On March 7, the city of San Diego performed planned sweeps of homeless encampments downtown, sparking a conversation about this ever more conspicuous feature of downtown life.

Photographer Jamie Lytle and I decided to roam downtown and other places around the county to see what images we could capture on a single day — March 9 — of the tent cities. The nonprofit Alpha Project agreed to help.

It turns out, after several hours of work, we still came up far short of capturing a full image of how many there are now. One of our issues was timing. The settlements grow vastly at night — a sort of bloom that recedes sometimes very early.

But the ones that remain in the daytime are some of the most sophisticated and permanent of them all.

Here are some of the pictures we got.

We started on Harbor Drive just after 6:30 a.m. and found a handful of tents and tarps leaning against a fence.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Homeless tents in downtown San Diego

Most of the inhabitants were still asleep as we walked down the street.

Our next stop was 17th and K streets near the Neil Good Day Center, where the homeless can gather and be connected with services during the day.

Tent gathering in East Village

When we arrived, about a dozen people were packing up their tents after spending the night there or on a nearby plot that our Alpha Project tour guides said had housed as many as 100 people before recent clean-up efforts by Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol.

We found another dozen tents about a block down the street, directly across from the center.

Homeless encampment in East Village

We found a larger homeless encampment a few blocks away on Commercial Street.

Homeless encampment in East Village

Steve Hillard welcomed us as we walked into an underpass lined with about two dozen tents and tarps.

Hillard said he’s lived underneath the bridge on and off for eight years and has noticed far more people on the streets – and underneath his underpass – in recent months.

Homeless encampment in East Village

Our next stop was a detour outside San Diego.

It’s been dubbed the Bonita Jungle and it’s just north of the Sweetwater River in National City. Cars drive by on State Route 54, unaware of those living below them. An Alpha Project case manager told us police had found seven people living here before we arrived. She estimated there are at least 15 people living in the immediate area.

Bonita Jungle in National City

The next encampment we visited was even more hidden.

It was nestled under a bridge behind a massive apartment development in Mission Valley.


This is the house that Mac built. Mac, who asked that we not use his last name, has set up multiple rooms, artwork and enclosures in this space underneath Friars Road. He’s even got a kitchen with a stove-top skillet.

A homeless encampment in Mission Valley

Mac expects he and the three others who live here will be forced out soon. He said he’s been told he’ll need to move but recent rains have slowed the process.

“We know at any moment it could be time to go,” he said.

We left Mac’s place just before 1:30 p.m., knowing we saw just a sample of the makeshift homeless settlements across the region.

Homeless folks we talked to described how tent cities expand and crop up in the evening and disperse early in the morning. We’ll share some of the stories of those we met and consider documenting more homeless encampments in a future post.

Want to tell us about any tent cities you’ve seen, or share photos? Leave a comment here or email me at lisa@vosd.org.

All photos by Jamie Scott Lytle.

    This article relates to: Homelessness, Must Reads, News, Nonprofits/Community

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about San Diego city and county governments. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

    Roy Benstead
    Roy Benstead subscribermember

    I got my first sight of the area around the library a few months ago. My wife and I went to the Main Greyhound Bus Station at 14th and National. to pick up a couple of teenagers from the UK, who were on a tour of the country via Greyhound.

    I was appalled to witness the sight of homeless encampments, in the same area, where hundreds of young travelers, get to see their first view of the City of San Diego.

    Surely, San Diego can do better than this. It has to, and right now!

    Chris Wood
    Chris Wood subscriber

    What to do about San Diego homeless?  How about identifying low cost undeveloped land and putting in water, sewer and electricity for tiny houses in an area close to San Diego such as the one below:


    Continuous shuttle buses between there and downtown (or wherever services are located) would limit isolation.  “Homes” would be like the 279 sq ft. 


    Which has electricity water and heat list cost is $27K.  That may be nearer installed cost when purchased in volume.  

    lorisaldana subscriber

    I wanted to see these tent villages in person- so I visited a few of the downtown encampments at night in the rain, on March 7, after reports of people losing belongings to clean-up sweeps. As we drove down Hwy. 163, I could see lights set up by people huddled under the bridges above the freeway near the Laurel St. bridge- before we even got into downtown.

    I had invited volunteers with video equipment to join me-  in part for safety, because I realized these camps are not just a visual assault on people's senses. These areas are also noisy, dangerous and chaotic. The traffic above, coupled with trolley cars and sounds of people yelling, echoes under these bridges. The noise makes sleep impossible at night, and conceals shouts and cries that might otherwise attract attention and assistance.

    I left wondering: How can the city and county not declare an emergency, as people continue to live in these conditions? 

    How many people living in these conditions are assaulted? Robbed? Killed or injured?

    For a glimpse of what we observed and heard last week, visit https://youtu.be/oAu7zyXLZj0

    Irene Grumman
    Irene Grumman subscribermember

    @lorisaldana I responded to Free Press article by attending City Council March 8th with a garbage bag over my clothes, a suggested reference to the only protection left to those whose tents, tarps and belongings were confiscated in the storm the morning before.  I met college students, advocates, homeless people and other appalled citizens.  You were missed, but thank you for the photo essay. 

    TJ Apple
    TJ Apple subscribermember

    Great photo essay; enjoyed and appreciated. We need low cost solutions to the homeless issue, time to think out of the box and draw on our collective intellect.

