The Duwara Consciousness Foundation gives out free meals to homeless residents in downtown during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

As the coronavirus pandemic rages through the region and most people stay home, homeless San Diegans are confronting a loss of food resources they have long relied on to survive.

Many meal operations – both organized and impromptu – have halted. Cafés and restaurants that once served as daytime refuges from the streets and in some cases, handed over free food, are no longer open. Meanwhile, promises of an influx of new shelter options largely have yet to materialize for unsheltered people in San Diego. For now, those living on the streets are mostly detached from daily news updates on the coronavirus, leading to more fear and confusion and for some, battles with hunger.

Brian Schultz, 52, who usually stays near the San Diego River in the Mission Valley area, said he and friends have on at least one occasion gone without meals for days. He estimated he’s lost 10 pounds the past few weeks as resources have dried up.

Schultz said some of his friends have struggled with exhaustion and have broken down crying.

“I am watching people I care about who are starving to death,” Schultz said.

Other homeless San Diegans also describe increasing daily struggles to access food.

Ernesto Rubalcaba, 60, who stays in the Chicano Park area, said fellow San Diegans no longer stop by with snacks or warm food that he and others once appreciated.

“That doesn’t happen at all,” Rubalcaba said.

Mike Davis, 51, said homeless San Diegans staying downtown have also struggled to cope as consistent food drop-offs – namely from church and charity groups that until recently delivered everything from fast-food burgers to packaged meals – that many had come to count on have stopped.

“A lot of people relied on that,” Davis said.

Food services that remain or that have tried to bolster their offerings to address the gap have been inundated.

The Duwara Consciousness Foundation began serving vegan burritos out of a bright orange trailer at 16th Street and Imperial Avenue in East Village every weekday in mid-March following other closures and quickly attracted hundreds of people.

After a week and half, foundation co-founder Davinder Singh said the truck began drawing 400 people a day in a line that snakes around the block. Many standing in line have reported to volunteers that they haven’t eaten in two or three days, and most ask if they can have a second burrito.

The Duwara Consciousness Foundation gives out free meals to homeless residents in downtown during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

“It’s devastating,” Singh said. “It’s so sad.”

Chris Nafis, pastor of the Living Water Church of the Nazarene in East Village, said his church has teamed with the Voices of Our City Choir to try to respond to the exploding need. Together, they have increased what had been a twice-monthly food distribution to serve low-income and homeless San Diegans and a Friday food service to three times a week.

The church’s weekly Sunday night meals – which had once followed church services – have also seen a boom in demand. The last Sunday of March, 150 people showed up to stand in line – more than double the number that had come the previous Sunday.

Nafis said the church scrambled to assemble burritos, chips and apples to supplement the sandwiches it had planned to hand out that evening.

“We weren’t prepared for it,” Nafis said. “We only had 55 sandwiches.”

John Brady, director of advocacy for the choir of homeless and formerly homeless San Diegans, said growing food lines speak to homeless San Diegans’ escalating struggles.

“I’ve never seen the level of desperation we’re seeing on the streets right now,” Brady said.

Jessica Kramer, a homeless advocate in Carlsbad who has been homeless herself, is worried about homeless residents there, particularly those with mental illnesses who lack information about the pandemic and available food resources.

Kramer and fellow Carlsbad homeless advocate Ken Neuhaus work closely with the Church of the Advent in Carlsbad. The church had to significantly cut its food services due to social distancing guidelines, Neuhaus said.

Kramer and Neuhaus are doing things differently now to bring meals to the homeless since the church is serving fewer meals. But they said it’s more challenging than ever to find people who rely on food resources. Neuhaus said there’s usually a strong community of unsheltered homeless people to feed in Magee Park, but now that the park is closed, it’s harder to find people.

He said Carlsbad’s homeless population is virtually invisible now.

Now, Kramer and Neuhaus drive around town to find those people and pass out 60 boxed meals per day provided by the O’Side Kitchen Collaborative, as well as donated clothing.

Ken Neuhaus fills his truck with meals and clothes to give to homeless residents in Carlsbad. / Photo courtesy of Ken Neuhaus

“It’s like a post-nuclear war type of thing. Beforehand, everything was chugging along starting with the U.S. economy and then all of a sudden, this thing hit and the first impact was meals stopped,” Neuhaus said. “Churches pulled back. Fill-A-Belly pulled back. It went from six meals a week to zero right before our eyes. It’s a culture shock because it immediately affects people living in the margins. They’re like ‘Oh shit, I’m not eating tonight.’”

Local and state officials along with food trucks and meal providers like O’Side Kitchen Collaborative have rushed to provide more aid.

Heather Sorgine, co-founder and director of philanthropy of nonprofit O’ Side Kitchen Collaborative, said as a result of the pandemic the organization is now using its food resources to serve sheltered and unsheltered homeless. It’s new for them, Sorgine said.

O’Side Kitchen Collaborative rescues food that would otherwise go to waste and recently took in food inventory surpluses from local restaurants that had to close. The organization creates meals and partners with feeding organizations and volunteers, like Kramer and Newhaus, to bring meals to people in North County.

Oceanside gave the nonprofit a 12-week stipend of a maximum $464,564 to make about 500 meals per day for the city’s homeless, Sorgine said. The funding is also being used to supplement an existing but unmet need in Carlsbad and Vista.

Sorgine said the organization needs help from those cities to make meals for homeless residents who are now lacking food due to coronavirus closures. She said the nonprofit is in talks with Carlsbad to persuade officials there are many hungry sheltered and unsheltered homeless going unnoticed. She said city officials in North County need to recognize the growing need for funding to feed homeless populations.

County and city of San Diego officials have rushed to try to provide more shelter options for vulnerable San Diegans, including at the Convention Center and in hundreds of motel rooms.

They have pledged to provide meals to residents of the hotel rooms and new shelters that for now are housing people who have moved in from other shelters. The county has also deployed hygiene kits and handwashing stations aimed at aiding homeless San Diegans.

But many unsheltered homeless San Diegans have been left to largely fend for themselves as they fight to meet their basic needs and the world shuts down around them.

“Everybody’s stressed out,” Schultz said.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

Kayla Jimenez

Kayla Jiminez was a staff writer for Voice of San Diego. She covered about communities, politics and regional issues in North County as well as school...

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