SAN DIEGO (AP) – Christine Wade found a shelter in the tent she shared with six children, parked in an asphalt parking lot.
It was, at least, much better than his previous home in the city, a shelter where rats ate through the family's bags of clothing and chewed on the 2-year-old Jaymason's stroller. Approximately 50 of the camp's 200 residents were children, so Wade's children had many playmates.
"It's peaceful here," said Wade, 31, who is eight months pregnant, in an interview in October. "There's coffee early in the morning, we can hang out here during the day, I mean, what more could you ask for?"
A tent, of course, is not a home. But for these residents of San Diego, it's a blessing.
Like other major cities along the West Coast, San Diego is struggling with a crisis of homeless people. In a place that is advertised as the "best city in the United States", known for its sunny weather, surfing and fish tacos, the dizzying real estate values have helped create a spiral of homeless people, leaving more than 3,200 people living on the street or in their cars. [1
"Some of the most vulnerable die on the streets in one of the most desirable and livable regions of America," wrote a San Diego County grand jury in its June report – reiterating the warnings it gave the city Repeatedly during the last decade to better address homelessness.
San Diego has had problems to achieve it. Two years ago, Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a moderate Republican, closed a campaign shelter in the downtown area that ran for 29 years during the winter months. He promised a "game change": a new permanent installation with services to channel people to the house.
But it was not enough.
The result? Legions of Californians without shelter. A growing contagion. Endless political disputes about what can and should be done, and the increase in bills for taxpayers. Fighting schools and other institutions. And an extraordinary challenge to the sunny identity of the city that threatens its key tourism industry.
For now, San Diego is again turning to tents. The camp where the Wades lived was only temporary; This month, officials are opening three industrial-size tents that will house a total of 700 people.
There are plans to build less improvised homes. But to face the immediate emergency and operate the giant stores, the city had to take $ 6.5 million that had been budgeted for permanent housing.
Democratic Councilman David Alvarez issued the only vote against the plan. "If we had really invested in a strategy for the homeless, today we would not be here to store 700 people in giant stores."
Republican Councilwoman Lorie Zapf's mother was mentally ill and died homeless in Los Angeles. She agreed with Alvarez that stores were not the perfect solution to the San Diego crisis, but she could not pass up the opportunity to get people out of the streets.
"We have to do everything possible to stop this tsunami of people ending up on our sidewalks," he said.
"The people of San Diego need to decide how they want the city to look," said Gordon Walker, who took the helm this summer. of the Regional Homeless Task Force of San Diego in praise for their efforts to combat chronic homelessness in Utah.
"San Francisco has essentially delivered its streets to the homeless," added Walker, who served as deputy assistant secretary of the United States. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Reagan administration. "It could go in any direction, the real problem is that we do not have enough housing."
Last year, the number of people living outdoors in San Diego increased 18 percent from the previous year, according to an annual count in January. More than 400 makeshift shelters emerged in the center of the city, covering the sidewalks in front of the new high-rise apartment buildings that have accelerated to the pace of the booming economy of biotechnology and rising incomes, among the highest in the country. A study costs around $ 1,500 per month, on average.
Most homeless people, such as the Wade family, did not migrate to San Diego to live in the streets, but are local residents who became homeless in a city where rents increased by almost 8 percent in one year. year. High-rise buildings have replaced discount residential buildings that offer single rooms for rent, housing people who live on salary. Almost half of the 9,000 rooms have disappeared since 2003.
In October, when the number of deaths from hepatitis increased and the city declared a homeless emergency, Faulconer and the Alpha Project nonprofit opened the Balboa Park camp where The Wades found refuge. The city installed public washing stations, opened bathrooms 24 hours a day, and cleaned the streets with a bleach solution.
The police also took energetic measures and issued hundreds of citations, mainly for illegal accommodation. In a few weeks, the almost 400 tents and tarpaulins in the center were gone. Those who work with homeless people say they simply spread out.
"It could be like a campfire when all the embers are spread out, or it goes out or catches other areas and makes a fire bigger than we originally had," he said. Dr. Jeffrey Norris, medical director of Father Joe & # 39; s Villages, who runs a clinic that serves 2,800 homeless people per year.
The number of camps hidden among the bushes and bamboo along the banks of the San Diego River doubled.
It's being used as a toilet, "said Zapf, whose council district includes the river, bays and beaches.
The mission of the San Diego River Park Foundation is to preserve the river, a green belt that begins with the thaw in the mountains east of San Diego builds as it meanders through a valley of poplar groves and continues under elevated highway crossings through shopping centers.
The foundation spent $ 115,000 removing 250,000 pounds of garbage left by homeless camps this year, trash is transported by the river, which empties into the Pacific at a popular dog beach.
Director Rob Hutsel said potential donors ask him about the foundation's plans create a system of 52-mile river trails and parks: "What about the homeless? Do not build a park. It will only bring more. "
" God, parks are good, "he said." There should not be any thoughts about building a park. That's so unfortunate. "
Laurie Britton operates an organic café and coffee shop, Café Virtuoso, in the neighborhood of Barrio Logan, the winter shelter was nearby, and Britton was one of those who supported her close two years ago because it attracted crowds of homeless people to the area.
But when it closed, the problem exploded: tents, tarpaulins, shopping carts, needles and garbage spilled on the street, which made it difficult to drive cafeteria.
