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Homeless for the Holidays


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I realize now, being homeless myself, a lot of people think you’re somehow bad—that you deserve to be homeless,” says Jennifer, a 35-year-old mother of four, pointing to her neighbors in the courtyard at St. Vincent de Paul’s Village. The East Village shelter is a haven for the homeless and hungry.

Jennifer lowers her eyes and stares at her fingers. “These are good people here,” she says softly. “Single moms and dads, many of us, just trying to put things back together.”

But putting a life back on track isn’t easy these days in San Diego. The biggest roadblock? Housing prices.

“We’re the eighth most expensive housing market in the country now, and if you work for minimum wage, it’s not easy to afford rent,” says John Thelen, project director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. “So you’re seeing a segment of the population doing well and making a lot of money, and a segment that’s middle to lower class making only enough to scrape by.”

One incident—a health crisis or rent hike—and all of a sudden many are homeless. “With the vacancy rate for rentals so low,” says Thelen, “these people have no say in getting in. Try being a single parent with kids looking for an apartment now.”

City Councilman Byron Wear, chair of the Land Use & Housing Committee, also blames the housing crunch for escalating numbers of homeless. In some places, says Wear, two and three families are living in one apartment. “When you have that kind of demand for housing, someone is going to get left out,” he says. “We’ve seen rents double in some of the older communities where there used to be affordable housing.”

Jennifer’s story is typical. She became homeless a year ago, after her husband, a carpet installer, had an accident that prevented him from working. Before the accident, Jennifer, her husband and their four children were living in a one-bedroom apartment in the Mission Bay area.

When Jennifer’s husband broke his foot and was forced to go on workers’ compensation, the family didn’t have enough money for groceries, let alone rent. “We tried to get apartments in other places, but my credit history isn’t good,” says Jennifer. “It’s really competitive for apartments now. After we didn’t have money for rent, we lost our place.”

The family bought two tents and camped at a site in Chula Vista. Jennifer called Catholic Charities every day, hoping to get into the shelter at St. Vincent de Paul. There was a waiting list, and Jennifer was having health problems and needed major surgery.

“My fear was that I’d go into the hospital for surgery and come out and my family would still be on the streets,” she says. “The kids knew things were bad, but we tried to act like it was a vacation. I was scared, really scared. I thought: What are we going to do? But I never showed it to my kids. My husband and I agreed we’d get through it without letting the kids know how bad it was.”

Finally, a month after becoming homeless, Jennifer and her family were accepted into St. Vincent’s. She had her surgery, and her husband returned to work. Now, the family is in the transitional housing program, and Jennifer just landed a job—in housekeeping at the U.S. Grant Hotel. It pays $6.25 an hour.

“I know it’s not enough for rent in San Diego,” she says. “But it’s a start.”
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