If I ask you to describe a homeless person for me — the characteristics and attributes that person might have — what would your answer be?
For many, it would likely include some of the following common descriptors:
- Carrying possessions
- Mentally ill
This isn’t necessarily inaccurate, but it is woefully incomplete. It does not include legions of homeless people that you might sit next to at a restaurant, or shop alongside at the grocery store, go to school with or even work with (yes, work with).
Like so many other cities across the country, San Diego’s struggle to help the homeless and remedy homelessness is not new. I know this firsthand, because I have been homeless twice in my life here in San Diego (first in 1987). If you had met me walking down the street or along the beaches, you would not have known I was homeless. That was intentional.
And it is probably one of the many reasons that homelessness persists and flourishes, even in one of the wealthiest states and cities in the country. In a strange way, there is one shared goal we have with the homeless that we have come together on. The desire not to be seen.
We don’t succeed in alleviating homelessness, because we don’t even know just who the homeless are, or how pervasive this condition is. Most homeless do not want to be seen as homeless and some do not even want to self-identify as such. There is a deep and abiding shame with that identity.
As a gay man, I understand shame. It kept me in the closet for years, much as it keeps many homeless in their own closet. What you likely know as the homeless is simply the tip of a massive and growing iceberg.
What you see as homelessness is the latter manifestation of a long cycle of repetitive injury. You don’t know the perhaps dozens of homeless you come in contact with on an almost daily basis. You don’t know me, or at least you don’t know me as a former homeless San Diegan. And that is part of the problem.
So let me introduce myself and my own unique experience in hopes that my story will give you insights, and maybe spur action and introspection about the kind of society we have, and the one we want/need.
As I said, I have been homeless twice in my life. First as a child and then, for a brief period, as an adult. By the time my father and I became homeless, I’d already been in foster care twice for neglect. I tried unsuccessfully to emancipate myself.
My final two years of high school were dominated with bouts of intermittently living in the back seat of a white 1970 Cadillac. As street-bound accommodations go, it was as spacious a living as you could find outside a van or RV. And certainly better than the bone chilling cold of cement. I slept cradled between a pile of dirty laundry and a clean one. As you can imagine, my head was on the clean pile (thank you, Tide).
I practiced rapidly falling asleep, ahead of the onset of my father’s car rumbling snore. If I was unsuccessful, I would knee his seat to reset the snore countdown clock. We learned to crack the windows to prevent them from fogging at night (a sure sign to the police of car dwellers).
My daily shower came during gym class or at one of the occasional camping grounds we went to.
If you look carefully at my high school yearbook photo, you will see a stubborn collar refusing to settle on my shoulder. It had been my pillow only a few hours prior. My hair is standing like the off kilter crest of a tropical bird despite the photographer’s numerous attempts at taming it. You will also see in my eyes a deep sadness. An understanding that not only was I not fitting in, but I also was in the spotlight while doing it.
Mumbles behind the camera lights from people I could not see, but whose voices I knew: “Didn’t he know today was Picture Day? What a loser.”
Every morning my father dropped me off at Irvine High School, I climbed from the back seat after having dressed lying down. Even as big as our car was, people could see at a glance that our life was entirely packed within.
It became obvious enough that I asked my father to drop me off at the doughnut shop down the street so I would not be observed leaving my home in the school driveway.
My father maintained a mailbox in Irvine so I could stay enrolled at the high school. It was not until later that I realized the the mailbox also served to maintain his fantasy that we still “lived” in Irvine.
But we did not. We lived wherever there was a quiet cul-de-sac, or lonely road with a discrete pullout. Perhaps a rest stop off the I-5 freeway. But it was always made clear to us by the police that we were not residents of Irvine. We were “transients.”
The first time I heard that term was from a policeman who had pulled up behind us at a public park. Despite never having heard the term, I needed no explanation.
There never was an offer of help, or resources. Just an implied (if not explicit) threat of insult to go with our injury. Once you stumbled in this “master planned” community, it was your duty to promptly make your exit, dignified or otherwise. Their master planning never included plans for the homeless.
When summer came, we fled to San Diego in hopes we would fade from the memory of the police. I walked the beaches until my hair was nearly blond. When I finally got to see a real bathroom again, with a mirror, I was shocked to see myself. Our meals of canned fish, canned corn and evaporated milk had peeled pounds from me.
Before you rattle off judgments about my father, let me save you the trouble. I guarantee you, I leveled more at him than you can imagine. We were solidly middle class before all this, and but for his mistakes, we would have remained snuggly in the bosom of Yuppiedom.
But what few understand, as we did, is that even then, the margin for error in a land built on debt and the promise of opportunity was shrinking rapidly. Once you fell off the cart, it was getting much harder to climb back on. And much easier to fall off in the first place.
Poverty was growing, and concurrently, opportunity was shrinking. Housing prices soared as income only creeped along. Unions stumbled, outsourcing exploded.
Had my father not mismanaged his credit and assets, we could probably have kept pace. He took a risk and started a business with his nest egg, and never fully recovered when it foundered. I dropped out of high school my senior year to make money and try to help get us out of the car. But I got fired when I could not keep my uniforms unwrinkled and clean.
