It’s 6 p.m., and the end of a workday. On Interstate 5, cars zoom under the Island Avenue overpass. But on the bridge above there is a different bustle of traffic.
Not cars, but people. The sidewalks on either side of the street are filled with dozens who are undertaking what’s become a nightly effort. They snap open folding aluminum poles and shake out nylon covers. Within an hour, just as the sun sets behind the city’s skyline, most will be done.
This bridge on the edge of downtown, unremarkable during the day, will transform into a nighttime community of tents. It has become the after-hours home for about 30 of the city’s homeless. By the time the sun rises in the morning, the tents and their residents will be gone.
Tent cities are not a new phenomenon among homeless populations, but they are new to San Diego. The one that builds up and breaks down on the Island Avenue bridge each day is among several that have sprung up downtown and in East Village over the last four months.
The tents, concentrated in clusters, have lent the homeless’ characteristic transience an element of permanence in the city. They have created neighborhoods within neighborhoods that many of the homeless return to each night — to designated spots and familiar faces.
A few blocks south of Island Avenue, along a dark strip of Commercial Street shielded from the elements by the freeway passing overhead, more than 50 tents are pitched each night. On E Street, between the central library and the U.S. post office, more tents. They pop up in the B Street breezeway under the county courthouse and in front of the downtown sheriff’s headquarters.
A local homeless advocate named David Ross, known to the homeless as The Waterman because he hands out bottles of water, started distributing tents in March in anticipation of the closing of the city’s winter homeless shelter.
Today there are hundreds of tents on the streets, but a vast majority of San Diegans never see them. They go up after most have left their downtown jobs for the evening, and are packed up, their owners disbursed, just before the start of the next morning’s commute.
Municipal code deems lodging on public property illegal between the hours of 5:30 a.m. and 9 p.m. For the city’s homeless, it means constant transience, evading the complaints of business and homeowners who summon police to move them along. They’re forced to seek ways to exist in a city where by having no place to go, they risk breaking the law.
On a recent afternoon, Walter Bricker was seated on a fold-up chair in front of a fenced-off dirt lot on G Street near 15th Street. His chair and a shopping cart full of his belongings were carefully confined to an interstice of dirt about two feet wide running between the fence and the edge of the sidewalk. On a technicality, he could avoid being harassed by police, he said.
“[F]rom the fence to the edge of the sidewalk … that is not public property, it’s private property,” he said. He has permission from the lot’s owner to sit there. Otherwise, “anytime they feel like it the cops can come along and say you’ve gotta go,” he said.
Bricker, like his neighbors, waits until evening to set up his encampment. Then, his chair, his cart and his tent can encroach on the sidewalk without danger of breaking the law.
On the Island Avenue overpass, Tien Vo and his girlfriend, Petra, sit on stools under an umbrella beside their tent. Vo’s black hair is shoulder-length and unkempt. Petra’s eyes are hidden under the shadow of her cap’s brim.
“It’s like a little town,” Petra says. “Everybody kind of has their spot and that’s respected. Everybody takes care of their area.” On occasion, she says, outsiders drive through and cause trouble, picking fights or stealing out of tents and shopping carts. “It’s not people in our neighborhood who come and steal, it’s people from other neighborhoods.”
Most residents of the overpass lock their tents with padlocks from the inside.
Rick Sherman, who lives a few spots down the bridge sleeps among the tents, but not in one. His front teeth were knocked out by a group of young men one night last year. Still, he said he prefers sleeping out in the open. He says pitching the tents and taking them down each day is a hassle, unless it’s raining. Instead he spends his evenings reading fantasy novels on a round cushion just large enough to accommodate his body if he curls up.
He agreed to sell the tent he received from Ross to two “crackheads” for $10, he said. “They only gave me nine.” But the tents have changed the overpass, he said. For one, “It’s gotten cleaner. They’re gonna throw us outta here so we’ve gotta keep it clean,” he said.
He motions to a man nearby. “Lucky’s over there doing it right now, and he don’t even live here.”
As he speaks, Kenneth Williams is sweeping the street. They call him Lucky Star, and he’s been off of his medications for psychological disorders for more than two years. “I need to get money for some bleach,” he says, slurring his words. The gutter is caked with dried beer, soda, and urine, and the bristles of the broom do little to clear the grime away.
It’s a public street, but he sweeps it everyday, he said, because it gives police officers fewer reasons to issue tickets. He himself doesn’t camp on the bridge, but he cleans it, he says, because “I just serve the homeless.”
“Hey Lucky, have you eaten?” asks a man sitting in front of his tent and eating out of a to-go container nearby.
Tonight is the first night that Robert Taylor and Kandi Winskas will spend in their tent. The couple has been homeless for two months, and has been sleeping in the open air. “I couldn’t sleep, actually,” Winskas says.
Ross, who uses money from donors to provide water, shopping carts, and the tents, hasn’t had any tents to distribute recently, so Taylor saved money to buy his own. He spent $27 at Big-5 Sporting Goods and said he and Winskas will only need it for the rest of the month. By August 1, he says, he’ll have saved enough money from his disability insurance to move into an apartment.
Winskas has never been homeless before. Sitting inside her tent with Taylor at her side, their clothes well kept and their sneakers spot-free, she said the tent city has provided some comfort, but the constant pressure of having to break down the tent and move on early each morning wears her down.
Every morning, police officers patrol the tent areas of downtown. They issue lodging citations that the homeless then have to present at the city’s homeless court to have dismissed.
But lodging can be a tenuous determination to make. Police look for markers of permanence—a mattress, a shopping cart, or a suitcase. To peg a person as homeless, that person must display some of the accouterments of home.
“Sometimes, that’s a very fine line for officers, and it’s a difficult line,” said Captain Chris Ball of the San Diego Police Department’s downtown division.
“When you see people just sitting on the sidewalk, that’s one level,” he said. “The next level is lying on a couple of sheets of cardboard. The next is they’re on a mattress with a dog and a cat. The next level is they have a tent, a couple of chairs, a card table, and they’ve got their stereo going.”
“What is being communicated to us is that more people find that more alarming,” Ball said.
Roxanne Childs, who lives in a tent with her husband Bryan, said the tents have provided protection, but they’ve also increased the frequency with which the homeless have been cited.
“I’ve gotten two tickets in less than a week from the same officer for not taking my tent down by 5:30 (a.m.),” she said. “If they get a complaint, they’ve gotta comply, so we’ve gotta move,” she said.
“You’re always tired,” said Petra. “You’re always stressed, there’s always this pressure to move, and you’re always tired.”
On a recent morning, only one tent remained on the Island Avenue overpass by 6:30 a.m.
Fifteen minutes later, a police cruiser pulled up to the curb in front of the tent, and an officer climbed out of the car. He grabbed a corner of the tent’s base and lightly shook it, awaiting a response. A few seconds later he shook it more vigorously.
He unzipped the front flap and said something to the two people sleeping inside. After a few minutes, he climbed back into the car and drove away.
Bryan Childs climbed out of the tent and headed toward a nearby port-o-potty. “We overslept,” he said, referring to himself and his wife. “He said next time they’re going to give us a ticket.”
When asked what he was going to do next, he said, “Look for a place to store our stuff, and then look for a place to sleep.”