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San Diego Housing Homeless To Change Lives, Tent-Covered Landscapes

Cindy Bautista, who was formerly homeless, opens the door to her permanent ho...

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Above: Cindy Bautista, who was formerly homeless, opens the door to her permanent housing unit on 31st Street near downtown San Diego, June 22, 2017.

For four years, Cindy Bautista slept in a tent on a patch of dirt against a graffitied building on National Avenue.

“I squeezed in right here with a blanket,” said Bautista, pointing to the hard ground behind a cracked and stained sidewalk. The landscape of desperation, crowded with tents and strangers, became her refuge.

“It was scary because you’re a single woman, and you don’t know who’s out here,” Bautista said.

RELATED: Social Workers Go ‘Tent To Tent’ In Push To Help San Diego’s Homeless

But it was the best option she could find after losing her husband and her lease, and suffering a mental breakdown.

“When you’re down here, there are a lot of people with mental illness also,” she said. “There’s a lot of people that talk to themselves, scream to themselves.”

The San Diego native spent her days looking for food and homeless resources. She returned to her campsite every night by 8, keeping a 44-ounce cup on hand to use as a makeshift port-a-potty. And while she sometimes had to set aside her dignity, she never lost hope.

“It was hopeless, but I also knew there were ways out,” Bautista said.

Cindy Bautista (left), who lived for four years in a tent on National Avenue near downtown San Diego, reunites with her former neighbor, June 22, 2017.

Bautista found her way out when she was accepted into a shelter program blocks away at St. Vincent de Paul Villages, sleeping in a communal room with 80 other women for more than a year. Now, the mother of five grown children has moved into a place of her own, under the city's subsidized permanent housing program.

“It’s a little messy, and I haven’t gotten everything in it yet, but this is it,” she said, proudly unlocking her front door. She moved into the single room on 31th Street near downtown just days ago. She shares the two-story complex, along with bathrooms and kitchens, with 11 others, who are also formerly homeless.

“It feels like I finally made it through a struggle, but I still feel like this is my entry door to a new beginning," Bautista said.

Her four white walls with built-in shelves display her few belongings. Windows open to a quiet street below, lined by trees and houses. Her unpacked bags are scattered on her mostly bare carpet floor, that will soon hold a bed to go with her second-hand chair and end table.

“It feels like a dream, like it’s not really happening,” Bautista said, clutching onto keys for the first time in years. “I would like to go back to school, to City College, and make a career for myself.”

RELATED: Q&A With New CEO Of San Diego County Homeless Task Force

San Diego has plans to permanently house thousands of people living on the streets and provide counseling and services to help them rebuild their lives. The approach, which has been largely successful in other cities across the nation, could change the landscape of downtown, where people lying listlessly on sidewalks consumed by encampments, has become a new norm.

“Over the past two or three years, despite our best efforts and despite the success on the part of the housing commission, the problems continue to grow,” said Rick Gentry, president and CEO of the San Diego Housing Commission, one of the organizations working to tackle the homeless crisis.

He said the commission’s three-year, $80 million permanent housing plan, launched this week, will help the region turn a corner.

“We believe it will result in 3,000 to 5,000 more people coming off the streets over the next three years,” Gentry said.

Not everyone agrees with the idea. Some worry housing units for homeless people will be built in their neighborhoods. Others argue that people who dug themselves into homelessness should take responsibility for their own problems, not the government.

Permanent supportive housing has been an 11-year lifeline for Juanita Broughman, 61, who camped in Balboa Park for two years before moving into a studio apartment at Father Joe's Villages.

“This is the place that’s my fortress of solitude and that I can invite whom I want, and I can leave the world outside,” Broughman said.

Charles Lin, homeless for ten years, also just secured a permanent housing unit. He said rising rents pushed him onto the streets.

“I’m very excited,” Lin said. “Just being able to take much better care of myself and living well."

For Cindy Bautista, returning to her former homeless territory was emotional.

“It reminds me of where I was and what I don’t want to go back to,” she said.

An increasing number of people living on the streets has San Diego County leaders coordinating efforts to build more permanent supportive housing.


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