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Down and Out in Balboa Park

Photo by Marta Prachar
ON THE MORNING OF FEBRUARY 17, I learned a cardinal street maxim the hard way: The homeless rise at dawn.

The jolting sounds of the daytime urban cacophony began not long after light started bleeding into the eastern sky. There was no hiding from the loud conversations of gathering construction workers, and I immediately discovered the instinctive feeling of insecurity that comes with sleeping in front of strangers —especially in the relative isolation of a patch of dirt beside a dilapidated building.

The day before, I had begun an investigation for San Diego Magazine into homelessness in San Diego. The idea was to live on the streets, ostensibly homeless, for two weeks. The first night I spent alongside a 16th Street warehouse. That area, populated by a community of largely African-American homeless, was active through the night, with shifty characters parading on street corners, socializing, smoking cigarettes and peddling their wares—most prominently crystal methamphetamine (I was approached twice by pushers offering the drug).

The second and third mornings found me sleeping behind bushes next to an antique store on Washington Street and Second Avenue. At 7 in the morning on the third day, an angry gardener chased me out. The experience—waking through hostility—was repugnant. It’s the single greatest catalyst for the out-by-dawn maxim.

Night four I spent in the thickets of a Balboa Park canyon. Though I was able to sleep in—a real treat, and mitigation for my increasingly skittish mental bearing—my bike was stolen from a rack at the top of the hill. It was another hardknock lesson in street life: Anything of value has to remain on your person.

Whatever’s not on your back, or hidden devilishly well, will be scavenged. It was an epiphany regarding all those cartpushing homeless who tramp side streets throughout the city.

The following morning, I was startled awake in Balboa Park—this time by the police. I was arrested at 6:30 a.m. for “illegal lodging”—misdemeanor 647j of the California Penal Code. All told, I spent three days in county stir for the high crime of sleeping in public. According to statistics from the sheriff ’s office, the citizens of San Diego paid $261 to feed and lodge me for those three days. Considering the salaries of the arresting officers (six San Diego policemen and two park rangers), the public defender assigned to tell me the state had no case, the magistrate who judged me, and various others in supporting roles, I imagine society paid upwards of $500 to arrest and detain me for those 72 hours.

I was released at 2 a.m. Saturday from the central jail on Front Street with nowhere to go. The police property room was closed for the weekend, and so I was left with no sleeping bag, no jacket, no possessions and a trolley token for a mass transit system that had quit running two hours before. Behind me were 14 other released detainees—one of them a fellow denizen of the street who luckily had gear stashed in the canyon at Balboa Park. Other homeless, like me, would have to find a way to get through the night without accouterments; local shelters —already beyond capacity—were long since closed. Ironically, with nowhere to go, and realizing that sleeping in public is illegal, my sole option was to break the law again—a one-way ticket to recidivism.

The next morning began what would become a relatively fixed schedule. Invariably, I woke at dawn—after several hours of fitful sleep—and walked to the park (during the day, the police didn’t bother me). Along with several other homeless men, I’d wait for the dew to dry off the grass before lying down with my sleeping bag and backpack. Normally, I’d sleep from about 10 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon.

Bedrock Bull
The day after my release, I sought out Bull—a bedrock figure in the park’s homeless community who became my own de facto guru.

Bull’s real name is Terry Lohman. At 53, he stands 5 foot 11 and resembles actor Willem Dafoe. His bull-like frame has diminished of late (down to around 240 pounds) as a result of the monkey on his back—a methamphetamine habit he can’t quite kick.

In 1972, Lohman finished high school in the same Pennsylvania hills later immortalized in The Deer Hunter. He despised flying, and so joined the Navy the day he graduated. Vietnam was still hot, and he expected some point of his fouryear hitch to take him there. The Navy sent him to San Diego.

After three and a half torturous years of service in the back of a helicopter (he never made it to Vietnam), the government set him free. He’d found a steady girl—a Navy financial clerk from Vermont —and proposed marriage. Within a year, the young couple moved back to the East Coast, and she gave birth to a baby girl. By the time Tamara was a year old, the couple was estranged. Two years later, Lohman left.

