to report a homeless camp is for environmental services, the agency that collects the city’s trash. Less than a week later, I heard a garbage truck outside, sometime after the onset of twilight. I looked out to see team of sturdy men, wearing gloves and layers of long-sleeved clothes, hopping the rail and climbing down under the bridge. When they came back, they were carrying tents, blankets, and assorted, meager possessions, which they then tossed into the rear of the truck, to be destroyed by its grinder. I saw them haul up a shopping cart, and the churning sets of metal teeth gnashed it and its contents to pieces like so much peanut brittle. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had filed what the city calls a Get It Done report, particular to homeless encampments.

Those reports have grown in frequency. The latest Regional Task Force on Homelessness counts show the unhoused population in San Diego has risen 10 percent since 2020, to 8427. Over the same time span, according to data shared by the mayor, the number of encampment reports have doubled, to more 5000 in May. San Diego residents are getting more aggressive about going after the homeless where they live.

Eventually, my family decided to leave the house beside the bridge and move to the suburbs. Now, we can’t walk anywhere for anything, but it’s quiet, and the only people who ring the bell are delivery drivers. At the time, we said we moved out because the encroaching homeless population had made it too threatening to our security. But when I think back, I realize that’s not quite it. We didn’t fear homeless; we feared the mentally unstable. There’s a large overlap, but it’s an important distinction. Dean the Navy vet wasn’t unhoused. At least not yet. But he was in emotional distress, and perhaps not entirely stable.

Last month, I learned there may finally be a better number to call when someone suffering mental distress comes across that bridge. The city and county have established a new protocol to send Mobile Crisis Response Teams in response to crises involving an individual’s mental health. Rather than police officers, these teams employ a mental health clinician and other professionals tasked with defusing situations and getting people into treatment. According to the county, the 2021 pilot of the program linked 110 people to treatment out of 672 calls. Around 20 percent of the mental health calls pertained to unhoused individuals.

As of this writing, the response teams are accessed through a Crisis Line: (888) 724-7240. But the plan is for these teams to be accessed as needed through calling 9-1-1. If the system had been set up on that night I met Dean, he would have had the right idea.

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St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church: to “Come and see” from the Gospel of John

I often start conversations with people at bus stops
We’d grown accustomed to having hundreds of strangers pass fewer than 20 feet from our front door, every single day, and into the late hours.
We’d grown accustomed to having hundreds of strangers pass fewer than 20 feet from our front door, every single day, and into the late hours.

The first time he knocked, my wife and I were brainstorming dinner ideas. He must have approached cautiously, or the creaky porch would have given him away. As it was, our conversation choked to a halt at the abrupt tk tk tk on the glass front door. The raps were assertive, but not urgent; only his knuckles on the glass, not his palm or fist.

“Delivery?” I wondered aloud. We’d been in quarantine, and it had been days since anyone had knocked for any other reason. I peeked through the blinds to see a tall man with blond hair, wearing long denim shorts and a navy windbreaker. He stood just below the porch, with a foot planted on the second step. One hand shielded his eyes from the porch light, the other held a skateboard loosely at his side.

He’d been saying something, but it took me a moment to process exactly what. So when he repeated himself, he shouted. “Call me a taxi? Yellow cab? Will you call me a yellow cab? I lost my phone over….” He gestured back to his left, pointing toward Hillcrest, which sat just on the other side of the pedestrian bridge that emptied into our front yard. It starts where Vermont Street ends, and we lived in the last house on the street — a pale blue bungalow at the very edge of University Heights.


The Vermont Street Bridge spans some 416 feet over both Washington Street and an on-ramp to the 163. On one side: a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes situated on quiet streets that dead end into ravines. On the other: the commercial heart of Hillcrest. More specifically, the parking lot behind Trader Joe’s, which itself sits at the rear of a busy retail center on University Avenue. The Hillcrest History Guild notes the cobalt-blue-and-steel concrete bridge was completed in 1994, to some design acclaim. The entrance is marked by cobblestone columns that echo elements seen in many of the craftsman homes found nearby. The length of its span is lit by vintage-style streetlamps. As you walk across, steel and plexiglass panels offer quotations extolling a good walk, offered by everyone from Pythagoras to Dr. Seuss.

