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Life In An Oceanside Canyon: Homeless Take Up Residence

A resident of an Oceanside canyon encampment of people who are homeless points to areas recently cleared out by city contractors, May 30, 2017.
Beverley Woodworth
A resident of an Oceanside canyon encampment of people who are homeless points to areas recently cleared out by city contractors, May 30, 2017.

From the top of the hill looking down on a canyon that separates the Goat Hill Golf Club from Interstate 5, passersby would not know there is a hidden community of homeless people living among the eucalyptus trees and bushy undergrowth below.

A path leads down into the canyon through widely spaced trees. My guide, Jimmy, moved here from another nearby canyon more than a year ago. People down here do not like to give out their last names.

“I like it over here better,” Jimmy said, “because it’s readily accessible to the stores, it’s closer, it’s not far out to the freeway.”

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Jimmy said the city comes down fairly regularly and clears everyone out, so most people pack up what they can and move. He points to an area where terraces have been carved in the bank. An old fire pit and pieces of discarded clothing suggest people have stayed here recently.

Life In An Oceanside Canyon: Homeless Take Up Residence

“This right here would be a small tent,” Jimmy said, spreading his arms to show the size. “There’d be a little kitchenette area, and makeshift stairs here.”

Further in, at the top edge of the canyon with only a chain link fence between the site and cars and trucks roaring by on the freeway, we come upon a tent, covered with a tarp. It’s empty.

Jimmy said the occupant is off at work for the day, laying tarmac in La Jolla. A bicycle is tied to a nearby tree with rope, a pair of sturdy boots sits on a nearby branch, and a fishing pole rests on the tent. Jimmy lifts the flap and checks inside.

“We look after the things of the people that are gone,” he said, “because we want them to be comfortable, we want to let him know that when he comes back, his stuff will still be here.”

“When he gets off of work, people will come over here, and pull out the barbecue. He’ll come back with fish. He feeds us," Jimmy said. "Everybody is sitting right here.”

Vi's Place

Back down the path and further into the trees we come across three makeshift tents in a row on the edge of a dry stream bed.

“This is a little bit more of an established place here,“ Jimmy said, explaining that the residents are rebuilding their sites after the last clear out.

“This right here is Miss Vi," Jimmy said, introducing us to a woman with grey streaks in her dark hair. She is preparing food in a make-shift kitchen.

“She’s pretty much our elder here,” Jimmy said.

Miss Vi, a resident of an Oceanside canyon encampment of people who are homeless, May 30, 2017.
Bev Woodworth
Miss Vi, a resident of an Oceanside canyon encampment of people who are homeless, May 30, 2017.

Vi said she has been living here for well over a year. She said she has seen a lot of young people come and go from the canyon.

“You know they have problems at home,” she said, “to where they get kicked out and they’re left out there in the streets. Well, somehow they find their way here and they find their way to me. This is where they begin to learn how to survive on their own and make their choices and decisions about what to do in life. A lot of them make mistakes, but a lot go back to school.”

“I ask them, ‘why are you here, I mean, is there anything that you’re focusing on?’ Some of them say they want to get their children.' I had a couple that I told them, ‘Don’t get into any mix, do what you gotta do, take care of your business and hopefully you’ll get your kids back.’ Well, they got their kids back and they got a beautiful apartment.”

Vi has her own dreams, but she openly admits she has a major hurdle to overcome.

“Why am I homeless? I’m an ex-felon,” she said. “And due to my background, I can’t find the job — not the job that I want.”

Vi said she wants to leave the canyon eventually, finish culinary school and become a chef.

“Everything’s possible," she said with a smile. "It all depends how determined you are to make it possible, you know.”

Vi refers to her neighbor in the next tent as uncle. He calls himself Ace. A Samoan with long, thick greying hair, Ace says he came from near Las Vegas more than three years ago and has found a home here.

“It’s just me and my dog and the people around here," he said.

Christina's Place

Further down the path, among bottle brush trees and flowering nasturtiums, is a compound with two tents and a courtyard that is swept clean. Christina is 20 years younger than Vi: in her early 30s. She has been living here with her boyfriend since last August, after she was released from jail for a misdemeanor.

Christina, a resident of an Oceanside canyon encampment of people who are homeless, May 30, 2017.
Bev Woodworth
Christina, a resident of an Oceanside canyon encampment of people who are homeless, May 30, 2017.

“I can’t get used to this,” she said, her brown eyes full of anxiety. “I want to get a job and get my kids back and start my life, because this is not a life, living like this. It’s not healthy for anybody.”

