By John Lawrence
I met Suzie at Panera Bread in Liberty Station. She is homeless but not vehicle-less. She used to have a nice home in Point Loma, had lived in the Point Loma – Ocean Beach area for years. She has been homeless since last April when her boyfriend kicked her out of his apartment. When that happened, she got on Craigslist and bought an RV. There are many levels and degrees of homelessness, and Suzie is on one of the better off levels. Some homeless persons live on boats in the harbor. So for some, homelessness verges on an alternative lifestyle, the key being whether or not they are forced into the situation or whether their situation is freely chosen.
Suzie grew up in Tennessee in a fairly affluent home. Her father and mother were both college graduates – he an electrical engineer, she a nurse. Her grandmothers were both nurses. Suzie is the second oldest of 5 siblings; she’s 59.She went to college in Dalton, Georgia and became a nurse graduating in 1984. Although she hasn’t worked in 5 years due to health problems, she still considers herself a nurse, keeping her registration current, taking classes, reading articles and helping people when she can.
She was married briefly when she was 30. The marriage was annulled. She hasn’t married since and has no children. She loves animals and has a small dog which keeps her company. Pets, however, can be a huge expense especially if they need veterinary care which at some point they all do. A few years ago before she became homeless, one of her dogs ran up a $5000. veterinarian bill and then died. Veterinarians have recently caught up with people doctors in the charging department, and pet care among other expenses has forced people to either give up the only source of affection in their lives or become homeless. Many homeless people have chosen their pets over being domiciled.
A Promising Start in San Diego: Job, Home, Boyfriend
Suzie came to San Diego with a boyfriend. They moved into a home in Eastlake. They were both working – she the 3-11 PM shift, he the day shift. The relationship broke up in 1993 when he took off with another woman and left her. He wanted to get married; she didn’t. She was gun-shy from her previous marriage although she really loved the guy. After the breakup her mental state deteriorated. She’s never trusted another man.
After that the men she dated left a lot to be desired; she attracted a stalker, and wasn’t able to find anyone to have a meaningful relationship with. She found solace with her animals living in an apartment in Santee with several dogs. In 1996 during a road trip, one of her dogs, who was taking a potty break along the freeway, somehow got away. After a desperate effort to try and find her, Suzie finally gave up. The emotional cost of losing this dog forced her to give up her job for awhile and go back to Tennessee for emotional support with her family. After 20 years she’s still upset about losing her best friend on the side of the highway. After this loss, she wasn’t able to work for several months.
Suzie met her last boyfriend in 2001 in Ocean Beach where she had moved. By then she had gotten her life back together and was working in the ER department at a hospital. She was employed there from 2000 to 2008. In 2008 she got sick and had to have surgery on her neck on two different occasions. While recovering from surgery at the hospital, she contracted viral meningitis, was very ill and remained hospitalized for some time.
Her health issues forced her to stop working. She had used up her sick leave. She was fortunate enough to be able to get on social security disability. On average SS disability pays around $1200. a month, not really enough to rent an apartment or even a room in a house and have much left over in San Diego. The lack of inexpensive SROs forces many into homelessness. City owned micro apartments as they have in Seattle might be a solution:
[A] development on 23rd Avenue East, opened in 2009 with 46 dormlike sleeping rooms with common kitchens.
It was the brainchild of the late Bellevue developer Jim Potter, who found a loophole in Seattle’s building regulations.
A micro-housing building spree ensued that gave Seattle more such units than any city in the country. At last count, 782 micro-housing units were cleared for occupancy in Seattle, with another 1,598 units in the pipeline. No other American city comes close.
San Diego needs to update its building codes to allow micro apartments and Tiny Homes on public or private land with common sanitation and cooking facilities. The Homeless to Housed movement is attempting to bring just such a project to fruition, but will the Mayor and/or the City Council sanction it and change the municipal code? That remains to be seen.
Suzie met her last boyfriend in 2003; they were together until last year but didn’t live together at first. Until a few years ago she rented a beautiful house in OB. She had 3 dogs, a cat, 200 plants and a gorgeous yard. It was a “doll house.” She was there 8 years and then the rent went up to $2200. forcing her to move to a smaller home in Point Loma. She put much of her furniture in storage where it still sits.
In 2009 she had a bad fall from a ladder, while working around her house, breaking her leg. It required surgery and she was in a wheelchair for 5 months. She was living off savings. Her boyfriend didn’t want to take care of her. He said, “I didn’t sign up for this.” Even though she had to go to a nursing home for awhile, she stayed with the boyfriend.
Suzie hired a caregiver out of the parking lot at Home Depot. She had 3 dogs and a cat to take care of. Jose was a godsend. He came up from Rosarita Beach every day to help her. As her situation deteriorated, her main support system, her father died. She started having problems with her siblings over their inheritance. A whole series of problems ensued: sisters stopped talking to her, lost her house, lost her father, lost her job. Her dog died, and her long term boyfriend started getting abusive. Also she started having another serious health problem in her GI tract. Her health insurance, California’s Low Income Health Program (LIHP), would not cover the surgery she needed and still needs for that.
From 2010 – 2013, she and her boyfriend had 4 surgeries each. She nursed him through each one including 3 heart surgeries. They were always ill or recovering. She moved in with her boyfriend in 2010 at which point she had nowhere else to go. Things got worse from there. Suzie finally found a GI doctor at UCSD who was willing to do the surgery she needed. But the boyfriend wouldn’t let her do it because he was not willing to take care of her afterwards. They fought a lot.
He wanted out. She stayed so she could have a place for her animals. He said, “I can’t wait for all your animals to die before you leave.” Eventually her dogs and cat died. He retired in 2014 and that’s when his ex came back into the picture. The boyfriend left and went back to his ex. Suzie moved to a hotel, got on Craigslist and bought an RV.
She can’t afford an RV park so she parks on the street. The problem with parking on the street, in addition to the fact that the police can hassle you, is that the heat can be oppressive if you can’t plug in and run the air conditioning. We talked about a group called Dreams for Change which has provided safe parking lots in San Diego, Chula Vista and Vista. The San Diego location is at 766 28th Street just across from the New Life Church and just off the Martin Luther King freeway. They ask that you call (619) 497-0236 before you come. This is an option that Suzie needs to check out.
She showers at the YMCA which charges her only $16 a month based on her low income. The neat part of the deal is that she can use any Y in the County.
Suzie summed up:
“I wish I would have been stronger and made better decisions. It’s just too many things kept happening to me and I got so overwhelmed. I never thought any of this would occur. I’ve worked since I was 14 at many jobs. It’s just my mental reserves are just gone. Day to day is very much a struggle now. I persevere. I reached out to you.”
I asked her, “Is there anything you’d like to accomplish with this article ?” She replied, “I guess just to educate the public that not everybody they see that is homeless is down and out and uneducated.” The line between homelessness and an alternative lifestyle is pretty thin.
I asked her if she was still in touch with the abusive boyfriend. She said she saw him the other day for the first time in 6 months because he came fishing where she was camping illegally in OB. The visit was cut short when the Park and Rec guy told her “You’re not supposed to be camping here. There are signs everywhere.”