It wasn’t the first pedestrian bridge to connect the two neighborhoods. A wooden trestle bridge erected back in 1916 had remained in service until termites made it unsafe in the late ‘70s. According to an SDSU study, the original bridge was trafficked enough to attract a Sears Roebuck store to its Hillcrest side. Its replacement was built in conjunction with the Uptown District, the mixed-use, condo-and-retail development that occupies those grounds today.

At the time the first bridge was torn down, it’s said 400 people crossed it each day. These days, I’d call that a slow Saturday evening. We had a little couch on our porch, a cozy spot to sit, sip beer, and people-watch. There would be neighbors from the University Heights side, crossing the bridge to shop or dine. And from the Hillcrest side, dog walkers would come in search of grassy lawns. Mornings and afternoons, commuters crossed on bikes or scooters in high volume, usually not at safe speeds. Late at night, we’d hear drunken revelers laughing their way home from Hillcrest bars and clubs. And on weekend mornings, our side of the bridge proved a common starting point for the Seven Bridges Walk, a popular urban trail that loops around over this and several other pedestrian bridges strung across the city’s uptown mesas.

Some people showed up to hang out on the bridge itself. More often than I would have thought, it became a backdrop for photographs: an engagement announcement, or an influencer fashion shoot involving multiple costume changes. Or a workout video. Around midnight, couples would appear: sometimes for a first kiss, more often for a final argument before walking away in separate directions. This happened often enough that the kids took to calling it “the breakup bridge.”

Point is, we’d grown accustomed to having hundreds of strangers pass fewer than 20 feet from our front door, every single day, and into the late hours. Most were decent enough to leave us alone. But it was only ever a matter of time before the someone didn’t.


“Yeah, okay,” I told the stranger who was knocking for a cab. Leery as I felt toward the out-of-sorts skater, it wouldn’t cost me anything to help him out. I looked up the number for Yellow Cab and called as the dude paced aimlessly on the sidewalk beside the bridge entrance. Since he was respecting the six-foot quarantine rule, I opened the front door to engage him face to face. “Cab company is asking for a name,” I told him flatly. “What name can I give them?”

Unless I see an obvious crime, why call the police on someone? Why call the police when it’s unlikely they’ll show up before a person wanders away?

Dean, I think he said. Anyway, that’s the name I gave to the dispatcher, taking a longer look at Dean as I did so. He was lanky, wiry, hale and youthful in appearance except for the eyebrows, which were fixed in a hard scowl, and a sunbaked face showing the first, puffy signs of middle age.

“Thanks,” he muttered, doing his best to sound at ease. “I can’t call because they got my phone.” Again, he pointed vaguely in the direction of Hillcrest and its many drinking venues. Whether he slurred a bit, or whether I simply presumed he was drunk, I can’t be sure. I almost asked, “Who got your phone?” but then I thought better of it.

“Cab’s on its way,” I told him instead, “They’ll look for you in front of the bridge. Probably be like 20 minutes. Take it easy.” I shut the door.

The small, two-bedroom rental had an open floor plan: the front door led directly into the living room, which connected to the dining room, and on to the kitchen. Due to the constant foot traffic, we kept the blinds closed as a rule, especially at night. Otherwise, once we turned on the lights, everyone crossing the bridge would be able to see right in, clear to the back door. All our blinds were closed that evening — I double checked before we started cooking dinner. But protecting our privacy also meant we couldn’t see what was happening outside, where this not-quite-trustworthy guy waited for his taxi.

Bam bam bam! came the second knocking, prompting a squeal from my wife. Bam bam bam! with his whole fist this time. “Where’s the Yellow Cab?” he bellowed. “You said you called the cab!” I hurried across to the front door and peeked through the blinds. There was his face, forehead pressed to the other side of the glass, three inches away. He sounded menacing enough, but his eyes took pains to avoid mine. “I just need to get home,” he groaned.