His clients' cars would be hit with bottles or sprayed with urine, people would lock themselves in the bathroom to get high, and one Saturday, Britton dressed for a ride, but first he had to get lots of human stool The next morning, a man showed a knife and looked angrily when she asked him not to put a tarpaulin next to his cafeteria's parking fence.
He sprays pepper on his 14 employees.
]"Whether It goes out of control, the girls know they should take the pepper spray and do what they have to do, "he said. "The reality is that I'm here to protect my clients and employees, it's not my job to give him a free bath and water, and clean up when he just peed at the door … Really, this is hard enough, I do not need to be doing that "
Since the city began cleaning the streets, the business has increased by 20 percent. Now welcome giant stores, two of which are one block from your business, if people finally end up in permanent housing.
He is also trying to help. His coffee roasting lab offers job training and works with a school exclusively for homeless students.
"But if it's as bad as it was, I would probably move," he said.
John Long relocated his Halcyon cafe bar and lounge in October to San Marcos, a town north of San Diego. Three years ago, Austin's modern chain opened to fanfare as a sign of downtown gentrification, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a patio that opened onto a new park.
But customers who drank espresso ended up with a view of people sleeping on the lawn.
"One had to hope that with so many investments going to the downtown area, the city would keep the sidewalk clean, especially the park, but that did not happen," Long said.
He kept his contract for a long time and may someday reopen a business there. First, however, "there must be dramatic change and action."
Father Joe & # 39; s Villages is working on a $ 531 million plan to get some 2,700 people off the streets through new construction or restore motels in the future. the next five years. Federal, state and local funds will cover most of the cost, but the charity must still raise $ 120 million.
"That's really what we need to make a hole," said Deacon Jim Vargas, president of the group.
The mayor has allocated more than $ 80 million to reduce homelessness in the next three years. The plan includes incentives for owners and $ 30 million for developers to create 300 affordable units. The objective is that 65 percent of the occupants of the tent be moved to the house.
"Ultimately, the goal is to put everyone in a home that wants to be," Faulconer told The Associated Press. "We need to get people out of the streets now and then move forward in building units."
But the temporary solution is expensive. At a cost of $ 1,700 per person per month, $ 6.5 million will cover seven months, but tents may need to stay open for up to two years, depending on the housing market, according to Rick Gentry, head of the Commission for Housing of San Diego. 19659002] Meanwhile, San Diego County has spent more than $ 4 million to deal with the outbreak of hepatitis. Public health nurses who carry vaccine coolers have administered more than 100,000 injections, including bathrooms and outside libraries and under motorway overpasses.
It did not have to come to this, said Michael McConnell, a retired entrepreneur turned activist who "The motto" America's Finest City is being marred day by day because the city has been doing turn a blind eye to the most vulnerable, "said McConnell, while the teams sprayed a solution of bleach. along 17th Street in September after people moved bags, bicycles and supermarket carts overflowing.
In 2005 and in 2015, the grand jury recommended that the city provide more public restrooms for its homeless population. But city officials feared attracting drug traffickers. They also opposed the estimated installation cost of $ 250,000 and the hundreds of thousands of dollars that were deemed necessary to operate them.
Then hepatitis A made it a problem for everyone.
With more than 560 cases and more than 360 people hospitalized, doctors recommended vaccinations for anyone who regularly goes to the city center. Members of a fire team were inoculated after trampling human feces.
At Perkins Elementary, employees found poop and urine outside of classrooms before school opened that day, and some fear that the hepatitis virus could be brought. at school with shoes. Perkins has a playground for children with a panoramic view of elegant tall buildings and the bright dome of the city's new central library; It also has a student body that is more than a quarter homeless, an increase of 4 percent three years ago.
Homelessness has a particular effect on young people. Fernando Hernandez, director of Perkins, said many of the homeless students are well below grade level. Some have not attended school in years.
"We have first-graders who get out of bed and go to school on their own," Hernández said. "Some of them come to school after they sleep on the floor and do not sleep well, so they do not learn, so we have to recalibrate our expectations."
Shawnni Wade was a freshman of the third grade. before the problems of your family increased. In all the turmoil, she left school; Now, she came back in seventh grade.
"It's weird to be back," said the girl with bright green eyes and a sly smile.
But then, little about the life of this normal 12-year-old girl.
Christine Wade's ex-husband's drug addiction caused them to dump apartments and then a shelter. After divorcing, she let Wade take care of her two daughters, whom she had raised for eight years. She moved the six children to a residential hotel, where she paid $ 1,200 a month for a kitchen with two queen beds.
But Wade, who is in poor health, is often called sick. He lost his job cleaning the hospital rooms.
A month later, she discovered that she was pregnant, despite birth control. A doctor told him about the abortion. "I did not have the heart to do that," he said.
Without his income, he lost the kitchen last spring.
"There is so little help for a large family," Wade said.
She could find space only in a rat-infested shelter where the family lived before landing at the Balboa Park camp. When the sun set on his second night there, Shawnni, oblivious to the traffic on the nearby freeways, looked up at the sky and said he liked to camp. Wade smiled.
Then, a few weeks ago, Wade fell ill again and was hospitalized. He could not return to the camp in his condition, so the family moved to another shelter.
A social worker is now helping her find a home. She hopes to have one before next month, when she expects to give birth to a child.
Follow the full AP coverage of the West Coast homeless crisis here: https://apnews.com/tag/HomelessCrisis