By Anna Daniels
Quick— imagine a homeless person. Did you conjure up the image of an utterly ordinary looking seventy year old white woman attending classes at SDSU? or a neatly dressed young Latino waiting at a bus stop? or a pregnant African American woman passing by your house? or a neighborhood kid who disappears and reappears and seems disconnected, rootless?
We don’t hear much about these men and women, young and old, who are homeless. Instead, we read about the uptrodden who have to deal with homeless people crapping on the sidewalk in front of their expensive condos downtown or the bad optics and shabby aesthetics of the tents and battered pieces of cardboard where the homeless visibly bed down every night, also downtown.
The reflexive stereotyping of the homeless demands little of us individually and collectively. It is therefore no surprise that our civic efforts in housing the homeless in San Diego have been such a dismal failure.
It will continue to be a dismal failure as long as property owners, not the homeless themselves, are seen as the real victims of our inability, if not unwillingness, to recognize the complex ways in which massive wealth inequality, decades of war, the lack of mental health services, misogyny and racism have left whole swaths of our society vulnerable to homelessness.
I did not leave my house in City Heights with the intent to find and write about homeless people. Random conversations across the front gate of my home, in a maternity ward, on a college campus and at a nearby bus stop have revealed the chilling, creeping reach of homelessness. Initially I was stunned to find so many people who don’t look homeless revealing that they are unhoused and hungry. Now I am stunned by how many homeless are among us who remain invisible and uncounted.
Eviction from public housing Shawna appeared at the gate in front of my home in City Heights last summer. It was late at night and I was sitting on the porch. She initially asked for a cigarette, but then said “I’m hungry. Do you have anything to eat?”
She eventually told me that she was sleeping at night in an unsecured empty apartment a few doors away. I had never seen her—she would slip out of the apartment very early in the morning while it was still dark to avoid detection. Her days were long and exhausting and she was terrified of being alone at night in the empty apartment. She spent time in the local library, appreciative of the public computers, books and comfortable chairs. She would shower at the Y. I would also find out that she was twenty weeks pregnant.
When I met Shawna she had been homeless for almost a year. She had previously lived with her four children in Section 8 subsidized housing. A family member would often stop by to spend time with her and the children. At times he was homeless and would stay with her. When he was charged with a crime while staying with her she lost her housing. Harboring someone involved in criminal activities was a violation of policy. She also lost custody of her children who were put in foster care and every shred of financial assistance that she had relied upon.
When losing your job means losing your home Joey approached me while I was waiting at the crosswalk for the light to change on University Avenue. He said that he was hungry and asked if I could help him out. I had just eaten lunch with a friend and had a large portion of it in a to go box which I handed to Joey.
Joey was not just hungry—he was also homeless and unemployed. He had worked as a live in personal care attendant for an older man with disabilities. When the man’s condition deteriorated and he had to leave his home to live in a chronic care facility, Joey lost both his home and employment. He was waiting for his unemployment checks to arrive and found it almost impossible to apply for jobs while he was couch surfing with friends or living in the streets when he had worn out his welcome.
Joey has not been homeless very long. His vulnerability and sense of bewilderment were palpable.
When rent becomes unaffordable I met Lorraine at San Diego State University. We fell into an easy conversation, two older women talking about feeling isolated on a campus filled with energetic young students. Lorraine was taking advantage of a tuition free program for senior citizens and loved the opportunity it provided to continue the education she had started at a community college.
I was not prepared to hear her confide that she is living in her car. She said that her rent had become unaffordable on her fixed income.
Falling through the cracks in the foster care system When I visited Shawna in the hospital when she delivered her beautiful little baby boy, she introduced me to her friend Robert John, who looked familiar to me. He had lived in City Heights off and on for a number of years while he was in and out of foster care during his adolescence.
When he was removed from his home by Child Protective Services, his uncle provided him a foster home. It was a rancorous situation for Robert John and he would leave, stay with friends or find shelter in a City Heights alley and then return to his uncle’s house. His school attendance was intermittent and then he dropped out completely. By the age of eighteen he had been without a stable home for a full decade.
Could you go from housed to homeless? Conservatives are quick to point out the poor judgement, lack of responsibility and moral failings of people who are homeless. The implication of course is that those of us who are housed exercise good judgement, defer immediate gratification and are morally upright.
That narrative is infinitely more comforting than acknowledging that so many of us who are currently housed are one rent increase, one catastrophic health emergency, one car breakdown, one paycheck away from being in the street.
How long can we hate or ignore what we, too, may become?
Author note: I have changed the names of all the people in this article because my conversations with them were not conducted as a formal interview. I am also a property owner in City Heights.