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San Diegans experiencing homelessness create maps to define their homes

The number of people experiencing homelessness in downtown San Diego and the surrounding area doubled last year. KPBS race and equity reporter Cristina Kim says an SDSU professor and his students are now asking people living in the streets what they actually need.

On any given day you can find Bruce Appleyard and his students walking around San Diego’s homeless encampments, talking with people and asking them to draw maps.

“Students researchers and myself go out and have people answer a few questions and then draw maps on blank pieces of paper of their most important activities and the most important destinations in their daily lives,” said Appleyard, a San Diego State professor of city planning and urban design.

And there are plenty of people for them to ask. The number of people experiencing homelessness in downtown San Diego and the surrounding area doubled since last year.


Appleyard said while those numbers are important, they don’t tell the whole story because they don’t capture humanity.

That’s where the mapping comes in.

“It's a human-centered approach to understanding (people’s) home territories and their needs,” he said.

The research project started in 2021 with the simple goal of better understanding how people experiencing homelessness navigate their daily lives and whether services address people’s needs.

Students approach people and ask them about their experiences. People like Terrence Mayfield, a 45-year-old native San Diegan who’s been living on the streets for years.


“It's been a struggle, you know, out here just trying to maintain and survive,” Mayfield told SDSU student Evan Dennis.

He told Dennis that he recently left a shelter and is now back on the streets.

“So would you go back now?” she asked.

“I'm pretty burnt out on dealing with the people. Out here is a little more…,” he responded, before trailing off.

“Would you say it is less stressful out here?” she asked.

“There's a different type of stress. You know what I'm saying?" he said. "It’s close, close quarters, and you got hygiene issues with, you know, other people and, you know, using the facilities and whatnot.”

Dennis and Appleyard then asked Mayfield to draw a map of his home territory: where he goes to sleep, gets food, charges his phone and other daily tasks.

He said he’s always moving, but as he looked at the map he drew, he said it says a lot about how he lives his life.

“I really don't go past this area,” he said, pointing to a five-block radius of downtown.

“Would you consider this your home territory?” Appleyard asked.

“I wouldn't consider it home, but it's my community,” he said.

And that’s a distinction Appleyard has heard time and time again from the people he and his students have interviewed.

Home means something very different than just shelter.

“To me homeless and houseless are, you know, two different things and you can have a house or apartment or whatever and still be homeless,” Mayfield said.

After the interview wrapped up, Appleyard gave Mayfield a gift card for food. Everyone who does an interview gets one.

Happy holds up the map of his daily activities. He's lived in the streets of downtown San Diego for years, March 11, 2022.
Cristina Kim
Happy, who's lived in the streets of downtown San Diego for years, holds up the map of his daily activities, March 11, 2022.

The project is service-oriented, but Appleyard said the maps are also a reflection of our society.

“It's not as much what the maps say about the homeless individuals we're interviewing. It's really about what it says about us,” he said. “And oftentimes, people are just looking at homelessness as a problem that needs to be solved and dealt with.”

Appleyard and the students plan to keep collecting maps and hope local governments will use the lessons gleaned from them about shelter curfews, crowding and the areas many people avoid. They’ve already met with San Diego County’s Office of Homeless Solutions.