Dozens of women, ranging from mothers with young children to seniors with walkers, arrived at the city’s first sanctioned homeless camp Monday with a mixture of trepidation, anxiety and hope.
“How are you doing?” asked one of the workers from the Alpha Project, the nonprofit running the campsite, to a woman who had recently arrived.
“I’m a little scared,” said the woman, who gave her name only as Dawn. The worker gave her a reassuring hug and let her know everything would be all right.
Others arrived with smiles, with some saying they saw the day as a turning point.
“I think it’s great that I get a second chance in life,” said Terrie Woolever, 58, a San Diego native. “I thought of suicide a lot. When I came here today, I was surprised. I was happy. Everything changed.”
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced the opening of the site last week in response to a hepatitis A outbreak that has disproportionately affected the homeless, leaving 17 dead and hundreds hospitalized.
The encampment also provides some relief from the harsh living conditions for people on the street and the neighborhoods that have seen a growing number of makeshift sidewalk shelters in recent years.
An annual count conducted in January found 9,116 homeless people countywide and 5,619 in the city of San Diego. Of those, 3,231 in the city were unsheltered, with 1,276 on downtown streets.
The asphalt campgrounds is in a public works yard off 20th and B streets and is expected to hold about 200 people. Monday was move-in day for about 65, including some of the most vulnerable on the street.
As the first wave arrived, the condition of some woman who might have been on the streets the night before was alarming. Many appeared to be at least in their 60s. One was severely hunched over and used a walker, one woman had a pronounced limp and a third had braces on both wrists.
A later wave of women were younger and healthier, but likely had other issues. Most of the arrivals Monday were picked up from Rachel’s Women’s Center, a drop-in facility that provides services for women who are homeless, have physical disabilities, are mentally or emotionally disturbed or in recovery.
“I can finally exhale,” said Hayley Salas, 54, as she relaxed after arriving on the site with her dogs, Bubba and Poopers.
Salas, a San Diego native who has been homeless since 2006, said she is overcoming addiction and hoping to receive donations to help pay for a $35,000 operation she said she needs to correct a neck problem that has caused numbness in three fingers on each hand.
“It’s been horrible, but it’s going to make one heck of a last chapter,” she said, referring to a book she plans to write about her life.
Salas said she is particularly happy that she can take her beloved pets with her in the encampment.
“A lot of places don’t take animals,” she said. “Thank God they did here. I love them. They’re like my children I couldn’t have.”
A fenced-off area with 35 tents is reserved for women and children, and men who will arrive this week will be in a larger area that women and children can visit.
Since the opening of the camp was announced, the Alpha Project has been scrambling to get everything in place by the scheduled opening.
Alpha Project President and CEO Bob McElroy spent much of the morning on either a cell phone or walkie-talkie and meeting with staff members on last-minute details.
“Dinner is at 5,” he said as people began arriving. “What do we do about lunch? Get 15 pizzas. Is that enough? Get 20.”
The move-in appeared to go smoothly, with portable showers and toilets in place as people arrived. Only about 50 tents were set up in the morning at the 136-space site, but more would be set up by the end of the day after a shipment arrived, McElroy said.
Pauline Bobenrieth, public health manager for San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, was at the site with six nurses to give flu and hepatitis A vaccinations to the arrivals. Almost all already had aw hepatitis A vaccination from the county’s street outreach teams, and they knew when they were due for a booster shot.
Faulkner stopped by the site and praised the Alpha Project for the quick work in putting the site together and also stressed that the temporary site was just part of a larger effort to end homelessness.
“It’s not about a temporary bed for a night or a couple of weeks, but getting people into permanent housing,” he said.
Next, the city plans to open at least three large industrial tents to serves as temporary shelters with wrap-around services. The first will be run by the Alpha Project and serve 380 to 400 people, and McElroy said he expects it to open in East Village before Thanksgiving.
The encampment that opened Monday will close as people transition into the East Village tent.
“It’s nice and cozy,” said Cheryl Blue, 58, as she moved into her tent. “It’s not Buckingham Palace, but it’s comfortable.”
A San Diego native, Blue said she became homeless in 2011 after filing for divorce. She usually spent nights with about five other people under a tarp on the corner of 2nd and A streets downtown.
“To tell you the truth, most of it I thoroughly enjoyed,” she said. “It’s been fun.”
But Blue said she has done some growing up on the street, and her outlook got better two years ago when she began going to church.
She has a vascular condition making mobility difficult, and Blue said she plans to get a small place in the future with money she’s receiving from Social Security Supplemental Security Income.
“All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air,” she sang, bursting into “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” from “My Fair Lady.”
Dawn, who said she had been gainfully employed in the high-tech industry before losing her job in the 2008 recession, was nervous but optimistic about moving in.
“I don’t expect it to be fancy schmantzy at all,” she said. “It’s going to be basic living.”
Dawn said she has been attending UC San Diego and is one class away from earning a human resources certificate.
“What the heck is a girl like me doing in a place like this?” she said. “But I got into a rut. I don’t have any family, so this is it.”
Chris Snyder, 38, was the only man at the site Monday morning. He arrived with his wife and two young daughters and was assigned a separate tent.
“We came down here and tried to make it work, but it’s been a lot tougher than we thought,” he said, explaining that he and his wife had jobs in the Central Valley before coming to San Diego. “Some things fell through, so we ended up staying in Balboa Park.”
Shortly after he arrived, McElroy offered Snyder a job helping at the campsite.
“It’s a big weight off our shoulders,” he said. “I got to say, we were getting pretty scared and not enjoying spending the nights out in the street.”
McElroy said donations of diapers, wipes, children’s toys, socks, milk and hygiene packs are welcome and can be dropped off at the gate at 1484 Caminito Center or donated by calling the Alpha Project at (619) 542-1877.
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