Dozens of tents and packed shopping carts line sidewalks and underpasses in gentrifying East Village. Homeless men and women, some of who have lived here for years and others more recently, gather for impromptu meals and overnight encampments.

Meanwhile, residents with often new condos and businesses look on, overwhelmed and unsure what to do. Many of them are new to the neighborhood, too.

Welcome to East Village, the front line of San Diego’s homelessness crisis.

Street homelessness is up countywide but the problem is growing at a particularly rapid clip here. The neighborhood’s homeless population has spiked nearly 80 percent – from about 480 to more than 865 – in the last year alone, according to a downtown business group’s monthly count.

Here’s a look at how much the unsheltered homeless population has grown in East Village in recent years – and how much this year’s growth is outstripping past trends.

rising-street-homelessnessLocal leaders and nonprofits that serve the homeless are reluctant to point to any single reason for the upsurge in homelessness in East Village. The neighborhood’s long had a large homeless population. They say there are likely a number of reasons – everything from a dearth of affordable housing to stagnant wages and much more.


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

Tent cities are increasingly popping up, along with residential towers and new businesses.

The tent cities are emerging under overpasses like this one.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

They’re also striking around Neil Good Day Center, a facility operated by nearby Father Joe’s Villages where homeless folks can get their mail and access other services.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

There’s a permanence to these makeshift settlements that’s struck even longtime San Diego homeless services workers like Bernie Miles.

“People have just put the tents up and said, ‘This is my spot,’” said Miles, who supervises workers who try to connect downtown homeless folks with services at North Park-based Episcopal Community Services.

Those tent cities could be helping fuel what appears to be a massive uptick in homelessness on East Village streets. Groups like the Downtown San Diego Partnership count each tent as housing two people when they tabulate the number of homeless downtown.

The tent cities are particularly dense in the area near Father Joe’s Villages’ St. Vincent de Paul campus on Imperial Avenue.

Indeed, last month the Downtown Partnership recorded that more than two-thirds of the population who live on East Village streets settled in southeastern East Village, the corner of the neighborhood that’s home to that campus and other homeless services.

Ruth Bruland, chief program officer at Father Joe’s Villages, said she’s troubled by what she sees as she walks in the area and drives to work.

“I’m in the industry, if you will, and it’s shocking,” Bruland said. “We are hamsters in a hamster wheel trying to make things happen for people and open up doors where they can exit homelessness, and here it is, growing around us like it is.”

Bruland and other East Village homeless providers confront wait lists in their shelter programs and struggles finding housing for clients already enrolled in them.

They wish they could do more – and more quickly.

East Village resident and business groups do, too.

“It’s getting worse by the minute,” said Robert Weichelt, an East Village Residents Group board member.

The real estate broker said some residents overwhelmed by growing encampments and panhandling are considering moving out of the neighborhood. He recently helped one young couple move.

The residents group recently circulated a report urging the city to take immediate steps to address the growing problem.

Homeless folks who live in East Village also feel pressure.

Steve Hillard, who’s lived on the streets of East Village for years, told me earlier this year he’s sensed a change in the last year.

“They don’t want us to be downtown,” he said.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Hillard is one of several homeless folks who told me they’re concerned with the city’s handling of encampment sweeps conducted weekly since March. The city has said the operations are meant to clean up the streets, not displace homeless people.

Hillard didn’t see them that way.

“I’m already being punished for being out here,” he said. “I wish they would be more respectful.”

I haven’t run into Hillard since the city installed these rocks under an Imperial Avenue overpass but I can’t imagine he’s pleased with them, either.

Photo by Kelly Davis
Photo by Kelly Davis

 

The city claimed this spring that it installed these rocks along a common route to Petco Park in East Village following complaints from Sherman Heights residents. But VOSD contributor Kelly Davis later found that the city’s former ballpark administrator actually took the lead and aimed to discourage encampments in advance of the All-Star Game.

David Gapp, another East Village Residents Group board member, defended the rock garden. He said East Village and Sherman Heights residents are concerned for their safety and sometimes can’t use sidewalks in the area because they’re covered with tents.

Gapp emphasized that he’s long felt compassion toward homeless folks but said he’s watched fights break out and some others have chased him and his wife. “The rest of the city probably has no idea what’s going on,” Gapp said.

Despite the unsafe conditions – including for homeless people – people continue to arrive in East Village, some from other parts of San Diego and some from outside the area.

