It has been two weeks since the opening of a temporary city-sanctioned campground for 200 homeless people near downtown San Diego. One thing that was not quite expected is the dozens of children who have moved in. For now, the large, fenced-in stretch of black pavement covered in colorful tents and canopies is the best option they have for a home.
“They feed us, they give us clothes, they give us shoes,” said Azaura Anjos, 10, smiling as she proudly described her new community, where she lives with her parents, aunt and six siblings.
At 4-and-a-half-feet tall with brown, shoulder-length hair and luminous brown eyes, Anjos recalled sleeping in a downtown park before moving to the homeless transitional camp.
“It wasn’t very comfortable because we would lay in the grass, but then we would have to move off the grass and onto concrete because the … sprinklers would come on,” Anjos described. “But the lights at the park never turned off. So we all put our heads under the blankets.”
Anjos said from the moment she moved into her new green, six-person tent she has felt cared for.
“They don't treat us like we're in a bad situation, and I don’t act like we’re in a bad situation or think we’re in a bad situation,” said Anjos. “I think we’re actually in a house, ‘cause that’s how they treat us.”
The campsite holds nearly 150 tents, along with showers and toilets, hand-washing stations and shuttle transportation. Meals and snacks are provided, and health workers and housing navigators are also onsite.
One of the most popular amenities is a play area with toys and games for kids. That is because, of the 200 people who live at the camp, almost a quarter are children.
“They’re safe. That’s the key,” said Bob McElroy, CEO of the Alpha Project, the nonprofit managing the camp.
“We had no idea that we’d have 40 kids and ten families or so, but we’re making it happen,” said McElroy, sitting in a metal chair at the camp, surrounded by six children who seemed to understand he is the one providing their lifeline.
“Inside that door?” a toddler boy asks McElroy, pointing to the Alpha Project's mobile office.
“What’s inside that door? McElroy responds to the little boy. “Oh, I don’t go in there cause those people try to make me work, and I’d rather be out here with you,” he chuckled.
McElroy, who has worked to help homeless people for 30 years, said the children have given him a renewed purpose.
“They’re dolls,” he said. “Living in not the best case scenario, but they’re safe, they have access to health care. We’ve got some decent meals in here.”
Overall, the camp is running smoothly, McElroy said, crediting his staff of 30 who work around the clock taking care of people and keeping resources flowing.
But challenges are ongoing, he said, including transporting 200 people to downtown and getting kids to school and back.
“But when I come down and hang out with the kids, it keeps me showing up,” he said.
Children are not the typical face of San Diego’s homeless population. They are rarely seen panhandling or pushing overstuffed carts. But a count taken in January found 976 homeless children in the county, with 169 sleeping without shelter.
Christine Wade, 31, and her six children ages 2 to 14, who have been struggling with homelessness for several years, moved into the camp the morning it opened.
“It was a beautiful moment,” Wade said, tears streaming down her cheek as she sat inside her tent surrounded by her children. “Because being out there’s too hard. So when they came to get us it was like a moment of finally.”
Wade, a San Diego native who grew up in the East County, said her children are sleeping fairly well and getting their daily routine down, which includes school and preschool.
“I’m grateful for everything that we get,” Wade said, “because I didn’t think I was going to get help ever. I thought I was just going to continue to try to make it on my own.”
Wade’s sentiment of gratitude is shared by many at the camp. Parents said they are pulling together to help one another.
“It’s nice for the kids to be able to talk to other kids and the parents to be able to talk to other parents,” said Abbra Towe, 35, whose family also moved into the camp on opening day.
Towe and her two daughters, ages 5 and 7, sleep in one tent while her husband sleeps in his own tent in a section with other men.
“We are in a better place than on the streets,” Towe said. “But there’s still people with issues. And it can be concerning.”
During the first few days, Towe, who is a certified lifeguard, was worried about how this experience would impact her children. But not so much anymore.
“These children, they are going to change the world,” Towe said, choking back tears. “They are learning right now what I’m learning at 35. And they’re smart and strong, and that’s what they’re going to get out of it.”
Little Azaura Anjos has been writing about her camp experience and interviewing people she meets.
“She was born in Philadelphia. She has blue eyes. She only sings for fun,” said Anjos, enthusiastically reading from her journal she carries with her.
Anjos will likely live at the campground a couple more months until her family can transition into the city’s bridge shelter tents, scheduled to open in December. Or better yet, a place with a front door and walls.
Anjos said she will always remember the friends she made and the time she lived amid rows of tents.
“How grateful I am, and how well they took care of me,” Anjos said. “And how well they took care of my family.”