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Vincent Malijan came back to San Diego without much money or identification. It was the early months of the pandemic and he had nowhere else to turn.
He’d recently suffered a stroke. Both his hand and his tongue were shaky, but he managed to place a phone call.
He was at a bus station and needed help.
None of Vincent’s family members had room at the time — “we were all just barely getting by,” said his sister-in-law Susan — so they found him a bed at the new homeless shelter inside the San Diego Convention Center. He could sleep there and work with a speech therapist while his relatives summoned bureaucratic alchemy to revive his livelihood on paper.
It helped that Susan had been a mail carrier downtown and already knew some of the service providers. But the family was unsure of where exactly to start, asking friends on social media for advice.
Getting Vincent back into the system was harder than it might sound. The process of re-establishing someone’s official identity so they can get health care and other benefits has always been tedious. But it was compounded because of the pandemic and Vincent’s physical condition.
He could barely talk or write and his relatives didn’t have the authority to advocate on his behalf. The shelter had to provide a waiver giving the family permission to share confidential information, which was part of the original calculus for placing him there.
Even then, the Malijans got the impression as they called around that officials were being bombarded with requests. At times they felt as though they were under suspicion — like they were trying to scam the government.
“To get him assistance was ridiculous,” recalled Jeffrobert, his brother. “When I tried to explain to people on the phone, they would hang up on us.”
After several months of pleading with administrators and filing forms, Vincent received medical treatment, Social Security and other benefits. The whole process took six months.
As time rolled on, his relatives noticed an improvement in his mood and mobility. They bought him an electric bike and he started riding around town, beaming, they said, as he came up the hill toward their house.
“It was a blessing for him to reunite with the family,” said Joseph, another brother. “Then he was taken away again.”
By November, a room had become available in Joseph’s home in Paradise Hills. But days before he was scheduled to move out of the Convention Center, Vincent tested positive for COVID-19. He spent the rest of his life in a hospital.
He died in late December without his loved ones by his side. The family took the little money Vincent had saved up and spent it on his cremation costs and a remembrance in his honor.
The excitement of the last few months turned to grief.
They feel today as though they were robbed. Being Vincent’s caretaker brought them closer than ever. “We worked so hard during the time he was here,” Jeffrobert said.
Vincent was one of at least 33 who succumbed to COVID and was later identified by the county as a person experiencing homelessness. The term “homeless” is fluid. Someone, for instance, may have been couch surfing when they got sick.
But several of the death certificates Voice of San Diego reviewed as part of its examination of the first year of the pandemic clearly identify the person’s living status. Some list an intersection downtown as the last-known address. Another simply states: “unsheltered streets of San Diego.”
Early in the pandemic, case rates among homeless residents were lower than expected. Observers credited the city’s decision to move people out of shelters and into the Convention Center. Some also ended up in hotel rooms to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus to others.
Officials said they’d learned from the deadly hepatitis A outbreak only a few years prior and continued to keep the Convention Center open despite calls from advocates and public health experts — around the same time Vincent was in the hospital — to move more people into individual spaces. Critics argued that putting hundreds of vulnerable folks in a single place was a ticking time bomb.
By 2021, the Regional Task Force on Homelessness reported that the hospitalization rate for people experiencing homelessness was much higher than the general population. An outbreak, some said, was inevitable, but by quickly turning the Convention Center into a shelter officials had protected and ultimately saved lives.
Still, as well-intentioned as the region’s response may have been, there were larger forces at play that made living without stable housing more fraught and precarious than ever before.
The homeless people who contracted the coronavirus were more likely to perish at a younger age. County data show that the median age of someone who died of COVID since the start of the pandemic was 76. But when homeless people are separated from the wider population, the median age of death drops to 62.
The gap is startling but mirrors what we already know about the extreme toll that homelessness can take on the human mind and body.
The major causes of death for homeless people under 45 tend to be related to substance abuse, mental health and assault. Those who make it into their 50s and beyond tend to die from the same conditions that plague the wider population, but decades sooner.