She has a baby stroller she uses to bring in gallon jugs of water. Outside her compound is a bucket of cleaning supplies — perched on top is a book with “Alcoholics Anonymous” in big letters on the spine. Tomorrow, she said, the city is coming to clean up again.

“Tomorrow we have to move all this stuff. We hide them, and that’s what we do, we just hide,” she said.

Christina said she was taken by Child Protective Services as a child and received some benefits for having a hearing problem. She made it through 10th grade and then got pregnant. Now her kids have been taken away from her. She admits she has an anger management problem.

“I never thought I was going to be homeless,” she said. “Being down here and being stubborn and everything is not helping me at all, so I have to humble myself and it’s pretty hard, it’s the hardest thing you could ever do.”

When she took the Sprinter to go to the Vista Courthouse to clear up a delinquency ticket, she said she was caught for not having a ticket for the train.

“There’s a lot of doors open,” she said, “but when I try to go and open it, something goes wrong so that it closes all the time — and I don’t know how to open them.”

James

James is a resident of an Oceanside canyon encampment of people who are homeless, May 30, 2017.
Bev Woodworth
James is a resident of an Oceanside canyon encampment of people who are homeless, May 30, 2017.

Some people have made it out of the canyon. James and his wife were out for while and lived in an apartment, but it did not work out.

“You heard of the Jack of all trades? I’m the Ace of all trades,” James said. “I do everything.”

James is black, thin-boned with a well-trimmed beard and a mischievous air. He said he fixes bikes, does landscaping, sometimes landing jobs on Craigslist.

“Whatever it is," he said, "no job too big, no job too small."

Now he is back living in the canyon. His wife has a tent of her own down the path, and he sets off on his bike to make sure she has enough water.

“We don’t feel like we’re not a part of the community out there, but when it comes to family, this is who we eat with, sleep with and share with,” said James. “Even though I will move on, I will always come back. This place right here will always be a part of me.”

Jimmy

When Jimmy, my guide, tells his story, it is not difficult to see why he has a hard time finding a way out of the canyon.

“14 years old I was incarcerated,” he said. “I shot two people in John Landes Park, up by Tri-City Hospital when I was 14 year old — in self defense. I ended up going to the California Youth Authority for 10 years. So I left as a child, returned to society as an adult with no experience in life."

Jimmy, a resident of an Oceanside canyon encampment of people who are homeless, sits in front of his makeshift residence, May 30, 2017.
Bev Woodworth
Jimmy, a resident of an Oceanside canyon encampment of people who are homeless, sits in front of his makeshift residence, May 30, 2017.

Now Jimmy has become one of the elders in the encampment. He tries to keep some kind of order in the community.

“You got to keep an eye on who comes down here” he said. Not just anyone can come live there, he says, “You’ve got to know someone.“

When a girl was found dead of an overdose in the back of the canyon about a month ago, Jimmy was the one who went to tell authorities.

“To find a person down the back, dead, in here — it’s unsettling, you know, because this is where we live,” he said.

Jimmy loves the geology of the canyon, and working with the rocks he finds. He says he reads and writes poetry. He also works with the people. He might get out of the canyon one day, but for now, this is his community.

“Right now, in this canyon, the way it is, I’m still needed here.”

Jimmy does not feel needed or wanted in the outside world. He is doing his best to build a supportive community with others who feel the same way.

When it is time to leave, he walks me back out of the canyon to say goodbye.

Life In An Oceanside Canyon: Homeless Take Up Residence
Life In An Oceanside Canyon: Homeless Take Up Residence GUEST:Alison St John, North County reporter, KPBS News