“That was the last time I saw her— June 11, 1978,” he says. After a series of twists and turns, life brought Lohman back to San Diego. By 1981, he was working the desk at a transient hotel downtown, a pre-redevelopment hotbed of gambling, prostitution and girlie bars. It was there, on a cool night in March, that a man named Simms changed his life.

To hear Bull tell the story, John Simms —or James Simms or George Simms, depending on the alias he was using— was a tall African-American with a mean stare, unusually long arms and a rap sheet even longer. The ex-con was asked to leave the hotel for refusing to register a female companion. There was an argument over a room refund, the police were called, and Simms was escorted out.

“This was 10:45. The manager gets off at 11,” Bull says with a pause, “and I come on at 11. Ten minutes later, this guy [Simms] comes back up the stairs. [He] walks by the front desk, raps his knuckles on the counter [and continues] toward me. His third step he pulls open a knife blade [and] says, ‘This ain’t no game.’ ” Bull pauses. “That man stabbed me nine times before I got away,” he says. “I took a [full-length] buck knife, to the hilt, three times [in the] chest.

“This one,” he says, pointing to one of three large scars, “cut a hole through my liver. I had 15 feet of small intestines sticking out that I had my hand over, holding them in. That was his first shot,” he says, showing a neat 2-inch length of shiny scar tissue. “This was his second; over [here] was his third. [It] left such a gaping hole in my side my left lung collapsed; I could barely breathe.”

After a struggle, Lohman got away and called for help; Simms fled. Within minutes an ambulance crew was telling the veteran-turned-victim things didn’t look good. “They told me I’d never make it to UCSD [Medical Center] in Hillcrest from Fifth and Market,” he recalls, “and 25 years later, here I am.”

From a worn camping chair next to a bench in Balboa Park, surrounded by four large bags that hold all his possessions, Bull recites this parable of his life as absolute, irrefutable proof God is looking out for him.

He is two years out from his last working stint, and he has no roof. He transports all of those worldly goods, every day, from the back of a Dumpster to locales along Sixth Avenue, before moving back “home” every night at sundown.

He has no car, no insurance, no wife, one overdrawn bank account and a daughter he’s wanted to find for nearly three decades.

Still, he has no doubt God is watching over him.

Bull is a fixture in Balboa Park, a generous and well-liked figure in a transient and homeless community that—no matter how determinedly homeowning society looks past it—is an undeniable aspect of the area’s landscape. For nearly 20 years, he’s been an on-again, off-again denizen of the streets, checking into the mainstream population for intervals working in hotels before the bottom falls out again.

In the past several years, it’s crystal meth that’s put a chokehold on his finances and frustrated all earnest desires to get back into any kind of permanent housing. He passes most of his days sitting in the park, a prisoner of his assorted belongings, watching the time go by while smoking cigarette butts he’s “sniped”homeless man from sidewalks. Though he disclaims knowledge of Camus—the French philosopher who talked about man’s helplessness in the face of absurdity—Bull’s on steady terms with the author’s underlying tenets.

He smiles wanly when confronted with examples of such fallout in his own life. He stoically accepts that tons of good food are thrown out every day while thousands don’t eat; that securing a job requires a call-back phone number and showering facilities people on the street don’t have; and that while the federal government has spent $80 billion dollars to prosecute a war in Iraq this year, funding for Community Development Block Grants (the single largest source of revenue for homeless agencies in San Diego County) is being slashed 20 percent nationally—by $736 million. Instead of frustrating, it’s merely amusing to Bull that on his $800-a-month Navy disability pension, the cheapest housing available to him —the transient hotels of downtown—cost $600 to $800 a month, double the rates at more reasonable habitats requiring references or good credit standing.