“What you need to do is step back from my door!” I shouted back, in a voice deeper than my natural register. “I’m trying to help you out, man!” It worked. He stepped back, and down the steps. I opened the door a few inches, keeping my shoulder braced against it. “I called your cab,” I told him, firmly. “I can’t control when it gets here. You just wait over there and you won’t miss it.” I pointed across the mouth of the bridge, to the empty sidewalk in front of the cobblestone columns. Dean muttered, and cast glum glances back at me as he ambled to the sidewalk. “Don’t knock again,” I told him from the doorway. “Yellow Cab already confirmed it’s on the way.” I shut the door, making sure to lock both the deadbolt and chain. We went through the motions of cooking dinner, but really, we stood around, nervously, waiting.


For a dozen years, I had coveted a home in this part of University Heights. Whenever I’d find myself between rentals, I’d scour the listings for anything within four blocks of the bridge, here on the residential side. I relished the idea of being able to cross back and forth from the quiet to the bustle. It seemed almost like a superpower: the ability to live in two neighborhoods at once. You could have it all: restaurant options and nightlife on one side, charming architecture and stillness on the other, and a clear delineation between them.

As it happened, by the time I got my house by the bridge, I was less interested in nightlife. I’d married a single mom who happened to live there, and my lifestyle had taken a U-turn into domesticity, including shared custody of her children. Nevertheless, I was glad to have landed in the prime location of that walkable, 2-for-1 neighborhood of my dreams. Perks included a pick of happy hour and date night destinations without having to consider parking, rideshare, or designated driving. We had a large backyard and a driveway, but I could set out on foot, and within five minutes, arrive at a bank, pharmacy, coffee shop, liquor store, FedEx, UPS, or post office. Tasked as handyman for the first time, I soon learned could make it to Ace Hardware and back twice in a half hour: crucial for a guy who reliably picks the wrong tool or fastener on the first try.

Most convenient were the grocery stores. I could walk over and replace a missing dinner ingredient within ten minutes. For bigger hauls, I would simply push my loaded shopping cart from the checkout line all the way to our front porch. In time, I came to recognize a handful of regular shoppers who had figured out they could do the same thing. I’d see them park in our cul-de-sac, walk across, then return minutes later with groceries, preferring the bridge walk to the hassle of dealing with that parking lot. I’d have to push the empty shopping cart back of course — not everyone did — but the return trip paid off. Month after month, an app on my phone noted that my daily step count had more than doubled from the same time the year before.

It took me a little longer to realize that my fantasy bridge life had a downside, or rather, an underside. I’d lived in high population density neighborhoods before, and I accepted the risks: crime, homelessness, and assorted street disturbances. But most potential dangers occurred at random, diffused by time and space across many square blocks. Living at the mouth of Vermont Street Bridge, they were more likely to funnel into a single, little cul-de-sac, with my house as the first stop.


At last, my phone rang: the cab dispatcher, calling to tell me a car was two minutes away. This disturbing episode was almost behind us. Except not quite: I looked through the front door blinds to find that Dean was no longer visible. Our porch stretched across the entire front of our house, and I became aware that it held blind spots. I peered through different sets of blinds, from different windows throughout the house. I listened for the creak of a porch plank, feeling like the cornered outlaw in a western who is trying to count how many riflemen the sheriff has brought with him. There was no sign of Dean. Finally, I opened the door, only to find both the porch and cul-de-sac empty. No one on the bridge or nearby sidewalks, either. “Hello?” I called out, “Dean? Your ride is here. man!” On cue, the taxi rolled into view, slowing to a crawl as it approached the bridge.

Moments later, dispatch called again. “I don’t know,” I told her. “The guy was here a few minutes ago.” I stepped out to look across the bridge, then over the fence into the canyon. No one in sight. “Maybe he got into a different cab?” I suggested. She chided me for wasting everyone’s time. The taxi driver glowered at me from behind the wheel, then drove off.

