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Street View: Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind

From Dec. 4 through Dec. 6, 2009, KPBS web producer Wendy Fry spent the weekend living among the homeless with Embrace, a non-profit organization that feeds the homeless. Fry will be writing about the experience through a series called “Street View.”

“You stand here on the street corner,” Mama Rita informed me. “Then, here come the cops and they tell you to move four blocks that way. You move four blocks that way and here come the schools telling you to move four blocks that-a-way,” she says emphatically turning her body in four cardinal directions. “Where are we supposed to go?”

Indeed, moments later a patrol car pulls up with two officers who eye me suspiciously and engage in a brief banter with Mama Rita, an outspoken African-American woman with a full figure. As she puts her arm around me and warmly pulls me close, it's easy to see how she earned her maternal nickname.

“And now, I’m telling you to move-on … four blocks that way,” she laughs making it clear that I cannot continue standing on the street corner in front of the Neil Good Day Center.

She seems amused by my paralyzed facial expression and peers at me with large almond eyes over her "John Lennon" sunglasses.

“I’m just teasing you, honey, just go around the corner for a second and I’ll talk to you more in just a minute. Go.”

I listen and quickly scurry around the street corner.

“Out of sight, out of mind,” she calls after me.

I’m not sure if she’s referring to me or to a directive she says police constantly give her or to the fact that we, as a society, are unwilling to accept the reality of homelessness in our community. Maybe it’s more convenient for us to associate homelessness with drunk and dirty street bums or derelict crackheads, rather than consider the single mothers escaping domestic violence or the Vietnam veterans unable to function in society.

I met a man who was extremely frustrated with police telling him he didn’t have the right to sleep on a particular street corner. From his point of view, he wasted his life and sanity defending the constitution as a Marine in the Vietnam War.

“I know what my rights are,” he said. “This is America. I should be able to stand on any street corner I want.”

I asked him what he was going to do when the rains came.

“Honey, I enlisted in 1969. I’ve lived through worse,” he said, leaving it at that.

Throughout my weekend on the streets, I informed people that I was a journalist looking for an inside view of homelessness in San Diego, but few believed me. After listening to stories from other people about how they were ex-judges, ex-lawyers, ex-professional boxers, I understood the doubt. I’m not sure Mama Rita believed me about being a journalist, and I’m not sure I believed her about her job as an informant for the FBI.

Regardless, moments later she returned from around the corner and tearfully told me how she believed police and city workers, during a raid a month earlier, destroyed the urn in which she kept her mother’s ashes. Her pain and loss was tangible and genuine. She told me she was in jail when her property was destroyed, but that her friends asked the police not to destroy her belongings. (The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the city of San Diego on Dec. 2 for alleged raids. The lawsuit states that city workers intentionally waited until a group of homeless people went into a nearby shelter for services and then destroyed all the personal property stored in a vacant lot.)

After spending that weekend on the streets, I happily returned to my normal life of shuttling kids from one holiday event to the next, wrapping Christmas presents and conveniently using the restroom whenever I feel like it. However, it will be a long, long time for me before the people I met on the streets of San Diego are “out of sight, out of mind.”

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