In the modern paradigm of neocapitalism, it matters not that the man’s a fount of stories born of far-off American locales and intriguing plots; that he’s quick-witted and a good conversationalist; that he’s efficient and industrious at the various tasks that make up his daily routine; or that he’s generous to a fault with his money. As far as modern culture is concerned, Bull is a failure in terms of society’s most revered and fundamental determinant of worth: production. Because he’s not producing— a negative state exacerbated by his worn and utter ennui—it’s that lack of recognition of his own humanity that Bull says piques his ire. Ironically, it’s men and women like him, these paragons of failure, who through the mere fact of their existence stir up a twisted and polemical cauldron of compassion, resentment, guilt, sorrow, confusion and consternation among the general population. They are the physical manifestation of a vast and sprawling designation —homelessness—that’s as varied in terms of roots and demographics as it is controversial; one that’s succeeded in further polarizing an already disparate political spectrum.

For Bull and dozens of other denizens of the park, all the shouting and lofty posturing on their behalf are irrelevant. They’re but simple absurdities that won’t make concrete beds any more comfortable or the miles-long walk to a soup kitchen any less arduous.

Cash Strapped Forecasters estimate 4.157 billion federal dollars will be aimed at homelessness in 2007. More than $70 million (mostly federal) was committed to fighting San Diego County homelessness in 2005, with 36 percent going to the city of San Diego. Much of that money has begun working its way into the county’s burgeoning 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness—a program begun in 2001 by the Bush administration.

The voluntary initiative asks local governments to design and implement their own 10-year plans based on innovations in the homeless services industry.

Robert McElroy, president and CEO of local homeless service provider Alpha Project, acknowledges the initiative as a step in the right direction—while glancing furtively at a calendar. After five years, the homeless picture in the United States looks much as it did in 2001. And as McElroy points out, the winds of political change will likely erase the plan’s budding accomplishments when the Bush administration leaves office after 2008.

A straight shooter with a self-mandated, Christ-inspired mission to help the needy, McElroy has little time for high talk and arcane plans. With ailing seniors passing their dying days in the tent his agency operates, and the daily hassle of appeasing a bevy of city departments, the forthright CEO struggles to maintain a positive attitude by focusing on the hundreds of individual success stories he’s seen in 20 years of service.

Sharon Johnson, San Diego’s homeless services coordinator, knows the challenge of remaining upbeat in an outreach community where the need is so great and the resources are so thin. A skeptic by nature, particularly regarding America’s track record with homelessness, she believes that the 10-year plan may be the solution advocates have been waiting for. Johnson says it’s evidence of a paradigm shift—a move away from traditional social and faithbased models, toward permanent supportive housing. Instead of putting homeless people into temporary shelters—a practice some say traps targeted populations in the system—permanent supportive housing is based on the idea of offering recipients their own living accommodations and a case manager (an approach that touts an 80 percent success rate).

According to statistics from San Diego’s Regional Task Force on the Homeless (RTFHSD), there are nearly 10,000 homeless in the county, with fewer than 3,500 beds to accommodate them. The city has a homeless population of 4,458, with only 2,019 beds. Local mental health agencies say 1,417 of the county’s homeless are mentally ill, and 2,000 are veterans.

Nationally, the chronically homeless— those sleeping in doorways and pushing carts—are said to represent only 15 percent of all homeless. The vast majority, the transitionally homeless—those who sleep in cars, stay with friends or use temporary shelters—are the unseen victims of the convergence of two national trends: an increasing poverty rate and a decrease in affordable housing.

The pinch is only aggravated by a sprawling social services mechanism. More than 70 percent ($44.5 million) of public funds allocated for homeless programs in San Diego County are being channeled through 73 community programs, such as Alpha Project, St. Vincent de Paul Village and Vietnam Veterans of San Diego; the remainder is directly delivered by government agencies. After such an involved bureaucratic process, one wonders how much of the $70 million pledged to fighting homelessness in the county actually makes it to men like Bull.

Meanwhile, with all of its innovative design and determined leadership, the Bush administration’s 10-year plan lacks one vital component: financial assistance. It’s up to already cash-strapped cities and regions to ante the millions of dollars it will take to procure permanent supportive housing for the country’s estimated 1 to 3 million homeless.

The Civic Nomads Living on the streets is full-time work, and you never punch out. When you’re not scrounging to make enough to get something to eat or a pack of smokes, you’re lugging around all of your possessions.

Imagine having to walk wherever you need to go with a heavy bag strapped on your back. Few of us realize the luxury of having a secure place to store belongings.