“Dude is gone,” I assured my wife, “But I don’t think Yellow Cab will be taking my calls anytime soon.” We returned to making dinner, for real this time.

Probably, we shouldn’t have been surprised, but we were, when, five minutes later, Dean was back, not knocking but pounding, louder than before, and without rest: bam bam bam bam bam bam “Taxi!” came his anguished howl as his fists beat the door frame. “Why are you lying to me!?” It felt like the whole frame of the old house was shaking.

I watched on my phone screen as a gaunt man wearing a leather jacket over a hoodie, crept up our steps — just six feet away from me, on the other side of the blinds. He was holding an open garbage bag, and the first thing he did as he crossed the threshold to the porch was examine the spot where we’d been keeping our shoes.

My wife grabbed her sharpest chef’s knife and ducked behind the kitchen island. Dean and I shouted over one another through the door, until he finally stopped pounding long enough for me to explain the taxi had already come and gone. “It’s too late,” I told him, pitching my voice low again, “Go find a cab on University. Don’t come back here.”

Dean stood a few moments in silence, mulling. I could see his breath fogging the glass. Then he spoke, his voice now gravelly and detached. “If there’s no taxi coming, then you better call 9-1-1, or things are gonna get bad.”


Contacting the authorities has never exactly been my go-to move. A few of the times my car has been broken into, I’ve submitted online police reports to report a theft. But when I see someone loitering, or panhandling, or looking through trash bins for recyclables, it easier to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude. I live in a big city. I know that walking on big city sidewalks sometimes means you have to step over or around some sleeping bodies. I’ve done this in Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Golden Hill, North Park, and East Village more times than I can count. But unless I see an obvious crime, why call the police on someone? Why call the police when it’s unlikely they’ll show up before a person wanders away? Why call the police about someone who is obviously dealing with mental health problems? What can the police really do about it, anyway? But this guy was begging for it.


“Call 9-1-1!” he was shouting now, “Yellow Cab now, or 9-1-1!”

“Are you hurt?” I asked, my anger and fear muddled by a moment of compassion. I looked through the blinds again. His face had reddened beneath the blond crew cut. Veins throbbed at his temples.

“Just call!” he cried hoarsely. “If you can’t get me a cab right now, you’re gonna need 9-1-1!” He raised up the skateboard like a blunt weapon, and started taking swings at the door frame, CLANG CLANG CLANG. “I’ll hit the glass next time!” CLANG CLANG CLANG. “I’ll shatter this door, and you’ll all be FUCKED!!”

He didn’t need to ask again. I dialed 9-1-1. Trying to speak calmly through the adrenaline, I explained the situation: that a man was threatening to break in and commit violence if we didn’t call the police to stop him. There was no sign he had a gun. I’d lost sight of Dean by this point, but I could still hear his wailing, and the sound of his skateboard hammering against we didn’t know what.


On a different day, a different knock had come at the door. Polite, followed by a friendly shout, “Hello? It’s your neighbor!” We didn’t recognize him, so he pointed to an unseen home around the corner — on the University Heights side. He identified himself as a volunteer with the University Heights Community Association, a community group that, among other projects, had adopted the bridge and its upkeep. Periodically, I would see them, painting or repairing the light posts lining its span, covering up graffiti, emptying trash cans when they started to overflow. In the days leading up to Christmas, they would decorate the bridge with tinsel and festive lights, and carolers would sing beside it.

The Association published a monthly newspaper, which regularly provided detailed, hyperlocal reporting on homeless activity within the neighborhood’s canyons, including under the bridge. The man at my door wanted to ask me a favor. He told me the community had been working for some time to try to keep the bridge area clean and safe, and that drug users and others would make encampments under the bridge. He told me about a retiree who had lived across the street and worked to beautify the bridge by planting a garden viewable between its columns. It was being trampled by the men who hopped over the rail to scramble down the canyon slope, there to camp beneath its concrete substructure.

