A homeless woman covers herself with a red blanket in an attempt to stay dry downtown.
A homeless woman covers herself with a red blanket on a rainy day in San Diego County. Photo by Chris Stone

I remember the warmth and safety of the car. 

A homeless couple, with an infant, were living out of their car. I’m not sure how we crossed paths. I remember they invited my friend and I to spend the night with them  Squeezed in the back, next to the infant car seat and a pile of the family’s belongings, I felt protected and warm. 

The “clutter” in the car, that some may have said was blight, became our cocoon of safety for the night. The conversations, jokes and laughter that night echo the same as those happening now with my husband and son in our own home. There is no difference.

At 13, I was a homeless, troubled youth for almost two years.

My path to homelessness stemmed from a young single father, with undiagnosed PTSD, who was doing the best he could. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep me from straying away.  During that time, I experienced the full spectrum of homelessness. I slept in bushes, cars, encampments, and if I was lucky, in a crowded hotel room or vacant apartment.

I experienced the same struggles as our homeless community: the endless search for  personal and property safety, lack of privacy, exhaustion and endless law enforcement encounters. While our security, surroundings and provisions were unpredictable, the community of care amongst the unsheltered community was a consistent and powerful anchor.

Chula Vista’s “homeless” crisis is a product of many societal issues — not the homeless person.

As a homeless 13-year-old, I was introduced to drugs in a gesture of care to avoid hunger and stave off fatigue instead of being vulnerable in sleep. What would have happened if I had been unsheltered long enough to develop an addiction? What if that addiction could have also triggered mental health issues? 

I realize I may have been labeled a vagrant who didn’t want help or who was too far gone to help. I am thankful each day that this wasn’t the case for me.

It is my personal experience that has propelled my work in the community. This perspective has shaped my goal to grow an informed and engaged community in Chula Vista  that — together — can address some of the most challenging issues we face today.

When we truly understand that the lack of economic opportunity, access to affordable housing and community resources result in people becoming and remaining homeless, only then can we begin to effectively address their needs in a way that provides timely, responsive and effective services.

Chula Vista is on the right track to tackle this issue with the planned opening of the first bridge shelter. The physical planning of the shelter provides two of the most valued amenities for the unsheltered: security and privacy. 

The city is also recognizing that it cannot be the ultimate authority in providing the wrap-around services needed by these residents. City officials are in the process of selecting a nonprofit organization to manage the operations and provide support from a place of experience and expertise. This people-oriented, public/private partnership approach could be a game changer for the 138 homeless residents of this shelter.

I hope the city and the selected provider will recognize the existing community of support within the homeless community. I believe it is imperative we do not disrupt these existing support systems but instead support and provide access to groups who already have built a community.

Reducing and ultimately eradicating the societal challenges that cause homelessness is a tall order. The solutions do not lie with any one person or one governing body. We must include the perspectives, opinions and voices from our unsheltered community and our formerly unsheltered community. There must be a level of humility in this work.  

None of us have the answer and none of us can do this work alone. We can only address this issue together, with humility, and guided by values and commitments to extend respect and dignity for our homeless residents.

Zaneta Encarnacion is a candidate for mayor of Chula Vista.