Beyond the logistical difficulties, you have to be smart on the streets; everybody’s out to put one over on you. The mainstream population, meanwhile, pretends you don’t exist. Those people look determinedly through and around you—if they don’t acknowledge you, they don’t have to deal with the implications of your condition. What, after all, does your homelessness say about society? Equally important, an unstated covenant is at work: If they don’t see you, they don’t have to give you money.

Whether by fortuitous timing or park tradition, during the two weeks I was out there, every evening about sundown somebody would amble over to our “home” bench with chow. One night, it was a Good Samaritan, loading Bull down with 3 pounds of homemade lasagne.

Another night, it was “Scrub,” toting a bag of recently trashed convenience store sandwiches and chocolate milk. On a different occasion, someone had scrounged a 10-pack of raw hot dogs.

For people with very little, the homeless I encountered were surprisingly generous. Down to the last cigarette or cracker, the final sip of a beer, they all shared—whether I knew them or not. Beyond being generous, many were interesting—some were downright compelling. Most of them have life experiences those of us in mainstream society will never understand —or want to. They’ve seen the system from within and without, lending them an arresting perspective on the meaning of it all.

Many of the homeless I encountered had partnered up—an arrangement that offered mutual security and a bit of independence; a break from the constant minding of belongings, procuring of provisions and foot-bound travel. Despite the realities of rugged individualism and personal autonomy, I found a strong sense of community. Every homeless person in the park had a nickname, a history and a reputation.

Bull’s most recent traveling buddy, Wesley, is a light-skinned African- American, the son of white adoptive parents in New Jersey. Nothing about him—his educated speech, voracious reading habit or tidy appearance— suggests homelessness. After being sent to jail for passing a bad check, Wesley broke his back in a work mishap and hasn’t had a job since. He gets a small disability stipend every month. He’ll be first to tell you he’s responsible for his own homeless condition (though fate, no doubt, has played a role). He’ll also tell you living on the street is hard, very hard, and that from that perspective, looking straight up from the bottom, you can’t help but see the depth of all the b.s.

As I talked with Wesley in the park, all of San Diego’s homeless shelters were full—there was no legal place for us to sleep. We didn’t discuss the fact that lawyers for city councilmen have spent an estimated $1.5 million dollars in the past year plotting defenses for legal actions that don’t yet exist and likely never will.

Several days after our conversation, three ailing senior citizens died quietly of natural causes in the city’s emergency tent—to be buried in pauper’s graves. Bob McElroy lambastes the system for allowing its citizens to die in such an undignified manner. “But at least they weren’t alone,” he says. “There were 210 fellow homeless in that tent. At least they didn’t die in an abandoned doorway somewhere.”

Of the 12 homeless men I was detained with in the back of an SDPD van en route to jail, one had AIDS, one was schizophrenic, one was a felon, four were veterans —and all, as far as I could tell, had drug problems. In two weeks on the streets, and through dozens of contacts— who offered dozens more anecdotal accounts—I found a glaring preponderance of a combination of mental illness and drug addiction.

Bull, for instance, diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (a result of the knife attack), has been losing his frustrating battle with methamphetamine addiction for several years. His case is common. Bipolar disorders, schizophrenia and depression are widespread among the homeless.

I met Terrance, a 30-something black man with a passing resemblance to Popeye’s Bluto, on a chilly night in Balboa Park. I’d watched him for a week, standing or lying still in different peculiar positions, talking to himself or slowly tracing random patterns with his steps. When I finally approached him, as I set off for pizza with Shawn—a homeless vet who’d come into $20—I broke through some kind of invisible barrier. I asked his name, and there was such a long pause I figured he couldn’t speak.

“Starving,” he suddenly blurted.

Cold and shivering, Terrance came across as soft-spoken, engaging and—save for enigmatic pauses—coherent. I didn’t see him again until we were thrown into the paddy wagon together. I talked to him briefly in jail but never learned his mental disability—perhaps severe schizophrenia or autism. He told me he’d done a four-year hitch in the Marines, started college and then become a motorcycle mechanic. When the U.S. mental health field deinstitutionalized, starting in the 1960s, some mentally ill people fell through the cracks of privatization and ended up on the streets. Despite those unfortunates lost in the shuffle, few would say it was a mistake to end the era of enforced mental committals and insane asylums. In the evolving American system, thousands of mentally ill people are (and will continue to be) the hard-reality, collateral fallout of progress. Terrance, for instance, acutely in need of mental health services, and a prototypical candidate for permanent supportive housing, has been thrown in jail several times for 647j illegal lodging offenses.