He told me something to the effect that the city tries to keep the canyon clear, but people keep coming back. “Given your great vantage point,” he said, “you’re in the ideal position…” He was asking me to see something, say something. To make a call to let the city know when I spotted activity under the bridge. It made sense to ask. If activity picked up, we’d be the ones to see it. I had seen it already: a guy suddenly stopping at the end of the bridge and hopping out of sight over the rail. The same routine was more surprising when seen in reverse: the bridge would be empty, and a man would suddenly appear over the rail and be on his way. Impressively athletic, some of these dudes.

I wondered how far my stewardship was supposed to extend. Many days, one or two people camp out on the top side of the bridge, sitting on tarps or blankets and letting passersby walk around them. If you stop to look down from the center of the bridge, you can see evidence of human activity within the narrow, five-acre strip of wooded land where Washington Street and the freeway ramp diverge. The uneven ground, bordered on all sides by speedy traffic lanes, tends to be peppered with the blackened remains of fire pits, with scattered garments and trash, and makeshift outdoor toilets. From our backyard, we would occasionally see some shadowy figure moving about, lurching through the trees like a sasquatch.

Evidence of homeless encampments under the Vermont Street Bridge, including a makeshift toilet.

I told the man I would consider calling when I saw something amiss, but made no formal commitment. I was hesitant to make people’s lives harder than they already were, even if I knew whereof the man spoke. Dean hadn’t yet knocked on our door yet, but we had experienced increasingly close encounters — even if they weren’t the sort that might warrant a phone call to the authorities. It was more amusing than anything else when we woke to find several pairs of shoes stolen from our porch. They were old shoes, flip flops and slip-ons we’d wear if we stepped outside the house to let the dog out, or get something from the car. It was less amusing when my wife walked out onto the front porch to find a stranger asleep on the couch. Or when another a shirtless man with a shaved head and several missing teeth called out to me as I got into my car, aggressively demanding cash. When I told him no, he charged the car, and spit at my driver’s side window a few times before stomping angrily across the bridge to Hillcrest. Still, while these were unsettling incidents, they seemed too ephemeral to stop. Imagine asking police to investigate the guy who ran away after sleeping on your porch.


We stayed away from the windows and kept low, waiting. Dean seemed to grow fatigued; at least, he stopped hitting things. As the scene grew quiet, every creak emanating from the old house sound like a threat. I clenched a hammer in my hands, nodding reassurance to my wife while kicking myself that I hadn’t gotten the larger model. At last, red and blue lights reflected off the back of the front blinds. The next knock would come from uniformed police officers.

They had found Dean sitting on the curb a couple houses over. He had told them he was a Navy vet, that somebody had him under surveillance, that he’d abandoned his phone at the bar in case they could track it. “Had a rough night,” the patrolman told me. “Says he doesn’t know you. Seems like he just knocked on your house because it was the first place he saw.” They said they would get him out of our vicinity. They took statements, and took Dean. The block grew empty and quiet again.


A few days later, I installed one of those motion-activated video doorbells, the kind that records with a wide-angle camera. I wanted to, at the very least, see who might be outside on the porch next time. I connected the motion sensor to a spotlight as well, counting on the sudden bright light to deter anyone who might get the idea to do some creeping. That night, I was watching TV in that front living room area when I got a notice on my phone. From the couch, I watched on my phone screen as a gaunt man wearing a leather jacket over a hoodie crept up our steps — just six feet away from me, on the other side of the blinds. He was holding an open garbage bag, and the first thing he did as he crossed the threshold to the porch was examine the spot where we’d been keeping our shoes.

The motion light flared to life, but he didn’t startle. Instead, he tilted his head up to look up at the bulb, and then back down to look directly into my camera — almost like he was watching me back. His face betrayed no emotion or expression, but after a few moments, he turned around and casually walked away, taking his garbage bag with him, walking deeper into University Heights. He’d left without anything but a minor provocation, but it was too easy to imagine him scouring the porches of my neighbors’ houses. I uploaded the image of him on my porch to a neighborhood social network, and hoped he’d been deterred.

