According to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless in San Diego County, 8,879 individuals were homeless on the night of Jan. 24, 2013, but residents of North County rarely witness such poverty. In fact, only 8.2 percent of the San Diego homeless population lives within the North County Coastal area, including Solana Beach, Del Mar, Carmel Valley and Rancho Santa Fe. Nathan Lian (10), along with fellow members of Community Bible Church, have made efforts to break down the barrier between the Carmel Valley community and the San Diego homeless population with a simple, monthly event called the Community Meal, held at the Horizon Park Chapel in downtown San Diego.
“The last Thursday of every month … our pastors bring in [around 100 homeless people] from different shelters across San Diego,” Lian said. “We serve food, and on holidays, we offer haircuts and showers. Two buses of homeless people come in every half hour. For the most part, they love having people to talk to and people that will be with them.”
Attending the event for the past year has exposed Lian to the class differences in the United States and made him reconsider the stereotypes regarding homeless people.
“It is interesting to listen to their perspective,” Lian said. “People don’t take the time out of their lives to interact with homeless people and to really understand who they are. They need certain things … but because people think they are uneducated and lower class, [they are unlikely] to ever come out of homelessness.”
Head cook at Horizon Park Chapel, Dede Murphy, said the monthly event is beneficial not only for the homeless, but also for the students who participate.
“We teach the kids who participate what it is like to be on the other side,” Murphy said. “[They] get to go home, have a bathroom, have a bed, but these people are lucky if they get that in a day.”
After her father severed relations with her when she was 26, Artemis Arthur, a homeless mother attending Community Meal, became pregnant with her child on the streets and has faced the struggles of being a parent without a home.
“[My father] drove me here without telling me where we were going and dropped me off with a suitcase and $20 and said ‘Good luck, kid,’” Arthur said. “I am a perfectly fit parent, but once you become homeless, reality gets thrown upside down. [I am sure to] never retract my love as a parent, which my parents did for me. [Having a child] motivates me all the time, every day.”
Arthur believes her son likes being “outside more than he does inside” and tries to “stay positive.” However, she does recognize the instability and danger a childhood on the streets could entail.
“You should never have to experience this,” Arthur said. “There are a lot of horrors out here that people tell you about that are not true until you see [them].”
The biggest challenges Arthur has faced have been those related to life without a home, but the mental toll of homelessness has greatly affected her as well.
“[My biggest challenge has been] not having a home, not being able to get a job and eating canned food,” Arthur said. “Even now, I try to keep myself from thinking too hard about it because it has been a year and I am still homeless. I do not think I have done anything specifically to be out here. You can look at it like punishment or preparation for something else.”
While Arthur says she did not become homeless because of addiction, Elana Soltz, program manager for the Cortez Hill Family Center, a branch of the YWCA, considers “family violence, sexual abuse, severe drug and alcohol exposure and being raised in very unhealthy environments” as causes of homelessness in San Diego. She did not include mental illness, and while it is generally identified as a main cause for homelessness, the statistics disprove this assumption. According to the Washington Post, only 13 to 15 percent of homeless citizens are mentally ill, though 30 to 40 percent of the chronically homeless have mental illnesses.
“I would say 95 percent [of homeless people] have experienced some sort of trauma in their lives,” Soltz said. “A lot of times, people don’t recognize how significantly trauma early in life can affect how people grow up.”
Peter*, a homeless man originally from Santa Barbara, lost his job, his wife and his home after he became addicted to drugs.
“It comes little by little,” Peter said. “It’s like watching grass grow. You can’t see it really grow, but come back in a week and it’s longer. Drugs start by making you feel good, but then it takes away your dignity, your honesty.”
Drug addiction and alcoholism lead to various negative stereotypes regarding the homeless population. Hana Chitgari (10) has seen that these generalizations, such as laziness or mental illness, are often not true. Through volunteer work, she seeks to transcend misunderstanding between the homeless and other members of society. One weekend a month, Chitgari participates in 1st Saturdays, an organization which meets in downtown San Diego to distribute clothing, food and “care packs” to homeless citizens. Chitgari leads the event through TPHS Interact Club, allowing other students to experience exposure to homelessness, as she believes it is easily forgotten in the Carmel Valley area.
“[Attending 1st Saturdays] has helped me see that, first of all, there is a serious issue with homelessness only 10 minutes from where we live,” Chitgari said. “We assume that everyone is bad if they are homeless, but I do not think that is correct. They are normal people doing normal things, and [people in the TPHS community] would be surprised at how positive and happy they are.”
Brianna Audinet, a 17-year-old from Los Angeles, became homeless when she was 10 and experienced the difficulties of homelessness firsthand. After her father was arrested and jailed, she lived in shelters with her mom and brother until she was 11.
“Deep down I was miserable. I was depressed, and I didn’t like my situation,” Audinet said. “I tried to make the best of it, but it becomes haunting and bothersome. I had that in the back of my mind at school. I did my work, but I was not OK. Having to wake up every day in that facility [and go to school] and see those crazy people every day, it was a pain.”
According to Soltz, children who are homeless have difficulty performing academically and socially because of their situation.
“The bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is food, shelter and clothing — the things we need to live,” Soltz said. “The children in our program are right there, so for them to maintain good grades in school and social relationships and grow in general is a struggle. [The shelter] isn’t a permanent place where they know they feel safe and comfortable, so there is a constant anxiety within many of our youth. It’s going to prevent [them] from doing well in school and excellently in sports, [and] prevent them from making friendships.”
Audinet received help in school from School on Wheels, an organization dedicated to helping homeless children receive an education by providing tutors and safe study spaces
“I think education is essential,” Audinet said. “You should be educated about your rights and your living condition. I found out that no child should be subjected to [a homeless type] of living. You should be educated … if you want to get a job, earn some money and provide for yourself and your family.”
TPHS alumnus Thomas* lived in a transitional living program for homeless teenagers after moving to National City from China before being adopted by a North County woman.
“Living as a homeless teenager definitely was not fun,” Thomas said. “I remember that I would envy other students in my class for having materialistic things … I did not have specific resources available to me such as SAT prep classes and other academic resources. Being homeless was not something I would talk about. No one knew about my situation, so I never bothered talking about it.”
Despite the circumstances, Thomas was able to prosper academically and said that his experience made him “a more well-rounded person.”
“Homelessness is not a flag you carry on your back,” Thomas said. “It’s something that is a part of who you are … Everyone has their own problems at home, and being homeless [is the problem] I had to struggle with. However, I am not ashamed of being homeless … I look around my college campus now and realize that everyone might not have had to go through what I did, but I look at it as an advantage.”
Audinet now lives in a house in Lancaster, north of Los Angeles, with her mom and brother, who both have stable jobs. She has tried to learn and grow as a person throughout her experience with homelessness.
“I think everything was supposed to happen to me; had I not gone through this, I would not be a compassionate person and not understand what struggling is like. Having this experience [has] made me a better person … I can hope that as I progress into the future, I can become a better person knowing I’ve been through that, I’ve gone through that and I’ve learned from that.”
According to the United Way of San Diego County, San Diego ranks third in the United States in the size of its homeless population. While nearly 9,000 individuals are on the streets or in shelters each night, institutions such as YWCA, 1st Saturdays and Community Meal provide a safety net and hope for the future.
*Name changed to protect identity