Dr. Margot Kushel, a physician at UC San Francisco who studies vulnerable communities, has found that homeless people age at a much quicker rate. Many grew up poor and accumulated a lifetime of toxic stress. They typically suffer from poor nutrition and a lack of access to health care. Some served time in jail. Some worked physically demanding jobs earlier in life.
“Homeless people in their 50s, they really look in every measure like people who are in their 70s,” Kushel told me. “Homeless people in their 60s look more like people in their 80s.”
Vincent was 69 when he passed. He had been born in Guam and raised in National City in a big family. Relatives described Vincent’s father as an austere man, a dishwasher in the Navy who didn’t make much money and who would physically punish his children.
Vincent started a family of his own, got divorced and ended up in Long Beach in the 1990s working jobs in the shipyards and elsewhere. That’s when his life really fell apart. He was arrested and sentenced as part of a drug trafficking case.
Prosecutors alleged that James Cabaccang and his two brothers had transported large quantities of methamphetamine from California to Guam. The defendants maintained for years that they had been railroaded and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ended up reversing part of the conviction.
The federal government netted $500,000 after seizing jewels, cars and money, one newspaper reported. James Cabaccang got life in prison for what appear to be non-violent offenses. Two decades later, President Barack Obama commuted Cabaccang’s sentence as one of his last acts in office.
At trial, one of the Cabaccang brothers had been accused of recruiting people to fly from Los Angeles to Guam with packages of methamphetamine under their clothing, then wire the money back.
Vincent’s role in the conspiracy is murky because the court records are sealed. The family members I spoke to said they didn’t know the details of the case, only that Vincent had gotten himself involved in something bad. He was one of at least nine defendants and tight with the Cabaccangs.
Vincent’s son, Christopher, was a teenager at the time and remembered how he used to sit on a stool in the bar that the family ran. The feds took the bar too, he said.
Vincent got 15 years behind bars and was shipped to Arizona in 2010 to serve out his probation. He did another brief stint in jail for failing to tell his probation officer about a change of address. After that, he was booted back into civil society — a free man, at least in theory. The conviction made it difficult to find housing or a job. He didn’t have any specific skills he could lean on and by then he was in his late 50s.
“It fucked up his life,” Christopher said. “With his record, who would hire him? He hid it because he was ashamed.”
The two stayed in touch as Vincent moved around the southwest. For a time, he landed in a trailer park but his girlfriend, according to multiple family members, died before the pandemic hit.
In June 2020, Vincent took a one-way trip to San Diego.
Despite the awful circumstances, Vincent’s return gave his family the chance to squash any lingering tension. Christopher, in particular, had plenty of pent-up resentment toward his father, but he took care of him and loved him nonetheless.
“I could see his remorse, his grief, his sorrow,” Christopher said. “It was just the way he looked at me. He would cry and get real emotional, like, ‘I wish I could have done more for you.’”
I spoke to Christopher on the one-year anniversary of his father’s death. The day before, he and others had held a barbecue in Vincent’s memory so they could say goodbye and repeat some of the old jokes they’d told about the old man over the years — how he’d shake your hand and steal your wallet.
Rather than a mourning, the gathering was a celebration of a rough and tumble life, warts and all. Christopher took to Facebook that same day for some healthy shit-talking. “Never Forget,” he posted alongside a photograph of Vincent wearing tie-dye. “Dad, brother, uncle, friend, menace, u get the point.”
He certainly made an impression on the staff at the shelter. Bob McElroy, CEO of Alpha Project, said Vincent was a sweet guy and well-liked. It helped that his family cared enough about him to serve as his translator when others couldn’t understand him.
By all accounts, Vincent was highly motivated to get better. And just like that, on the eve of being back on his own feet, he was gone — something that happens with alarming regularity, even if the general public is oblivious of its own underbelly and the effort it takes to pull people out of destitution.
“I see it every day,” McElroy said. “You could take that story and add a hundred to it.”