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Dozens of tents and packed shopping carts line sidewalks and underpasses in gentrifying East Village. Homeless men and women, some of who have lived here for years and others more recently, gather for impromptu meals and overnight encampments.
Meanwhile, residents with often new condos and businesses look on, overwhelmed and unsure what to do. Many of them are new to the neighborhood, too.
Welcome to East Village, the front line of San Diego’s homelessness crisis.
Street homelessness is up countywide but the problem is growing at a particularly rapid clip here. The neighborhood’s homeless population has spiked nearly 80 percent – from about 480 to more than 865 – in the last year alone, according to a downtown business group’s monthly count.
Here’s a look at how much the unsheltered homeless population has grown in East Village in recent years – and how much this year’s growth is outstripping past trends.
Local leaders and nonprofits that serve the homeless are reluctant to point to any single reason for the upsurge in homelessness in East Village. The neighborhood’s long had a large homeless population. They say there are likely a number of reasons – everything from a dearth of affordable housing to stagnant wages and much more.
Tent cities are increasingly popping up, along with residential towers and new businesses.
The tent cities are emerging under overpasses like this one.
They’re also striking around Neil Good Day Center, a facility operated by nearby Father Joe’s Villages where homeless folks can get their mail and access other services.
There’s a permanence to these makeshift settlements that’s struck even longtime San Diego homeless services workers like Bernie Miles.
“People have just put the tents up and said, ‘This is my spot,’” said Miles, who supervises workers who try to connect downtown homeless folks with services at North Park-based Episcopal Community Services.
Those tent cities could be helping fuel what appears to be a massive uptick in homelessness on East Village streets. Groups like the Downtown San Diego Partnership count each tent as housing two people when they tabulate the number of homeless downtown.
The tent cities are particularly dense in the area near Father Joe’s Villages’ St. Vincent de Paul campus on Imperial Avenue.
Indeed, last month the Downtown Partnership recorded that more than two-thirds of the population who live on East Village streets settled in southeastern East Village, the corner of the neighborhood that’s home to that campus and other homeless services.
Ruth Bruland, chief program officer at Father Joe’s Villages, said she’s troubled by what she sees as she walks in the area and drives to work.
“I’m in the industry, if you will, and it’s shocking,” Bruland said. “We are hamsters in a hamster wheel trying to make things happen for people and open up doors where they can exit homelessness, and here it is, growing around us like it is.”
They wish they could do more – and more quickly.
East Village resident and business groups do, too.
“It’s getting worse by the minute,” said Robert Weichelt, an East Village Residents Group board member.
The real estate broker said some residents overwhelmed by growing encampments and panhandling are considering moving out of the neighborhood. He recently helped one young couple move.
The residents group recently circulated a report urging the city to take immediate steps to address the growing problem.
Homeless folks who live in East Village also feel pressure.
Steve Hillard, who’s lived on the streets of East Village for years, told me earlier this year he’s sensed a change in the last year.
“They don’t want us to be downtown,” he said.
Hillard is one of several homeless folks who told me they’re concerned with the city’s handling of encampment sweeps conducted weekly since March. The city has said the operations are meant to clean up the streets, not displace homeless people.
Hillard didn’t see them that way.
“I’m already being punished for being out here,” he said. “I wish they would be more respectful.”
I haven’t run into Hillard since the city installed these rocks under an Imperial Avenue overpass but I can’t imagine he’s pleased with them, either.
The city claimed this spring that it installed these rocks along a common route to Petco Park in East Village following complaints from Sherman Heights residents. But VOSD contributor Kelly Davis later found that the city’s former ballpark administrator actually took the lead and aimed to discourage encampments in advance of the All-Star Game.
David Gapp, another East Village Residents Group board member, defended the rock garden. He said East Village and Sherman Heights residents are concerned for their safety and sometimes can’t use sidewalks in the area because they’re covered with tents.
Gapp emphasized that he’s long felt compassion toward homeless folks but said he’s watched fights break out and some others have chased him and his wife. “The rest of the city probably has no idea what’s going on,” Gapp said.
Despite the unsafe conditions – including for homeless people – people continue to arrive in East Village, some from other parts of San Diego and some from outside the area.
Last week, I met Debra Hawkins, a homeless Army veteran who took a bus from Imperial Valley to San Diego.
Hawkins said a homeless couple suggested she head to East Village to seek help after she landed in San Diego, distraught after losing her suitcase. Hawkins said she’s checked in at Rachel’s Women’s Shelter daily in hopes of securing a bed.
“Do you think I like being out here?” she said. “No, I don’t.”
Spencer Sharp, who said he’s been homeless in East Village for about a year and a half, had a different story. I caught up with him under this makeshift shelter near the Day Center.
Sharp, an admitted addict, acknowledged he appreciates easy access to drugs in the East Village area, though he said he’d find them elsewhere, too.
Sharp doesn’t want to remain on the street indefinitely, yet he said he’s grown comfortable with it. Others I’ve talked to – including Hillard – feel the same. Living on the street is a better option than programs or shelter beds they’ve been offered, they said. They don’t like the rules or don’t feel confident they’d mesh with the others already there. Or they’re concerned about spending the limited cash they have on rent.
In East Village, they can easily take a shower and get a meal – whether from a service provider like Father Joe’s or from a church group – without entering a program.
And they’ve gotten to know many of the people who live on the streets around them, even if they don’t always feel safe.
“I know most everybody,” Sharp said. “Everybody knows me.”