In 2015, San Diego’s streets housed the fourth largest homeless population in the country. In 2007, it was ranked the twelfth largest, but over the last decade it has risen to the levels of Seattle, Los Angeles and New York City in homeless abundance.
I wanted to meet these people living in the streets of San Diego. I went downtown on a Sunday morning with my friend. We bought some donuts at a 7-Eleven and walked around downtown, giving them away to homeless individuals and talking to them about their lives. I was nervous approaching people at first. We stayed away from those who were sleeping, arguing or looked intoxicated.
Steven is a veteran who grew up in south side Chicago projects. He was drafted into the United States Marine Corps in 1969. He has been to San Francisco. His favorite food is pork neck bone. He likes to sit at bus stops. “Thanks for stopping by and talking to me, y’all made my day,” he said. “Most people don’t stop to talk. Come back and say hi. And be careful out there, if anybody gives you trouble you come get me.” Photos by Victoria Moorwood.
Jerry said he is a scientist and an engineer. He is from San Diego and loves his city. Most of his family is deceased. He was excited about a tablet his friend had just given him. His friend isn’t homeless. When I saw Jerry, he was trying to sell a pair of men’s Michael Kors shoes. “I’m just trying to make an income to get off the streets,” he said.
Jerry crafted this walking stick out of a branch, which he stained with instant coffee. He melted a metal lighter he found so that it could fit like a handle. He stuck the metal handle onto the branch with some nail polish and tied a little bit of leather around for extra support. He said this is just one of the few things he’s engineered.
Some people were more timid when speaking to us. They weren’t used to people stopping on the sidewalk to speak with them. They questioned us and our motives.
Lynn is from Michigan. She was reading a newspaper when I saw her. She asked me if I had any change and if I was from the church. She ate her donut quickly. She came to San Diego with a friend. Lynn was friendly, but suspicious of us and hesitant to have a conversation. She said it doesn’t snow in Michigan—it just gets cold.
We walked into a tourist-central park. It was aesthetically rimmed with tall palm trees, equip with a stone fountain and Starbucks.
Despite the tourists walking through the plaza and Starbucks coffees being served, multiple homeless individuals sat or napped on the ground and at tables.
One of these individuals was Chalee.
Chalee spoke with an accent, but said she had lived in San Diego her whole life. She had dozens and dozens of bracelets and necklaces. They were all brightly beaded and held with elastic string. She said that she bought one of them and her friend bought her another one, and the rest she had put together herself. She did not allow me to take a picture of them. When I asked her what she likes to do she toothlessly smiled and replied, “Everything.”
There were far more homeless people in downtown San Diego than I had ever realized. Although I’d been in downtown many times before, now that I was actively seeking homeless people I realized there were several on every street.
About half of the current homeless population is relatively new to the San Diego streets. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual congressional report, San Diego’s unaccompanied homeless youth population is now the sixth largest in the United States.
I had a fantastic time meeting and talking with these people. Each time I approached one and struck up a conversation, it got easier and I became less intimidated. I realized that they were simply human beings with stories and who were, mostly, grateful for some conversation. My friend and I fully intend to revisit 4th Avenue, where Steven says he hangs out, to see him again. Now when I walk by homeless people I smile and say hello.
I feel very fortunate that I was able to have this touching experience. Homelessness in San Diego is a much larger problem than many locals think. Meeting some homeless faces helped me put a name—names —to this issue.