    David Lynn
    David Lynn subscribermember

    Thank you for the photo essay and increasing awareness of the issue.  I'm curious if you got any of their stories, particularly why they are still there.  I knew many of the homeless in the Hillcrest area when I lived there, some of whom were friendly and we interacted on a near-daily basis.  I was particularly struck by the ones that seemed to be literate and without addiction or significant mental health issues, but would not go into a shelter nor take any paying work for fear of affecting their disability and other services, and maybe not keeping the job.  Mac from your story sounds employable, at least on the surface - so why is he living under a bridge?

    As for other sites, I used to see plenty in some parts of Tecolote Canyon - which is why I stopped going.

    Lisa Halverstadt
    Lisa Halverstadt authormember

    @David Lynn Thanks, David. I am considering a post about some of the folks I met. At the very least, what they shared will be incorporated in future posts.

    Irene Grumman
    Irene Grumman subscribermember

    @David Lynn Similarly, the transition from welfare when a person gets a job removes medical benefits from families.  This is counterproductive.

    stclairp subscriber

    Fabulous work.  Thank you.  Many of these are elegant, well designed.   The current "housing first" strategy for homeless sounds terrific, but our average cost for creating an affordable unit hovers somewhere around $300,000 including land.  This does not include anything for services, counseling, furniture, security deposit, first month's rent, etc.  So affordable housing is out of reach for everybody but those above middle class income.  Wouldn't it be better to construct the kind of housing Lisa pictures?  Simple, lightweight, even portable.  A number of cities have taken this approach with varied results.  Eugene, OR allowed a non profit group to use city-owned land to build housing and supportive elements like a community kitchen and meeting space.  Local architects, builders and churches were sponsors.  It worked for a while, then the city closed it.  Typical problems with behavioral oversight, sanitation, fights over land use, etc.  No matter what our city says, it is possible to build housing for less than $300,000 per unit.  But to do so, affordable housing needs to find different sources of financing.  Right now affordable housing projects compete in "beauty contests" for debt and equity funding from a variety of sources.  As a result, costs skyrocket so projects can include all sorts of features that would be found in any urban or suburban condo project.  Is that really necessary?  Some years back City Real Estate Assets Department was asked to assess all city-owned sites to find those that were suitable for housing development.  My recollection was they said, "None".   Seeing how functional many of these tent-cities appear to be, I think the City and other housing providers may be barking up the wrong tree if they want to create lots of affordable housing fast.  

    Dennis subscriber

    Another issue: Homeless students. Very sad :(

    Would love to see a tiny house program start in San Diego. 

    Zoning and permitting need to change.

    It is to damn expensive to live in this city!!!!!

    Cornelius Ogunsalu
    Cornelius Ogunsalu

    You may have been the two photographers I saw taking pictures on Camino del Rio South, very early Saturday morning. I was headed to PLNU and saw a couple of photographers taking pictures from a vantage point overlooking Highway 8 East. Walking further up on Camino del Rio S., I noticed a man walk down the concrete embankment under Highway 15. He was dragging blankets, a sleeping bag and some personal effects. And he then headed west on Camino del Rio South. I later saw him come out of one of the office complexes without the blankets and the sleeping bag.

    It hit me that he was one of San Diego's homeless and that he had slept under that underpass and had woken up early that Saturday morning to get his day started (whatever that entailed) . . . had gone to stash his belongings in one of the office complexes to retrieve later at night.

    WHY does San Diego not have a solution yet for the homeless? It is a question that needs to be answered because of how very easy it is to become homeless in San Diego. You will be surprised how many people are close to being homeless . . . I mean hardworking San Diegans who get up everyday to go to work but spend as much as two-thirds of what they earn on rent. Many are behind on rent (including yours truly) but have considerate landlords.

    ENOUGH ALREADY, Mayor Faulconer . . . it is time you FIX THIS PROBLEM ONCE AND FOR ALL, instead of spending valuable resources, time and political capital on whether to build a new stadium or not. Priorities, priorities, priorities!!!

    Visitors come to San Diego from all over the world and surely go back to their respective cities wondering WHY one of the best destinations in the world has so many homeless people! Yes . . . homelessness abounds in many cities, but that is no excuse not to do something about it in San Diego!

    Here's an idea for Mayor Faulconer, why don't you spend a few nights with those homeless people and experience what it's like, for some doses of hard reality. You cherry-picked trash a while back, yes?

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    Vibrant colorful pictures of a gray situation.


    Nomad in No-man's-land

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    Through the existing Homeless Shelter Crisis, our Strong Mayor Kevin Faulconer has the police power to approve a pilot Tiny Home Community for the Homeless using Camping Cabins, off-grid, with no plumbing. 



    Desde la Logan
    Desde la Logan subscriber

    If Losa walked a few more blocks south she would have run into homeless encampments in Barrio Logan on both sides of National Ave between 16th/Commercial. The stench of human waste is usually prevalent along this main pedestrian corridor that community members and school children use to access the Imperial Trolley Station.

    francesca subscriber

    Our mayor has been working night and day, to make sure that the Chargers get their stadium, paid for by us. He just hasn't had time to help the needy.

    Shame on him...and all the heartless profiteers.