I recently got a bird’s eye view of the vicious cycle that is downtown San Diego’s homelessness conundrum. A “Sisyphean” tragedy played out before my eyes in East Village.
Quick history of Sisyphus: In Greek mythology, he was a human king who angered the gods. Zeus banished him to Hades. Sisyphus’ eternal punishment: Push a boulder up a massive hill only to have it fall back down whenever it gets near the top.
I had balcony seats to a Sisyphean drama on Monday, May 15, 2023. My home office in the Vantage Point high rise overlooks the corner of Ninth Avenue and B Street. Just after 9 a.m., a ruckus caught my ear.
A dark-haired woman wearing all black had emerged from a makeshift street tent near a Bosa construction site. The woman was shouting at uniformed officers from the Downtown San Diego Partnership.
Note: The DSDP’s Clean & Safe team is made up of maintenance and safety ambassadors and unhoused care professionals. They’re not officers of the law.
I went down to the street corner. Several sidewalks in the neighborhood had been slated for power washing. Some folks who’d set up camping tents on the east side of Ninth Avenue had departed. The black-haired woman was loudly and begrudgingly making a chaotic attempt to gather up her belongings.
Over the course of two hours, she managed to drag her stuff–including tarps, pillows, a bulky round table and various framed posters–about half a block easterly down B Street. She struggled. Her plight was maddening, frustrating and made my heart hurt.
From inside a fenced parking lot there at the corner, a man dressed in a hard hat and yellow safety vest offered the dark-haired woman a bottle of water. She accepted, took a swig and went back to her surreal undertaking.
I went back to work, but kept peering over the balcony.
At one point, the dark-haired lady labored her belongings to a spot where a man with tousled dark hair was slumped over in a wheelchair by the curb. Minutes later, the man slid off his wheelchair and onto the ground.
The dark-haired woman stopped her task to check on the man. He was immobile, but responded to her attempt to see if he was alive. Then a DSDP team member returned to the spot, also checked on the man and seemed to make a phone call.
A firetruck and an ambulance appeared 10 minutes later. The man was hoisted onto a gurney and was whisked away in the ambulance.
Moments after the ambulance departed, power washing commenced on B Street. It lasted all of five minutes. I noticed the street cleaning did not include the nook across Ninth Avenue where the dark-haired woman had originally been encamped.
I went back down, again, cautiously approached the dark-haired woman and asked why she’d been told to move. “Because they want to take away my power,” she says tensely.
She softened and nodded when I asked permission to take a picture of one of her belongings (see photo below).
The Clean & Safe team had dispersed to other corners. I went to Ninth & C and asked one uniformed team member where the dark-haired woman was supposed to go.
“You mean that woman who threw a glass bottle at me?” he replies, inexpressively. “…Over to Park Avenue.”
Two blocks away. That appeared to be necessary because Clean & Safe was also power washing Tenth Avenue.
At the corner of Tenth & C, I got an earful from another Clean & Safe employee who pointed out how C Street had just been cleared and washed…and the tents popped right back up within minutes.
“There were two arrest earlier,” I’m told. “But some people just walked around the block and didn’t know where to go, so they came right back.”
I went home and called tireless homelessness advocate Michael McConnell.
“I’ve seen that situation hundreds of times over the last decade,” McConnell says. He reports that May 15 had been an especially busy day for street cleaning in downtown San Diego, especially near Petco Park in East Village.
McConnell has long described the fruitless process of shuffling the homeless around the city as “Whack-A-Mole.” It’s a reference to a carnival game in which players use a mallet to bop the heads of woodland creatures who continuously pop up in other holes on the game board.
“It’s not done very strategically downtown and it’s definitely an exercise in futility,” he says. “I’m glad you saw it today from your point of view.”
After getting off the phone with McConnell, I took a last look out over the balcony.
The dark-haired woman had backtracked to Ninth Avenue and seemed to be assessing where to set up next for the foreseeable future.
According to the DSDP’s monthly count, in April there were 1,958 people living unsheltered in downtown.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and District 3 City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn hope to pass an aggressive ban on tents on city sidewalks. (Even though a similar ban already exists and is randomly enforced. Obviously.)
Concurrently, there’s a severe local shortage of shelter beds, long-term housing and affordable housing.
The city has announced plans to open two safe camping sites near Balboa Park. Combined, the two sites could have spaces for 500-plus tents.
In the near future, the city has proposed to close down its current Golden Hall shelter site, which houses more than 500 people (about a third of the city’s shelter capacity).
In downtown San Diego, the story of Sisyphus isn’t mythology. It’s our reality. SDSun