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh . Oceanside residents recently showed up at their city Council to demand something be done about the homeless encampment flourishing in neighborhood canyons. I have emails that say five years ago the places becoming overrun by addicts and drunks and we must do something. Alison St John decided to go down to a canyon encampments and find out more about who was living there. From the top of the hill looking down on a Canyon that separates the goat Hill golf course from Interstate 5 you would never know there's a hidden committee of homeless people living among the trees. Jimmy moved here from another Canyon more than a year ago. I like it here better because it's readily accessible to the stores, it's closer. Further in with cars and trucks roaring by we come upon a small tent. It is empty and Jimmy said the occupant is at work for the day in La Jolla. It is wide open. The ones that stay here we look after their stuff and let him know that when he comes back his stuff is still here. We have to take care of his property to make sure that when he comes home, he has a house to come to. For the ride another campsite with several tent appears. This is more establish. One is Jimmy's and the other one belongs to Miss Vi. She is our Elder here. She has a motherly look and she said she seen a lot of young folks come and go from the Canyon and she does her best to counsel them. They come here to find somewhere to stay in live because there homeless. I ask why you are here and is there anything that you're focusing on? Some of them say there try to get their children. She has her own dreams but she admits she faces a major hurdle. I am homeless because, ex-felon and due to my background, I can't find the job that I want. She wants to leave the Canyon and finish culinary and become a chef. Christina has lived in the Canyon with her boyfriend since last summer after she got of jail for a misdemeanor. I can't get used to this. I want to go out and get a job and get my kids back and start my life that I had before. Living like this is not healthy for anybody. She said she was taken by child protective services as a child and now her kids are being taken away from her. She is honest about her anger issues and she says she's trying to change. There is a lot of doors open but when I try to open it, something goes wrong and it closes all the time. I don't know how to open them. The Canyon is where James keeps ending up. Him and his wife that it's a leave and lifted apartment but that did not work out. We don't feel like we are part of a community out there. When it comes to family, this is who we eat with and sleep with and share with. So even though I will move on, I will always come back. This place will always be a part of me. Jimmy says not just anyone can live in this canyon. You have to know somebody or build relationships. His own story explains why he's finding it hard to leave. I shot two people when I was 14 years old. I ended up going to jail for 10 years and I returned to society as an adult with no kind of experience in life. Now he's become one of the elders in the encampment. For now this is his community. Right now the way it is here in this canyon, I think I'm still needed here. He does not feel needed or wanted in the outside world. He's doing is best to build a supportive community with others who feel the same way. When it is time to leave, he walks me back and says goodbye. Joining me now is Alison St John. Welcome. Like to be here. What prompted you to report on this story? There has been some outrage from the community be -- about what they see. It's very hard to estimate because it's very hard to how people. So I would go down there and see if I could meet some of them. As you mentioned, a lot of people are calling on the city of Oceanside to do something about the people living in the Canyon besides the cleanup sweeps that we heard about, what is a city doing? The city has various people that are working hard on the program. The of a team of homeless outreach team that not a lot of cities have. They are talking about doing better cooperation between department so that the departments work together more effectively. This is a problem that everybody is having across the county in the nation and I think a lot of people are at a loss to know what more can be done because there are so many different root causes of this problem. If the homeless people you spoke with decide to move out of the Canyon, what are their options? They do have a network of groups that are working for the homeless. There's all these agencies and their doing a wonderful job. They don't have any houses or homes or places for people to sleep. They can just offer support and food. A lot of good organizations operation. But it still is the fact that there are people who are outside and unsheltered. I think the latest point in time showed the number of unsheltered homeless is going up. I've heard from homeless people that have said and they told me to leave the peer. I was sitting there minding my own business and I had to leave. I went to the Canyon's but then when I got into the canyons a few days later I was told I had to leave so I went back to the peer desert air. There's a question on where do people go if they do not have a place to go? I wanted to ask you will I was listening to this what was atmosphere in the Canyon community that you visited? Where the people depressed? Did you feel threatened as an outsider? I think when what the guide was what I dost what made me feel size -- safe. They build up a relationship and community norms and I felt like it was something where I was welcomed. I felt not at all threaten. I would not recommend people just walk their dogs down there especially when he could start even the people I was with said they feel like when it start to place changes in is not a safe place anymore. I think there's a level of unawareness about the fact that there are homeless encampment in many parts of the county. You mentioned in your story that people may not realize that just about this golf course there is this homeless encampment housing a number of people and people may be completely unaware of that fact. How big of a problem is homelessness and North County. They have 23% of the county's homeless. The downtown area has 63% it is less but the unsheltered numbers are the ones that are of concern. There are for example 1200 homeless people and the coastal areas 814 and 500 are unsheltered. I think that is the problem the growth of homeless people is growing faster than the homeless network. Oceanside has a large homeless population. It's a nice place to be and it has the beach and people like to live there and so to people who are homeless. They did manage to reduce the numbers last year so 2017's numbers are not quite as big as 2016. I think one thing we learned was that the people are there because they have nowhere else to go. Yes, none of them said that they would choose to live there. This is not their dream home. People said that they were talking about their plans of what they would like if they could get out. Some of them had been now and then falling back into the Canyon again. This was their place of last resort. I've been speaking with Alison St John. Thank you. Thank you.

Life In An Oceanside Canyon: Homeless Take Up Residence
Oceanside residents have shown up at City Hall recently to protest the homeless encampments taking root in neighborhood canyons. Some of those who live in the canyons say they would like to leave, but they are facing barriers.

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