Experiencing Homelessness First-hand
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The cold, wet weather is now here in San Diego and while it might not look like much to the rest of the country, it can certainly chill your bones at night. That's what one of our producers found out this weekend. She lived on the streets as part of a volunteer program to experience homelessness. Now, lots of organizations will be asking for your help this holiday season to make life a little easier for people who have no roof over their heads. So it might be a good time to find out what it really means to live on the streets, even for just about 48 hours. I’d like to welcome my guest, KPBS producer Wendy Fry.
WENDY FRY (KPBS Producer): Good morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Good morning, Wendy. I have to ask you right at the beginning, how did you come up with this idea to spend a weekend like a homeless person? How did you get involved in this project? And why did you do it?
FRY: Well, I have been downtown to interview homeless people a couple of times and what I found is that it takes awhile for them to build up a trust with you, to actually tell you their story. And so one of the things, when I leave, every time I go down there to interview someone and I leave, I think, oh, I wish I had more time to spend with them to get their story. So I wanted to experience what it was like to stay down there for the weekend. I contacted Embrace, which is an organization I wrote about at SDSU and they connect college students with volunteer opportunities, and he – the founder of that organization spends a lot of time with people downtown so he knew where to go, who to talk to. And I also – I decided to do it because I’ve been watching the media coverage this past year and I’m a recent graduate so I really had that go to the primary source ideal of journalism kind of drilled into me at San Diego State. And I didn’t hear a lot of voices of the homeless in the media this year, and so I wanted to get those voices. And…
CAVANAUGH: So what was the – what were the ground rules, so to speak? When did you actually get – start this project? When did you finish it? And did somebody stay with you? What did you agree to?
FRY: Okay, so the idea was I wanted to go down there and basically pretend or be like I was just dropped off in downtown San Diego. And I – So as soon as I got off work here Friday, I went down there in the afternoon and I stayed until yesterday afternoon, and I took nothing, no provisions with me, no food, no money. I did take a bottle of water, and I took a couple of sweatshirts and jackets. So…
CAVANAUGH: And somebody stayed with you.
FRY: Right, Sean Sheppard. He’s the founder of Embrace and he is very familiar with the issues faced by the homeless. He spends a lot of time donating food and going down there and working with different organizations, so he knew the streets and he knew the area. And he stayed with me and I felt a lot safer that he was there.
CAVANAUGH: Certainly, yeah. So what happened? You were let off Friday afternoon. What did you do Friday and Friday night?
FRY: Friday afternoon and Friday evening I spent the whole time interviewing people, talking with people, taking pictures. I spoke to people with the Alpha Project at the winter homeless shelter and I stayed outside there, right outside of the homeless shelter on Island, between 15th and 16th Street for the whole night. And…
CAVANAUGH: Did you get any sleep?
FRY: Very little. A couple hours. We finally broke down and got in the car because it was freezing so – and I locked myself in the car. We got a little afraid after about two.
CAVANAUGH: Were there any people there sleeping outside?
FRY: Oh, there were lots and lots of people sleeping outside, 30 or more. They started lining up to get into the lottery for the homeless shelter about seven and about 8:15 they knew who was getting in and who wasn’t getting in, and then they all shuffled across the street. And what’s very interesting is there’s two sides of the street. The one that’s right across from the winter homeless shelter is the one that’s safe. There’s lot of people that are just trying to get things back together, they’re working the system, and then right across the corner you literally walk right across the street and that’s the area that’s very, very dangerous, a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol abuse. Some really scary people, weapons, so you stay on the well lit side of the street.
CAVANAUGH: I see. And, okay, so you spent this very long, cold, somewhat sleepless night and then the morning comes. How early does it start and what happens?
FRY: It starts very early. One thing, I had a very preconceived misconception that homeless people kind of have their own schedule and they can do whatever they want throughout the day and that is absolutely not correct. They have a very regimented schedule that they follow every day. They have to get up by six or they can get a ticket for illegal lodging, so they’re up by six. A lot of them take their belongings up to the Neil Good Day Center right away. They need to be at a shelter to get food by about 8:30 in the morning, so they all know exactly where they’re going. We went to God’s Extended Hand Saturday morning. I was really hungry by then. I hadn’t eaten for the afternoon and evening, and so we went to God’s Extended Hand where you have some volunteer opportunities to help get the food and the utensils ready. I got the utensils ready and then they have a sermon. They have a religious ceremony and then they eat. And it was really a good meal and then we helped clean up, so that took a good part of the day until about noon. A lot of people that were there with me told me that they do that to stay sober, they try to occupy as much time as they can so that – and do the volunteer work because it keeps them sober and not doing drugs out on the street. And then right after that most people went to St. Vincent’s. We went up to the Good Neil Day Center (sic) and spoke with people and interviewed people and stayed there for the rest of the afternoon. And then I went and panhandled by Horton Plaza in the afternoon.
CAVANAUGH: So you asked people for money.
FRY: I didn’t ask people for money. I sat down with my cup and I kind of got into a little ethical conflict with myself about if somebody walked up to me and they said are you really homeless, I said no, I’m a journalist, I’m working on a social experiment here. I’m doing a story. And most of the time they wouldn’t believe me. They said, oh, okay, sure and they would still drop some change in.
FRY: Or they would say, okay, do you need some help or do you need to know where to go to get some food? And I’m no, no, I’m really – I’m really a journalist and – Okay, sure. Sure, sure.
CAVANAUGH: How much money did you make?
FRY: I made twenty-five dollars and some change in about an hour and a half. I…
CAVANAUGH: I think you’re benefiting from the holiday season there.
FRY: Maybe. Maybe.
