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Gy Kirk looks more like a bouncer than the manager of a salad shop.

He grew up in Washington, D.C. and carries a bit of that East Coast gruffness, wearing a black t-shirt and KR3W ballcap, though he’s bend-over-backwards friendly.

Behind the counter at Salad Style at 8th Avenue and F Street, Kirk keeps a ramshackle Rolodex of sorts — a stapled-together collection of order forms and business cards that he uses daily. He’s scrawled numbers on them to the city’s homeless outreach teams, to a mayoral aide, to the heads of some nearby homeless service agencies.

He said one of the chief challenges to having a thriving business for people who live and work in the neighborhood is the number of people they have to walk past — or step over, in Kirk’s own experience — to get in the door. So he calls the city for help moving people along, often.

“I’m just trying to better the neighborhood,” he said. “I’m happy to help any fellow person. I’m compassionate. But I’m trying to help motivate a clean city.”

Beyond having the police come pick people up, Kirk said he’s not exactly sure what should happen.

He threw out an idea to build more beds and services in another neighborhood, the Midway district. He said he wants more places like the Neil Good Day Center where people can shower and use the bathroom. He’s heard about the plans for the World Trade Center, which will provide year-round shelter beds for a couple hundred people.

Kirk said he’d like the city to invest even more in places for people to go during the day or at night — something homeless advocates fight for yearly, too.

He would also like the city to better regulate the social service providers to guard against the kind of sprawling lines that otherwise pop up nightly when groups serve meals. He said the managers of Rachel’s House, a nearby shelter, often touch base, and he sees them as a good neighbor. But because many of the service organizations have been there for years before the condos sprang out of the ground, the neighborhood can often feel like a turf battle.

City leaders can help mediate that, Kirk suggested.

Homelessness across the city, with its concentration downtown, is a complicated issue that has perplexed city leaders for years. The World Trade Center plan is the first major year-round city efforts passed since the city signed on to a countywide plan to end chronic homelessness six years ago.

Most people working and living in East Village say they understand it’s complicated. But the city approved the plans to build condos in the neighborhood, and the juxtaposition between hundreds of homeless people and thousands of their new neighbors in East Village’s condo towers is unsustainable, Kirk said.

“They built up all these condos, but how are you going to fill them if Johnny or Suzy Homeless is sitting in front?” he asked. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people changing their clothes, right on the street.”

Talk to people who live and work in East Village about their neighborhood, and this issue comes up within minutes. A number of social service agencies have been here for much longer than the condo towers, and the city’s lack of shelter beds year-round keeps the police from being able to cite people for being on the streets. So Salad Style serves Moroccan couscous, soba noodles and grilled salmon across the intersection from the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen.

I’m spending the week in the uptown and downtown neighborhoods of District 3, a densely populated, urban City Council district that includes neighborhoods like North Park, University Heights and Hillcrest. I’m spending time with people who live and work in these neighborhoods to get to know the issues and questions they’ve encountered, and taking them to the district’s representative, Todd Gloria, who’s running for re-election with no challenger.

Dealing with homeless people came up in conversations I had in other neighborhoods this week, too, especially in Hillcrest.

Kirk said one of the numbers in his Rolodex does him no good. Despite calling East Village’s current councilman, Kevin Faulconer, often, he’s never heard back. At the end of the year, East Village will become part of Gloria’s district. Kirk’s heard good things about Gloria’s responsiveness through the grapevine, he said. (Update: Faulconer’s office responds in the comments below.)

Not everyone sees the homeless issue quite so starkly.

Ruby Cougler runs the Space 4 Art collective where a handful of artists live and a few dozen have studios at 15th Avenue and J Street in East Village. Down the street, several dozen people sat and leaned on the sidewalks in the afternoon sun flanked by shopping carts and tarps.

“It’s more depressing than it is dangerous,” Cougler said. Space 4 Art members talk about the neighborhood and the homeless population frequently, she said. “It’s not a problem until it’s a problem.”

There’s a guy who often sits in front of the collective and sometimes borrows colored pencils. Cougler has one of his sketchbooks on her desk. She held up a self-portrait he sketched.

Photo by Kelly Bennett
Ruby Cougler holds a self-portrait by Eric Duhart, a homeless man who often sits on the sidewalk in front of the Space 4 Art collective she manages.

But, Cougler said, health concerns do abound. She sees someone defecate in the street or the sidewalk several times a month, and urinate nearly daily. She said that’s where she’d like to see city resources go — make some facilities where people staying on the streets can relieve themselves and shower.

Both Cougler and Kirk work in the neighborhood, but I wanted to talk to a Neighborhood resident, too.

I met up with Doug Downing and his dog, Goff, on the patio at Neighborhood, an East Village bar and restaurant. Goff sports a green Mohawk left over from St. Patrick’s Day. Downing is an East Village early adopter — he bought a condo at Fahrenheit in 2004, before it was even built, and was the first person to move in on his floor.

Photo by Kelly Bennett
Doug Downing

Downing’s perspective differed from Kirk’s — he said his part of the neighborhood feels safer than it once did, and he comes across fewer homeless people. Downing’s big neighborhood wish is for a long-delayed leash-free dog park, and for more city support for small businesses.

I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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