Last week, I met Debra Hawkins, a homeless Army veteran who took a bus from Imperial Valley to San Diego.

Hawkins said a homeless couple suggested she head to East Village to seek help after she landed in San Diego, distraught after losing her suitcase. Hawkins said she’s checked in at Rachel’s Women’s Shelter daily in hopes of securing a bed.

“Do you think I like being out here?” she said. “No, I don’t.”

Spencer Sharp, who said he’s been homeless in East Village for about a year and a half, had a different story. I caught up with him under this makeshift shelter near the Day Center.

Photo by Lisa Halverstadt
Photo by Lisa Halverstadt

Sharp, an admitted addict, acknowledged he appreciates easy access to drugs in the East Village area, though he said he’d find them elsewhere, too.

Sharp doesn’t want to remain on the street indefinitely, yet he said he’s grown comfortable with it. Others I’ve talked to – including Hillard – feel the same. Living on the street is a better option than programs or shelter beds they’ve been offered, they said. They don’t like the rules or don’t feel confident they’d mesh with the others already there. Or they’re concerned about spending the limited cash they have on rent.

In East Village, they can easily take a shower and get a meal – whether from a service provider like Father Joe’s or from a church group – without entering a program.

And they’ve gotten to know many of the people who live on the streets around them, even if they don’t always feel safe.

“I know most everybody,” Sharp said. “Everybody knows me.”

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

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about nonprofits and local progress in addressing causes like homelessness and Balboa Park’s needs. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

    13 comments
    Maurice Samuels
    Maurice Samuels

    For all the rent I PAY in East Village I'm tired of looking at blocks of trash on17th and Fst. It's funny no homeless camps around the police station. 

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    Perhaps another reason homeless people come here are because they are encouraged to do so by all the TV and print ads put out by the Tourism Marketing District. Those are targeted to convince people living in colder climes to come here during the winter months.  Poor people have access to TVs and print advertising in other parts of the county. To what degree to all the ads portraying San Diego as a warm, sunny carefree place to live attract more homeless people from other parts of the country to come here, especially during the colder months of the year?

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    Here is a question for Lisa to follow up on: Is the County Detox Center still located in East Village?  From what I've read, the county detox center has always served as a regional magnet bringing drunks downtown. If someone is picked up for being drunk in public anywhere in the county, the police transport them to the detox center, then refuse to return them to their pick up point after they sober up. For example, if a drunk is picked up in La Mesa, El Cajon, or Chula Vista, they are driven to the detox center in East Village, and left there when they sober up. In the past, some politicians have looked at changing to a decentralized system of detox facilities, but gotten their heads kicked in for their troubles. For example, when she sat on the city council, Valerie Stallings volunteered to take a satellite detox center in her PB/Clairemont district. The blowback from her constituents forced her to withdraw the offer. 


    Find out of the county's detox center is still located in East Village. If it is, it keep bringing drunks into the area, adding to its homelessness problems. I'll be interested to see what you find out. Perhaps poll the county supervisors on why they have maintained this centralized detox system.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    "Homelessness isn't a crime"

    Signed,

    Hopelessness is

    Omar Passons
    Omar Passons subscribermember

    I don't want to derail the very important points in the article, but I do want to challenge the use of the term gentrifying in the title.  You are in a unique position to use words in a precise and defined way from a place of real knowledge.  If by gentrifying you mean solely that property values or residential incomes are going up, that's important to say and to provide support for.  If you mean that people are being displaced from homes - either by choice for other options or involuntarily - it's important to say that.  The title can suggest that the issue in East Village is driven by physical improvements in East Village rather than woefully inadequate local funding and unwillingness to champion financial measures that could have a meaningful impact locally.  Just wanting to nudge a little on the title for clarity.  


    I see another comment on a similar - but not at all the same - point. Just want to distinguish that I am not taking the position that the solution for lack of affordability is for people to leave.

