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On a one-acre dirt lot in Escondido, sits a 2,000-square-foot home surrounded by several RVs, trailer coaches, pickup trucks and old cars.
Chairs, lawn ornaments and a grill take up the only section of grass in front of the house, and a “Trump 2020” flag hangs above the front window.
The property on West El Norte Parkway is home to six to 10 people, though the exact number is unclear, who have all lived there for as long as two years. Most were previously homeless.
In September 2021, the property was foreclosed, and has since been owned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The property was originally in reverse mortgage, and once it foreclosed, HUD bought the property in a foreclosure sale, according to Baron Tennelle, an attorney representing HUD.
The previous owner, Robert E. Donelson, passed away in 2019. His stepdaughter, Terry Bearer, still lives in the house along with the other residents, some of whom have been living there for more than two years.
The people staying there are not paying rent or the mortgage on the home.
Bearer reportedly began inviting others to stay in the house after Donelson passed away. Slowly, it became a sort of community.
One of the residents, Steve Wood, told Voice of San Diego that he’s been living on the property for more than two years. Before moving in, he was homeless and living out of his car.
Terry Bearer and the residents who were already staying at the property welcomed him in.
“They opened their home to me, and they became my family,” Wood said. “I work hard here. They work hard here. If I wasn’t for them, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Wood is a craftsman and builds trailers out of recycled materials, which is his main source of income. He said it’s not “trash” or “debris” on the property, but the materials he uses to build.
He added that most of the residents are employed in some capacity.
“I’m not a squatter, and I’ve never been a squatter,” Steve said.
Steve, like the others, does not pay rent or a mortgage.
He said the residents have created ground rules for living on the property, which include no fighting, no drugs, and everyone has to pull their weight to take care of the property and to pay for things like food and electricity.
All the residents describe the group as a family that looks after each other, and they fear being separated from one another.
The house has become a flashpoint for neighbors complaining about disturbances and trash, leading the city of Escondido to file a lawsuit against the residents, citing code violations and attempting to declare the property a public nuisance.
“Occupants are using, allowing, maintaining and depositing large amounts of trash, junk, debris, inoperable vehicles, and occupied recreational vehicles and trailer coaches connected to public utilities on the property,” the lawsuit states. “Occupants further utilize tarpaulin and green plastic sheeting to screen these prohibited items from public view.”
Last month, San Diego Judge Cynthia Freeland sided with the city, granting a temporary restraining order barring the residents from “using the property in violation of the law.”
The residents haven’t left, though, leaving the city and courts now looking to the landlord – the federal government – to kickstart an eviction.
The Escondido City Attorney’s office had no further comment on the pending litigation.
Given the house is property of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, they filed a lawsuit, too.
San Diego Judge Robert Longstreth ruled in that separate unlawful detainer lawsuit earlier this month that HUD can evict the people living on the property as they are not paying a mortgage or rent, and they have no legal right to be there.
Tenelle said they are waiting for the court to issue the writ of possessions that will allow the sheriff’s department to move forward with the eviction. He expects it to happen in the next couple of weeks.
Juliana Musheyev, an activist with the San Diego branch of the Party for Liberation and Socialism, which is helping the residents, told Voice the ideal outcome is for the residents to get housing or shelter once they are evicted. The organization wants to raise money to help them through the eviction process.
She said some of the residents have disabilities, making it hard for them to find or keep jobs, and a couple of them lost their jobs during or after the pandemic. A few residents previously lived in RVs, but once their tags expired and they couldn’t afford to renew them, they had to risk parking illegally or become homeless.
These individuals are all there because the alternative would be homelessness, Musheyev said.
The residents held a press conference last week at the property in front of a banner that read “Housing is a Human Right! No Evictions, No foreclosures.”
They urged the community to support their cause by pressuring the city of Escondido to find alternative and long-term housing for these residents or donating money to help the residents be more financially secure once they’re evicted.
It was around this time that the next-door neighbor started yelling profanities at the group over the property’s chain-link fence, attempting to derail the press conference. The group ignored him, and after a few minutes, he left.
Karen Cash, who has been living on the property for two and a half years, said she doesn’t understand why the neighbors have such a problem with them because they don’t make noise and they keep to themselves.
“Being homeless doesn’t mean we have a disease; we are homeless because we are human beings, and it’s expensive” Cash said at the press conference. “All these people here are friends and family, and to see them go would be really hard.”
The residents and organizers said that eviction will only add to the growing homelessness problem in San Diego. They suggested that eviction moratoriums should become permanent, and that cities and counties should consider programs for renewing RV and vehicle tags.
When I asked the organizers about connecting the residents to shelters, they said that many shelters are difficult to get into and are often not a long-term solution.