Those were some of our most desperate and hopeless moments. A feeling like there was no ground beneath you to stop your fall. I was plucked from the streets by a family I had adopted my way into. Somewhat like cats do. A wealthy friend offered to pay my rent until I could finish my diploma and enlist in the Marine Corps.
I would not flirt with homelessness again until I was discharged from the Marines in 2010. Within six months of separating, I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, which became crippling. With the omnipresent pain and severely limited mobility came depression.
My joints seized, and digits deformed. And soon I had no income. I filed for disability and languished on a court docket while bills piled up. I had never experienced a panic attack until then. In fact, I quietly dismissed the notion of them. I was a former Marine, surely I would never succumb to something I considered to be all in one’s head.
The place I lived at had no off-street parking, so when my registration expired, parking enforcement engaged in a ticketing orgy. Then my car was impounded and put up for auction. I called around in a panic trying to find a way to regain my car.
As a disabled person, it was my lifeline.
I called local elected officials in desperation. When I reached Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office, I explained my situation, and that there was no way I could muster the fees needed to release my car from the city’s impound.
His representative’s response: “Well, we all want things we can’t afford.” It was in that moment that I realized that not only did the city not care what was happening to me, but they also refused to see how their own laws and systems were pulling me onto the streets.
With my rent behind six months, I searched desperately for help. I called 211 and wound up in a loop of different organizations telling me to call the other.
Eventually I got connected with Veterans Village of San Diego, and the programs I needed to stay off of our streets. But I also learned how lucky I was to be a veteran. Because we care about veterans. We suspend judgment and ask what we can do to help those who served.
Up until COVID, we seemed unaware that others in our society have served us as well. There are hundreds of different ways to serve our society that don’t involve taking up to fight wars that should not have been declared in the first place.
We have ranked the homeless it seems. Those who fall outside of certain categories are far less likely to find our helping hands. We talk of individual responsibility, and natural consequences much these days. But rarely do we stop to consider the collective effects of societal decisions that seemed little at the time they were made.
The failure to raise the minimum wage for over a decade. The unchecked prostitution of our housing supply to tourists. The effects of decades of NIMBY resistance to any affordable housing. The outright discrimination of landlords who decline Section 8 and the disabled on the premise of not earning three times the rent (no one on disability makes three times the rent of anything in San Diego).
When the laws that are written on our behalf fail to consider the poor, they become predatory. Who then is responsible? Who then gets judged?
Solving our homeless crisis will require us to see the housing insecure as homeless, and the couch surfers, and those stowed in someone’s garage. We will need to see the legions of working poor with sunshades pasted to their car windows, and utility vans with blackout curtains.
We also must see how, over generations, large parts of our society have drifted closer to the precipice of being unhoused. The hand-to-mouth culture that only knows which bill is next in line has grown steadily by the decade. And we are now seeing the results.
If we really want to solve homelessness, we will finally have to realize it is a symptom and not just a cause. It is telling us that our society is beginning to break under stress.
Yes, house the homeless, bring the wrap-around services and support. But also stop making more homeless through political apathy and indifference. Stop blaming the victims, lest we all become victims.
In the Marine Corps, senior leaders were tasked with understanding the condition of their unit. To be able to differentiate between the individual problem and the systemic. To do that, we relied on indicators that would give us the warning signs. Suicide rates, substance abuse, legal entanglements, divorce and morale — all these together, if heeded, could tell leadership that they were in need of a course correction.
Think about it — all those indicators and more are flashing red, and have been for some time now. I know. I was a reporter. I covered local politics and saw exactly when the changes locally became acute.
It was following the Great Recession, when legions of entire families were suddenly lining our streets. I walked dozens of times to Golden Hall to cover election returns, and always there were homeless. But this was markedly different.
And for many, there was no recovery, no help. Only the heavy hand of police sweeps and an anemic and disjointed “system” of safety net organizations.
The forced migration of homeless from one end of this city to the other has almost become a gruesome art form. A freeze-dried carrot and stick approach.
Added to this are a litany of self-righteous judgments from the populace. Questioning why someone who is homeless has a smartphone, or a Starbucks. Suggesting they simply relocate somewhere else, or that they probably came from somewhere else (therefore disqualified from our help?).
It does not take much empathy to realize that a smartphone is a lifeline for a person on the streets. The days of pay phones are over. And homeless people don’t have an address for mail. And sometimes, someone like me will get a homeless person a cup of coffee — from Starbucks.
We should take pride in the services we offer to our homeless (no matter where they derive). It is in fact in our own interest to guarantee access to fresh water, food, restrooms, laundry, showers and a variety of other fundamental resources. Because those, combined with effective case management, are the only real path away from chronic homelessness.
We need to remove barriers that have been erected around public assistance. And if we wish to stop making more homeless people, we must confront the systemic problems in our society and social contract.
Victim blaming may be a clever way to satiate our fear that we too could realistically become homeless. But it does nothing to solve real and genuine problems that threaten all of us.
Timothy Holmberg is a former staff reporter for the Gay & Lesbian Times, and has written independently for a variety of publications on health and social justice issues. A version of this essay originally appeared on the Words & Deeds blog by Doug Porter.