By Vassili Demos
Robert Doran once had an idyllic life.
A San Diego State University graduate and lifelong San Diegan, he was the general manager of a water company in Santee for seven years. For 12 years before that, he worked at General Dynamics making cruise missiles. For a time, he even owned a bar in La Mesa.
Then, it all fell apart. He fell on financial hard times and slipped into drug addiction. Eventually, he lost his home, his wife and began living on the streets in North Park.
“I had a good life,” Doran, 59, said. “It just all of a sudden was like the carpet got pulled out from under me.”
Doran is not alone. Homelessness has been a part of North Park for many years, and Edwin Lohr, President of the North Park Community Association, believes it’s getting worse.
San Diego’s pleasant weather and a push from other cities to move homeless people out of their communities are reasons why the homelessness persists here, Lohr explained.
“For many years we did ignore it, but I think we’ve got to find out the root of why there is homelessness here,” Lohr said. “I believe that is one of the biggest challenges our government officials have to take into consideration.”
In October 2015, North Park leaders and police held a community forum to address the homeless problem in their community. Six months later, the problem persists.
Jessica Lawrence, City of San Diego Budget and Finance Committee Consultant, acknowledged development in downtown San Diego has led to a migration of homeless people to neighborhoods like North Park.
Ariel Walker, a former homeless person, knows first hand why people stay in North Park. People and police are generally sympathetic to the homeless population there. She added that she believes it’s because North Park, situated to the northeast of Balboa Park, is a comfortable place.
San Diego had a population of 8,742 homeless people in 2015, placing the coastal city fourth for largest population of homeless people in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in their Annual Homeless Assessment Report.
The report also shows both San Diego city and county have 1,981 homeless people who comprise families with children.
Both San Diego city and county ranked fifth in the nation with 12.3 percent of homeless people who are unsheltered – those who sleep somewhere not intended for human residence. And that number is on the rise, Lawrence said.
The study also found San Diego ranked third for largest population of homeless veterans. San Diego also has the sixth largest population of chronically homeless people in the nation.
Someone who understands the struggles the homeless face is Melissa Peterman, Director of Homeless Housing Innovations at the San Diego Housing Commission.
San Diego’s high cost of living and its notorious expensive housing compound the problem. Peterman says it’s very difficult to find homes for people who have bad credit histories, no prior rental experience and who can’t afford to rent a home or apartment in an extremely competitive rental market.
Walker, for example, attributes her homelessness to her not being able to afford rent in the city.
Doran said once someone become homeless, it becomes especially difficult to get back on track.
“Who wants to hire a 59-year-old guy? What do I do? Go to Walmart and greet people at the front door,” he said. “I’m lost right now.”
The sheer number of homeless people in the area is daunting.
“The reality is we don’t have enough funding from the federal government to house everybody,” Lawrence said. “We don’t have enough available units to house the over 8,000 homeless on the streets in the county.”
It’s important to understand that homelessness is always going to exist, Lawrence argues.
“You’re never going to stop somebody from falling on their luck one day, losing their job, having an incident happen to them that leads to their homelessness,” Lawrence said. “There is always going to be people that fall on hard times and wind up on the street.”
Sarah McCarthy, 23, was living in Reno, Nev., but was unhappy working a nine-to-five job. She then joined her friends in an adventure across the country. After that, their van broke down and she found herself stuck in San Diego.
“I’ve been stuck here between OB and North Park,” she said. “Haven’t really been able to get out.”
A local organization knows the pressures the homeless face all too well. Home Start, run by CEO Laura Tancredi-Baese, is focused on providing services to homeless mothers and children living in poverty.
“Some people choose to remain on the streets because of severe mental illness, bad experience with systems and some just prefer being independent on the streets,” Tancredi-Baese said.
Doran said he is better off on the streets than in a shelter. He said he grew weary of bed bugs and overcrowding. He also said he can survive on his own and works together with his friends, who are also homeless.
“I live better where I’m at right now,” he said. “I’m out here. I’m surviving. I know how to survive.”
That mindset, combined with the good but sometimes flawed intentions of city officials can be frustrating, said North Park resident Paul Richardson.
“The city wants to help them, but some of the methods in which they do so are counterproductive,” Richardson said. “Sometimes their idea of helping is – OK, lets run them out of this area into another one.”
McCarthy said she was living in Ocean Beach, but the harassment from local residents and police pushed her to North Park.
“It got to a point where you couldn’t even sit down without being harassed, so I had to go to North Park,” McCarthy said. “The cops are pretty cool, a lot easier than OB.”
Anyone can experience homelessness, Peterman said. “Most folks are just a missed paycheck away, or an unforeseen medical expense away from being on the streets.”
Doran knows that reality well.
“I was sober for four years. I went to Escondido. We had two different rehabs for two years, and I got my life straight. I slipped and I ended up coming back down here. I’m back on the streets again,” he said. “I’m not happy about that.”