From the Herald-Citizen, September 19, 2004.
My eleventh floor balcony door looks west over San Diego Bay, toward the sunset. The view is lovely. But I look down on a scene in the foreground more arresting, one fecund with the drama of elemental life. I watch a daily struggle.
The scene beneath me includes an improvised parking lot, one made from the concrete floor slab of a demolished building. On the east side, the side near me, the wall has been razed to the ground so that cars can drive in. Along the north and west sides, remnants of the demolished walls stand waist-high like jagged parapets. A derelict building with a sound wall but a collapsed roof sprawls along the south side. These are the borders of the temple. Life, primal and raw, plays out on this shabby slab.
Cars fill the lot during working hours, but leave at quitting time. Homeless people take the lot then. They make their homes against the wall, spreading blankets beside it, setting their belongings around them. Being tallest, the south wall is popular, but the west wall is a favorite too. No one wants to be in the middle of the slab, vulerable on all sides. No one makes his bed on the north wall, running along Ash Street; that wall is the toilet. When I walked by it once the soured stench of human waste filled my sinsuses, and altered a hamburger’s taste thirty minutes later. Thereafter, I detoured north a block to avoid the latrene’s smell. Each morning the homeless fade into the city and the cars come back to the slab. Another workday begins.
Scattered just east of this scene, new office towers sprout tall—high finance and big money abundantly evident. The money pours into rampant construction while the city ignores a greater, but less-agreeable, problem—the very people on the street.
I had come to San Diego to run the Rock and Roll Marathon—a grandiose urban race famous for media attention, glamour, glitz and noise. Runners encounter loud bands playing in each mile along the course. Because it spawned other similar races, including the Country Music Marathon, all managed by the same San Diego company, it’s sometimes called the mother of musical marathons.
By most measures, my race went well, but the street life was more interesting than the race. I stayed a couple of extra days.
San Diego seems an apt place for the first musical marathon; a center for endurance sports, the world’s first triathlon was held here. Ironman legends, Mark Allen and Scott Tinely, live here, among others. San Diego: city of Sea World and sunshine; beaches, surf, golden girls and golden boys running in the sand. The men who live on the slab at Ash Street know nothing of this.
The homeless have a home in San Diego. The weather is a help. It rains only 15 inches per year, and temperatures are pleasant. It’s a good place to be homeless.
Their presence sears the cityscape. Iron gates and chain link fences guard entrances to alleys, to any alcove that offers shelter. Chain link fences, sometimes topped by razor wire, run around parking lots. That leaves parks, public squares, unfenced parking lots, and the street itself, for the homeless. Otherwise, the city is barred and fenced. Closed. Don’t even think about it—even the restrooms in fast food restaurants are locked; you need a quarter.
Most of the homeless are men, of course. But not all. One day on Broadway, close to the fast food places, a college-aged woman wearing a backpack approached me. Her face was drawn with pain—a stray dog expecting to be kicked. She hated asking me: “Sir, can you spare some money for food?”
During the week I had spent some time riding the buses and trolleys. The city’s public transportation system is a valuable asset that works well. A special wide area is provided at the front of the buses for senior citizens and those with disabilities. Being a senior citizen I was not only qualified but sometimes even compelled to sit there, especially if the bus was crowded. I loved the secret irony of a marathoner riding there.
One day a homeless man rode standing over me, bracing his cart of stuff in the wheel chair space. He wore a heavy coat despite a warm temperature; a coarse mane of dirty hair swept back above his collar. We rode along. He decided to give the citizens on the bus a lecture. I was closest and could hear him best. I glanced up occasionally; the rest ignored him.
He rambled a bit, and I had trouble following—something about medical care. His concluding words were delivered with conviction and passion: “...and that’s why we need Medicare!”
A strong conclusion. Except that it didn’t turn out to be the conlusion after all. Just as the bus braked for his stop, he decided to announce one more thing: “I wouldn’t recommend my dentist to anyone!”
I looked into his face. A chicken has more teeth.
San Diego’s destiny is shaped by an infinite supply of poverty just fifteen miles south, at Tijuana, across the Mexican border. Earlier I had ridden the trolley to its southern terminal and walked over the border to the town, as tourists do. One-and-a-quarter million souls live there in apparent chaos and deprivation. The city spreads across the scrubland like dried scum. Maybe that’s too harsh. Some progress is evident—street construction was underway. But a good deal of the town seems a collection of shoddy open-air stores unevenly cobbled together and thrown down. Merchants chase after you flashing cheap jewerly.
Visitors encounter panhandlers. A young woman with wild frightened eyes approached me, four small kids trailing behind her.
“Sir, can you spare some money in our need?” she begged.
I kept walking like a Philistine. But I remember her eyes.
After I’d crossed the border back stateside, I sat at the Tijuana Stop waiting for the train to San Diego. I struck up a conversation with an old white-haired man from San Diego. Retired now, he had worked at a clerical job in Tijuana, and he occasionally goes back for visits. I said it appeared San Diego has a problem with the homeless. He agreed; it was a subject of keen interest to him. I offered the opinion that many were mentally handicapped.
“They are!” he exclaimed. “It started with Reagan. “Anybody capable of living on their own had to be released from the hospital.” He went on complaining about how many patients had been turned out to fend for themselves.
Apparently he was referring to a policy implemented when Ronald Reagan was governor of California, a controversial one I vaguely recall from the news. That was a long time ago, several administrations ago. The policy seems callous and wrong; you’d think it would’ve been amended by now.
The homeless problem is not unique to San Diego, of course. It’s here close to home too—in Nashville and even Cookeville, my home town. On my daily runs through Dogwood Park last summer I frequently talked to a man who took shelter in the gazebo.
San Diego’s problem is acute. The city willfully turns a blind eye to it. At quitting time, downtown workers drive away in cars with air-conditioning, stereos and tinted glass. They don’t see the homeless. The downtown dwellers live in high rise apartments behind iron gates. The city compensates with fences and gates for a public policy lacking in compassion and pity. For that, the city suffers. But the ones who suffer the most are those without a car to drive or a gate to bar—like the men on the slab at Ash Street.