FRY: It would be interesting to do it a little bit longer. There was a really negative experience while I was doing that. I was – Two different gentlemen walked up to me on two different occasions and said, you know, you could make a lot more money if you come with me to my motel room and – within an hour and a half, which I thought was really interesting. I was alone less than an hour and approached twice, and it was really a sad part of it.
CAVANAUGH: Right, it was very upsetting.
CAVANAUGH: But let me ask you this, when it comes to keeping body and soul together on the streets, where – did you go anywhere to clean up? Were there any bathroom facilities there that you were able to use?
FRY: The bathroom facilities is really an unfortunate situation on the streets especially, I think, in San Diego. We stayed in a three block radius. A couple of times I was able to go into the winter homeless shelter and use the porta-potties there. There’s only one set of porta-potties, publicly, in that area, so it’s a real struggle. I – As far as washing up, I didn’t wash up until Sunday morning. I met a gentleman at Good Neil – at the Neil Good Day Center and he – I told him I hadn’t showered since Thursday afternoon, so he walked me to St. Vincent’s and, again, I told him, hey, I’m a journalist, I’m working on this story but I need to shower and they said, oh, sure. Okay, right. Here, we’ll let you in. And they were really nice, gave me shampoo and let me take a shower there, so…
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with KPBS producer Wendy Fry and as part of her own initiative and as part of the Embrace organization, she spent a weekend living like a homeless person in downtown San Diego. And what about the other stories of the homeless people you encountered? Can you tell us some of those stories?
FRY: Yeah, I encountered a range of people from all walks of life from the stereotypical crackhead type person, I interviewed a couple people like that, all the way to I met this very intelligent, clean cut, well spoken man named Carl who insists on creasing his pants and ironing his shirt and he speaks very intelligently. You’d think he could run for office if he was dealt a different situation in life. So – And I met a few young women that were really interesting to get their perspective and they had a lot of advice for me on surviving in the streets as a young woman. And I met one gentleman named Herman who was this big, huge guy and he said he used to be a boxer. And he was – his story was just incredible. And it seems like he needs some help with maybe some treatment programs but he had a lot of philosophies on the society, a lot of interesting things on surviving the street, so…
CAVANAUGH: What did the two young women tell you about surviving on the street? What tips did they give you?
FRY: They told me to keep my eyes down, to not look men in the eye at any point, so focus my eyes on the sidewalk, down, walk with my arms crossed. They said it’s okay to appear closed off. Of course, that was the opposite of what I was trying to do. I was trying to meet people and interact with people. But one girl I met, she doesn’t want me to use her name, but she said, you know, you keep your body armor on you at all times and people will not mess with you. Try to go unnoticed. And, she said, don’t get up at night to go to the restroom because – you know, hold it until the morning because you need to stay put in your spot at night.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Wendy, I know that you have two young children and you must’ve encountered some homeless children while you were on the streets downtown. What went through your mind when you saw that?
FRY: The only children I saw were fourteen, fifteen years old…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, I see, okay.
FRY: …and they were alone. I didn’t see any mothers with their own children. I think most mothers, young mothers with their own young children, go to San Diego Rescue Mission, from what I understand from what the people were telling me, downtown. So, but I did see fourteen, fifteen year old kids by themselves. One child about nine years old. You know, he had a big hooded sweater over and he was walking very quickly on the dangerous side of the street and, you know, my – what goes through my mind is where’s his parents? Where – where are his parents? And where are we to help him?
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, aside from these disturbing instances you had from the men who asked you to go off with them somewhere, did you feel more anonymous? Did you feel like people weren’t looking at you or responding to you?
FRY: Certainly. Certainly, I did. I had hundreds and hundreds of people walk by me with their eyes intentionally diverted and I’m not used to saying hi to someone and not getting a response back. And I met many homeless people that told me that when I started talking with them with interview them, they told me they’d gone all day without speaking to a human being, for 24 hours was the last time they spoke to another human being. So, definitely, I got the impression of how ignored by society these people are.
CAVANAUGH: You found out that homeless people have more of a regimen than you realized. What else did you realize that you didn’t know going in?
FRY: I didn’t realize what a close knit community the people down there. They know each others’ names, they know each others’ stories. They are so helpful. And when I first got down there, they told me where I can go to eat, where I can go to get a blanket, where I need to go to shower. And I’ve lived in some communities, you know, in some neighborhoods in Rancho Bernardo, some neighborhoods in Carmel Valley – when I moved into those neighborhoods, not even compare to the sense of community and the sense of closeness that those people – because they’re depending on each other for food, for safety, for warmth at night. They are much more of a close knit society than I expected.
CAVANAUGH: Tell me a little bit more about the nighttimes because you told us that during the first night it got too cold and you did – you kind of caved…
FRY: Yeah, I did.
CAVANAUGH: …and went into the car. How difficult is it spending a night out?
FRY: It’s freezing. It is freezing to the point where you’re not thinking about anything else. But my whole body was shaking, and when it rained a little bit on Saturday night – and a lot of people don’t realize that because they weren’t outside but it’s just bone-chilling cold, and you’re hungry too, so you don’t sleep much. You’re afraid, so the saying you sleep with one eye open, you probably don’t sleep much at all. So it’s very exhausting being outside in the fresh air all night and walking around all day, it’s very exhausting.
CAVANAUGH: Was this worse than you expected?
FRY: No, it was not worse than I expected. In fact, I wasn’t ready to go home on Sunday, I had met so many nice, interesting people I wanted to stay and talk to some more but it was time to go home and get my notes together. So…
CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. Wendy, thank you so much for speaking with us, and we’re glad to have you back in one piece.
FRY: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with KPBS producer Wendy Fry. She has a photo gallery of her homeless project. You can see it at KPBS.org/TheseDays. Thank you for listening. You have been listening to These Days on KPBS.