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When I first saw the rocks go in to clean up the underside of the 5 freeway at Imperial Avenue, my first thought was, “Hallelujah! It’s about time.”
Before you think I’m some heartless, uncaring soul, I’d like to share my perspective. I’ve been a resident of Sherman Heights and Logan Heights – the two neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the underpass – since 2012. In addition to being an artist who’s actively engaged in the area, I also sit on the board of the Central Village Maintenance Enhancement District, a city-sanctioned group that uses tax money to keep area sidewalks and streets clean.
For those not aware of the situation here in the East Village and surrounding areas of San Diego, most homeless service providers are located here. Partly as a result, the largest concentration of homeless in the entire county reside here. There are multiple encampments on the streets and in various lots often provided for that purpose. This is in addition to the shelters, such as Father Joe’s, and the charity kitchens that hand out food. There are blocks upon blocks of homeless people.
These rocks impacted one small segment of this larger population. News reports seem to imply that the entire homeless population was displaced to parts unknown. That’s simply not the case. For many, they found an alternate encampment under the Commercial Avenue overpass, which sits one block over and was previously vacant. In the larger scheme of things, the installation of rocks had little to no impact on the homeless and their living conditions, which in the case of the Imperial bridge were nothing short of appalling.
This area desperately needs more attention. We need some attempt at solutions that don’t just push the people to where they can be ignored.
Part of the problem is that the areas east of downtown where the homeless reside have historically been poor and minority. That demographic tends not to complain, and when they do, politicians don’t feel obligated to act. The political solution has been to expel the homeless from more affluent areas, contain them in ghettos where nobody of import complains and then forget about them. That has been the status quo for years.
That’s neither an adequate nor fair solution to the residents of the area nor for the homeless on the streets. Crime is high there. Piles of trash lie scattered, the uneaten food ripe for vermin and disease. The smell of urine permeates the air. No one should live in or around these conditions. Yet this is the reality.
Don’t believe me? Here’s some before-and-after photos of the Imperial underpass. (The city was about to clean up so most of the people, tents and shopping carts had been removed in the before photos.)
Before you condemn those us who approve of the rocks, ask yourself: Would you live next to this? Would you walk through this? Would you let your children play here? Is it even humane to allow anyone to live in these conditions? Please keep in mind that this scene lies not in some remote location; it’s adjacent to a residential neighborhood filled with working people and their families who dealt with this scene every day.
In the face of this homegrown humanitarian disaster, what does not exist is the political will to dedicate significant resources – i.e. money – to truly resolving the issues. If this problem was playing out in La Jolla or Point Loma, it would have been resolved yesterday. Instead, all we get here on the poor, minority-dominant eastside areas are a handful of rocks, and we only get them because the city is worried about appearances for the Padres and their suburban fans whose sensibilities might be damaged by viewing the consequences of the city’s policies on homelessness.
On social media, I’ve been accused of being a “pioneer” without the appropriate male genitalia (to put it politely) to handle living in the neighborhood. However, if anything, it’s us “pioneers” who will push the city to bring resources to resolve the damn problem. I can assure you that, though the problem has been around for a long time, neither the newcomers nor the multigenerational residents are happy about.
Just because the many, often immigrant parents in the area either don’t complain about it or don’t have their voices heard, that doesn’t mean they want their kids playing near the many drunken men and women who congregate in and around the path to the market any more than any other parent. They don’t want their children playing in alleyways filled with human feces any more than you would.
Here’s some photos that I recently shot of a human excrement-filled alleyway one street away from my Sherman Heights house. That people sleep amid human feces, as a woman does in my photos, here in beautiful San Diego is unbelievable – but for the fact that it’s happening as I write these words. No parent from Carmel Valley, Mission Hills, Point Loma, University City or any other suburban neighborhood would allow these conditions in their communities. Why is it somehow OK here?
That rocks were necessary to remove the homeless from the underpass is both unfortunate yet beneficial to all involved. The best outcome of this rock situation, however, would be if people channel their anger to the city and force it to direct resources to fixing the underlying problems. They’re bad now and only getting worse. We need your anger. We need it directed at those, like Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who can do something about this problem. Though it’s centered in the East Village and Sherman Heights, homelessness and its impacts are issues for all of San Diego to resolve.
John R. Mireles is an artist living in Logan Heights and currently working on a project to photograph Americans in all 50 states. Mireles’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.