    Kenneth Gardner
    Kenneth Gardner

    @Omar Passons Perhaps I sound a bit harsh. I feel for these people, I really do.  But as a city, we have to make a choice: Do we say Welcome or Not Welcome to the overwhelming number of people, and their various situations and takes on street life, who are coming here to camp. They say they don't like rules. Tough. San Diego has some of the best resources to get a bed, a shower, and go out there and do something to make money. If you still cannot afford rent after that, you are a vagrant.  Stop saying that homelessness is not a crime.  It most certainly is, we have just gone soft on enforcing the laws on the books.  People say you can't arrest the problem away.  That's BS. San Diego is a city that does not have a coordinated program. Other sunny warm cities get bus tickets for these people and send them on their way.  If they return with a vagrancy charge, then they are in trouble.  You have to get tough to solve a tough situation.  Leaving a city because you cannot afford it is not a violation of your human or civil rights. We've got to stop pitying the problem, and put the responsibility where it lies: On the homeless person. You will see the problem clear up, and then all that are left are the incompetent. Then you can start looking at state programs that may help these mentally challenged people. It's not fair that people who can buy the nice residences downtown have to put up with the filth and squalor of people who do not know how to live properly.  Call me an elitist, but I am simply being pragmatic.

    Andy Kopp
    Andy Kopp subscribermember

    @Omar Passons, I didn't read the title as setting up an argument that gentrification is causing the spike in homelessness, at all. And after reading the article, it's clear that Voice intended to highlight the tension between the residents who are increasingly of means and the homeless population. If the title was "East Village Gentrification Leads to Rise in E.V. Homeless Population", you'd have a legitimate complaint. But it's not close to that. Words are important, of course. But this seems an unnecessary quibble.

    Andy Kopp
    Andy Kopp subscribermember

    @Kenneth Gardner, pragmatist? Nah - but, an elitist for sure. As an East Village resident fortunate enough to have been able to buy in the neighborhood, you can spare me your pity for my "not fair" circumstances. These people that sleep on the streets around us are our forgotten neighbors, relatives, and citizens. We're going to get them help, despite you.

    Omar Passons
    Omar Passons subscribermember

    @Andy Kopp @Omar Passons I am not making any claim about what the title is intended to suggest, only that we throw the term 'gentrification' around alot and I think it's important when used in such a meaningful context to be sure about what's being said. It isn't clear to me that bringing gentrification into it improves the understanding of what the article is about.  Gentrification - the-forced-displacement-for-wealthier-"new"-residents kind - is ground zero for alot of disputes.  The point of this article does not seem to be about a clash between new well-to-do residents and homeless people.  It seems to be about a spike in homelessness in that neighborhood.    

    Kenneth Gardner
    Kenneth Gardner

    @Andy Kopp @Kenneth Gardner Well, good for you, Super Hero. I actually let a homeless person into my home the other day, fed him lunch, let him take a shower, gave him a new pair of shoes because the soles were literally falling off, and a new wardrobe including jeans and shirts.  What have you done specifically to even put one dent in this problem?  Nothing, that's what; because you are happier preaching from the pulpit of idealism to make yourself feel all warm and fuzzy. "We're going to get them help?" When? Name a date, and how. These people that you claim to care for will remain "forgotten" to you, because you are happy with words.  And "despite" me? I offer a practical solution for stirring these people off the streets, and of course it strikes you as offensive and draconian because you like to nice everyone to death, except someone who is in a similar position to offer a solution.

    Andy Kopp
    Andy Kopp subscribermember

    Sure, man. Whatever you say.

    Desde la Logan
    Desde la Logan subscriber

    You feel for these people? If so, you have a bad way of showing it. Your lack of humanity is shameful.

    Kenneth Gardner
    Kenneth Gardner

    From Wikipedia: "Gentrification is a trend in urban neighborhoods, which results in increased property values and the displacing of lower-income families and small businesses. This is a common and controversial topic in urban planning."  I see no correlation in your article to this definition. We called it urban renewal in my day, when the decay and malaise of the 1970's gave way to a new movement of taking the cities back, and making them into vibrant urban hubs.  Not only have we lost that spirit the past few years, they have started teaching you in college that the downtrend is somehow the new normal and we should accept it.  Trying to downplay, pander to, and otherwise pity away this housing crisis is not an answer.  You only make it worse by implying to your readers that it is all right, or someone else's fault. If these people cannot afford to live in San Diego, so be it.  If they want a job, get one where you can afford one.  Don't come to San Diego because it is warm and sunny and you can lounge on the street or pitch a tent.  If you pitch a tent, don't pitch a fit about the people who can actually afford to drive the real estate market here, and thus keep this city alive and vibrant.  I don't know when it became fashionable to be a bum, but it doesn't work the majority of the time.  I shouldn't be guilted with bleeding-heart liberal pap because I can afford to live here. Thank you.