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Homelessness, and the despair associated with it, is surging in San Diego. It’s something you’ve likely noticed around town, but as Lisa Halverstadt reported this week, tents and makeshift homes now line downtown sidewalks, open space in Balboa Park and several other corners of the city.
And there’s a growing fear that the situation will only get worse. The county Medical Examiner’s Office shows deaths of unhoused people are also rising. Drug overdose deaths among homeless residents alone spiked 85 percent in the city last year.
Following Halverstadt’s story, we heard from one individual who explained why he turned down shelter when it was offered, and reminded us of the misconception we often hear: becoming homeless could never happen to you or me.
“It’s not something I’d ever accept, yet here I am,” wrote Sam Clemans in an email to Halverstadt. Clemans, who said he has lived in San Diego for 35 years and attended Mission Bay High School, now lives in an apartment in the Del Cerro neighborhood but lived in his family’s minivan for a majority of the pandemic.
“I’m not a drug addict or a bad person but that is who I am seen as,” he wrote.
I followed up with Clemans Thursday to hear more about his experience. Clemans was a stay-at-home dad to his four children and cared for a relative with dementia before going through a divorce with his wife, he said. He previously had a career in video production but turned to ridesharing and deliveries to get by.
“I was working this job, making deliveries, and felt like I was making quite a bit of money. I was a great employee and all that good stuff, but it was still hand-to-mouth. And, you know, if one thing goes wrong, it creates this cascade effect. For me, at least, it took a pandemic,” he said.
Clemans ended up at a safe parking lot for people living in their cars. He learned about the program in the news before losing his home.
“I see this story and I’m like, ‘Hey, that’s great. That’s going to help a lot of people.’ Then I find myself needing this thing and I show up there, and, you know, they can’t do everything. I don’t expect everything of them. But there were people fighting in the parking lot. There were people using meth … and the staff can’t control it.”
After almost four weeks Clemans said he couldn’t get a case worker due to the increase in demand and left the program. He found a lot in Mission Beach where he could park instead.
Aside from having to find a safe place to park and sleep every night, Clemans had to navigate the systems intended to help, though they weren’t always helpful.
“Programs were put out there, but I just did not qualify for them … Federal help from the pandemic saved my life,” he said, referring to the stimulus payments he received.
Eventually Clemans was offered shelter at the Convention Center — a venue familiar to him from his work in video production. He turned it down, concerned about hygiene and being in close quarters with others after getting sick himself early in the pandemic.
“I don’t want to live like that — feet away from the next cot,” he said.
After moving around some more and a short stint in Northern California, Clemans has been in his new home for roughly two months.
“When I look at homeless people on the street, you can tell they didn’t just appear there. A lot of these people have educations and they all have a history of some sort. I really don’t know what the one factor is that leads to it,” he said, looking back on his experience. “For me … I ended up losing my family support and really didn’t have anywhere to turn to.”
What We’re Working On
- The San Diego City Council approved a set of rules this week for how street vendors can operate on the city’s sidewalks. Our editor Andrea Lopez-Villafaña explained what that means, and how the community reacted to the new regulations here.
- County leaders are pushing San Diego to eliminate planet-warming gasses in less than 15 years, a full decade faster than the state. But our environment reporter, MacKenzie Elmer, found it likely won’t happen. Even if all the cities in San Diego County did everything they planned to fight climate change, the region would still only be halfway toward its goal. Read more here.
- In 2019, we published a story about local doctors who wrote vaccine exemptions for students in the San Diego Unified School District based on questionable medical science. In response, the Medical Board of California revoked the license of two doctors and two others were barred from writing future vaccine exemptions. Will Huntsberry has the update.
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