Neil Besse, one of San Diego’s deputy public defenders, wonders how a person, sleeping in the open, on public property, without damaging anything or bothering a soul, can be accused of lodging illegally.

S

cott Dreher, a homeless advocacy attorney, says jailing the homeless only succeeds in clogging the courts and overfilling local jails. He’s involved with one of two class-action lawsuits brought against the city, the SDPD and Police Chief William Lansdowne for arresting people on 647j misdemeanor (normally ticketable) offenses. “You’re getting a first-hand view of what those [homeless] people face every day,” says Dreher.

My first homeless-person experience with the SDPD was a crash course in the underlying rancor that exists between local law enforcement and the area’s homeless. Rolling his cruiser up onto the grass to confront a small group of us, Officer Dick Ward (known in the park as Robocop) looked to me.

“What are you doing, just hanging out?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, wondering what one is supposed to do in the park. “Where’d you sleep last night?” he asked.

That question is a particular point of contention to many homeless. The natural reaction is to ask the interrogator where he spent last night.

“Not here,” I said, opting out of potential conflict.

“I’m going to ask questions,” he shot back with hostility. “And you’re going to answer them.”

My second police encounter was with arresting officer Stephen Zasueta, part of a six-man team that swept into the park at daybreak on February 22 and rounded up a dozen poor and homeless men for sleeping. Zasueta was alternately condescending and derisive.

Though everything was done according to procedure, his taunting of the detainees and his superior attitude were insulting.

Two days after I was released from jail, SDPD Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) Officer Olun Graves met me on a street corner in Bankers Hill. After I assured him I didn’t need drug or alcohol counseling, he tried to get me a bed in one of the area shelters. As several homeless vets had already told me, there were no openhomeless man spots. I asked Graves’ partner what I should do that night. He gave me a damned-if-you-do look and told me to sleep somewhere I wouldn’t get caught. Both men were professional and respectful and told me to call back the next day, assuring me they’d eventually find a bed.

Despite the positive interaction with HOT officers, I came away from my arrest and subsequent incarceration with a collective sense of impotence, loathing, searing frustration and angst. The police quickly came to represent hostility and aggression, and seemed more threatening than the potential for robbery or attack. It’s a mental complex no doubt derivative of the tacit notion that homeless people, by simply existing, are illegal—another burden to bear in an already onerous way of life.

Notwithstanding Sharon Johnson’s optimism, and her hard-held notion that persistence and creativity can overcome our most persistent social ills, it’s safe to say homelessness will never be “cured.”

Sullied wards of all the thousands of nasty reasons that have put them on the streets, homeless people have always been a part of society—and always will be. Perhaps instead of seeking solutions for this infinitely complex problem, society needs to move toward acceptance and mitigation.

Many of those I lived with for two weeks are damaged, afflicted and unambiguously ignored. They are the niggers of the post-colonial world, one that ironically eschews discrimination based on the color of skin while reinforcing an entrenched system of economic elitism.

They’re abused by a long list of industries and people—from the social services organism that (however unintentionally) exploits their thin resources to the recycling center employees who systematically underweigh their plastic bottle returns. And from their point of view, the police forces charged with maintaining society’s security are a hostile, almost enemy force.

On the reverse side of that coin, San Diegans ask the SDPD to defend against the horrors of John (or James or George) Simms while simultaneously playing frontline social workers to 5,000 often-afflicted, chronically homeless persons—a dual role destined to fail.

Bull, meanwhile, is numb to all of those twisted ironies. Perched in his camping chair in the park, next to a worn, framed picture of a girl he hasn’t seen in three decades, he looks to clouds in the eastern sky. They’re bearing water, he points out. Better find plastic bags before nightfall.

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