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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 housing unit on 31st Street near downtown San Diego, June 22, 2017.
Kris Arciaga
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.

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

“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.
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.

San Diego Housing Homeless To Change Lives, Tent-Covered Landscapes
An increasing number of people living on the streets has San Diego County leaders coordinating efforts to build more permanent supportive housing.

I couldn't pay the rent so I ended up in a tent. For four years she slept in a tent on a patch of dirt. I squeezed in right here with a blanket and I did not have any problems twice decided to stay. I eventually got a tarp and tend to. It became her refuge. She lived among a row of tents and strangers. It was scary because your single woman. It was the best option she could find after losing her husband and lease and suffering a mental breakdown. When you're down here, there are a lot of people with mental illness also. The native spent her days looking for food and homeless resources returned to campsite every night by 8:00. While she had to set aside her dignity she never lost hope. It was hopeless but I also knew there were ways out. She found her way out. I don't have everything in it yet. She now has a permanent place to call home. She moved into the single room on 31st street near downtown just days ago. It feels like I made it through a struggle but I still feel like this is my entry door to a new beginning. Her four white walls display her few belongings and windows open to a quiet street. Soon she will have a bed to go with her secondhand churn and tempo. It feels like a dream, like it's not happening. She shares it with 11 others. This is the restroom. We all share this restroom. Her set of keys will give for new opportunities. I would like to go back to school and make a career for myself. San Diego has plans to house people living on the streets. Its initiative that's been successful for places like Salt Lake City Utah in Dallas Texas. The approach to change the landscape of downtown were people line on sidewalks consumed by encampments that's become a new norm. Despite our best efforts and despite the success on the part of the housing commission, the problems continue to grow. The problems continue to grow. He is CEO of the San Diego housing commission. He's confident it will help the region turn a corner. We believe the result in 3000 to 5000 more people coming off the streets. Not everyone agrees with the idea. Some worry housing units for homeless people will be built in their neighborhoods. Permanent supportive housing has been a lifeline for 61-year-old Juanita. This is a place that's my solitude and that I can invite who I want to and I can leave the world outside. She is lived in a studio apartment for 11 years before that she lived on the streets. I want to go on word and have the accomplishments of everyone else. Charles Lin also secured a preprinted -- permanent housing unit. I'm very excited. Just being able to take much better care of myself and LivingWell. Returning to her former homeless territory was emotional for her. It reminds me of where was and what I don't want to go back to. The issue of how to deal with large groups of people living in tents on the sidewalk is not just a problem in San Diego. Today we look at a story about what happened after the city of Fresno decided to clear out such encampments. Vanessa has the story. Standing in her kitchen Desiree Martinez checks the weather. She pulls case after case of bottled water from her refrigerator. The water is important. When it is this hot, she spent hours driving around Fresno handing out water to the home is. I've been doing it for so long that I get a feel of how many people are going to be at each place. A used to be easier to find the homeless. They were in large encampments and some permanent towns over overpasses. Then in 2011 the city started an aggressive program to clear out these encampments. 150 people got help finding housing but hundreds are still roaming the streets. She knows where to find them. She used to be homeless herself. She turns onto empty sidestreet and pulls up to a tent of tarps and blankets. Want the listener with her husband and her adult daughter. She is 57 and been living on the streets for three years. I got sunburned really bad. We are back his role in peeling. Across the street there's lawn and shaded trees but they don't venture over. We can be on that side because that is the property. The homeless say life has gotten harder because of the crackdown. They have to move every day because of police. She catches up with the woman that she knows. She used to live in a big encampment and now she says she moves around the city finding ways to dodge police scrutiny. For the moment she is a good thing going. The owner of the house came and caught us in the backyard. The cities of the homeless population has been cut in half to about 1500 on any given day. That is for both Fresno and Madero counties. It's because they've added more housing and services. They think it's because the homeless are harder to find. Takes people like Martinez know where to look. I will bring water and close tomorrow. She has dedicated herself full-time to helping the homeless in the city of Fresno. There's a group of people of different races and culture and we all have similar stories about domestic abuse or family violence or abuse in the home at young ages. By us not judging each other it was empowering me. She spends most days handing out water and food but also launched a campaign and collecting donations. She successfully applied for nonprofit status and she has big plans. This is the first room. The each have twin beds. She partnered with an organization and came up with the sanctuary. Helping them navigate the programs in place to help. Most important for her is that it feels like home. Somewhere that it inspires you to say I want to get better. Eventually she's hoping to expand so she can reach more people.