Soon after, I would call in a report about men dropping behind the bridge. But when the neighborhood associate asked me for vigilance, he did not mention, nor it did not occur to me, that the number you call to report a homeless camp is for environmental services, the agency that collects the city’s trash. Less than a week later, I heard a garbage truck outside, sometime after the onset of twilight. I looked out to see team of sturdy men, wearing gloves and layers of long-sleeved clothes, hopping the rail and climbing down under the bridge. When they came back, they were carrying tents, blankets, and assorted, meager possessions, which they then tossed into the rear of the truck, to be destroyed by its grinder. I saw them haul up a shopping cart, and the churning sets of metal teeth gnashed it and its contents to pieces like so much peanut brittle. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had filed what the city calls a Get It Done report, particular to homeless encampments.

Those reports have grown in frequency. The latest Regional Task Force on Homelessness counts show the unhoused population in San Diego has risen 10 percent since 2020, to 8427. Over the same time span, according to data shared by the mayor, the number of encampment reports have doubled, to more 5000 in May. San Diego residents are getting more aggressive about going after the homeless where they live.

Eventually, my family decided to leave the house beside the bridge and move to the suburbs. Now, we can’t walk anywhere for anything, but it’s quiet, and the only people who ring the bell are delivery drivers. At the time, we said we moved out because the encroaching homeless population had made it too threatening to our security. But when I think back, I realize that’s not quite it. We didn’t fear homeless; we feared the mentally unstable. There’s a large overlap, but it’s an important distinction. Dean the Navy vet wasn’t unhoused. At least not yet. But he was in emotional distress, and perhaps not entirely stable.

Last month, I learned there may finally be a better number to call when someone suffering mental distress comes across that bridge. The city and county have established a new protocol to send Mobile Crisis Response Teams in response to crises involving an individual’s mental health. Rather than police officers, these teams employ a mental health clinician and other professionals tasked with defusing situations and getting people into treatment. According to the county, the 2021 pilot of the program linked 110 people to treatment out of 672 calls. Around 20 percent of the mental health calls pertained to unhoused individuals.

As of this writing, the response teams are accessed through a Crisis Line: (888) 724-7240. But the plan is for these teams to be accessed as needed through calling 9-1-1. If the system had been set up on that night I met Dean, he would have had the right idea.

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I would like to add an update to Mr. Anderson's article.

The weekend June 11th there was a fire in an enclosed area underneath the Vermont St. bridge mentioned in the story. The north end of the bridge has a space enclosed by chain link fencing, designed to protect the bridge. Homeless people had broken through the chain link fence, and built a 'room' by nailing large sheets of particleboard together to form a private "room". This is the area where the fire began.

The fire burned the interior of this area as well as a part of the hillside next to it. Nearby eucalyptus trees were scorched, as well as the fence and plants of a the house Mr. Anderson had been renting. This was not unexpected.

On May 17th I filed a Get-It-Done SD ticket ( #03772146) on this space. Five days later, I received a call from and SDPD officer who was at the site, but would not squeeze between the rail and a few plants to access the "room," although that is how the homeless entered and how our team of volunteers got in to collect trash each week.

When no visible action was taken to address the problem, I began emailing Mr. Benjamin Cartwright, Councilman Stephen Whitburn's representative for University Heights, and Mr. Whitburn as well. I expressed my concern that a fire under the bridge was likely, that it could damage the structure of the bridge itself, and that it could ignite a larger fire in the area. Mr. Cartwright reported trying to get a response from the City to no effect.

On the 20th of June, one week after the fire, I emailed Mayor Gloria's office about this problem asking that the remaining wood be removed to prevent future fires, the chain link fence be taken out to prevent the construction of new "rooms," and that the bridge be assessed to see if the fire had caused structural damage. I received no reply.

I am a member of the University Heights Community Association, and part of a small team of volunteers that collects trash in that vicinity every week. It has been beyond discouraging to identify a fire danger, report it to the City via Get It Done San Diego, talk to the police, report it to my representative on the City Council. Then, after the predicted fire had taken place, been unable to get any response from the mayor. Something is badly broken a system that leaves the gem of our neighborhood to be destroyed.

July 22, 2022

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