Sunday, April 16, 2017

Living Homeless in San Diego

Last February, I was living as a homeless man on the streets of San Diego, California. Check out the homemade slide show above using the video editing app, Splice.

It was a thoughtful conscious choice to plunged into homelessness for one week because of my friend Ed Pelzner. Originally from Reston, Ed has been missing since 2014. The last confirmed information about him was he was living on the streets of San Diego and he's a meth addict. Ed's best friend Will Cravens, has been on a journey to find Ed since he disappeared. He would fly out of Northern Virginia to San Diego at least twice a year and would live on the streets to have closer access, gain trust and built street credibility among homeless people. He serves and volunteers at the different institutions that help the homeless at the same time. When I heard Ed's story one Sunday morning, I knew right away that I want to get into action and be part of a meaningful mission. (Check out this ABC 10 News report from 2015 on the search for Ed)

Along with other 8 individuals, we divided into groups of three to begin the journey to search for a missing friend. I entered the world of the unemployed, addicts, mentally disabled, felons and those who are simply trying to survive the streets. I have no credit cards and cash. I have some basic toiletries and a cellphone to document my trip and reserved only to use for emergencies. I wore the same clothes for five days and four nights, in 40 degrees evening temperature equipped with a sleeping bag, sleeping pad and a tarp to keep me warm and dry at night. With just a photocopy of my driver's license and nothing more, I would need to survive on the streets of San Diego not knowing whether or where I would eat or sleep, and what or who I would encounter. 

Our team avoided sleeping at homeless shelters so we won’t take up space from real homeless people who legitimately need a bed to sleep in. A local volunteer was kind enough to let us sleep on their back yard and someone tipped us that a local church accepts homeless people to sleep in their empty gym and shed.

There are more than 10,000 homeless people in San Diego. I was taken aback by the hundreds of people lying on the pavement and makeshift shelters along on sidewalk of downtown San Diego. The men looked rough and unshaven and the women looked ragged and unkempt. I would walk at least 10 miles per day and eat at soup kitchens mostly organized by local houses of worship. I would fall in line with other homeless people for a free meal. I shared meals with them and heard stories of lives on the street. I would volunteer to clean up the dining hall and the kitchen to provide local volunteers an extra set of hands to complete their work.  

My interaction with a homeless person consists of showing a photo of Ed, asking if he or she have seen Ed and introduce myself as someone from the East coast living on the streets for a week to find him. If the person was receptive, I would engage in a conversation asking where they were from, what brought them to the streets and their issues and concerns as a homeless person. Many I talked too became homeless because of unemployment, a nasty divorce, crime, mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction. Some homeless by choice because they can't pay rent or afford a house. Common problems on the street are, the lack of dry and warm places to sleep in, poor access to food and medicines, drugs, rain, being arrested by the police and loneliness. I would refer the homeless person to local charities and shelters if necessary and I end my conversation with a handshake or a hug. 

The reaction was mixed. Many were impressed and touched by what I do to find Ed. They were engaging and ready to give me leads on where I could find Ed or where to look next. Some were also skeptical. They can't comprehend why someone from the East coast would get off from work, leave home to travel to California and sacrifice their comforts to live on the streets to find a missing person.

I was surprised how drug use was very open within the homeless population in San Diego. I would see homeless people smoking weed and snorting cocaine outside Starbucks. I walked around and a stranger will offer me to buy weed. There were trailer vans parked on the street that was obviously being used as drug joints and meth labs.

I agree with a local volunteer who told me that meth is an "epidemic" in San Diego's homeless communities. The meth users I met appeared underweight and undernourished. Their eyes were dilated, front teeth were missing, face and body were twitchy.  They have burn marks all over their body and skin sores or lesions on their face and arms from picking at the skin with their fingernails. Some seem to be extremely energetic but many display nervousness, disorganized thoughts, paranoia and psychotic behaviors. Some of the meth addicts were safe to approach and hang out with but some were deranged and I just avoid them.

To be part of the journey to find Ed was a profound and moving experience.  The value I put on “stuff” disappears when I lived off a backpack for a week and got stripped off of my money and identity. I was humbled to be dependent on soup kitchens and charities for meals. It was a bit degrading to when people refuse to make eye contact and look away. While I was using a public bathroom in a train station, an angry businessman started cussing at me and told me I should do my toilet business outside. That moment, I realized everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect regardless of how the person makes one uncomfortable.

I was heartbroken to witness the despair of homeless people, their poor living condition, the consequences of their poor life choices, and the devastating effects of illegal drugs. But I was also encouraged to meet local volunteers who devotes their time to serve the homeless. Some were former drug addicts, felons and homeless sharing hope to others and dedicating their lives to give back. I made it a priority to say "you're doing a great job" to every child volunteer I see at soup kitchens. It was a delight to see their big smiles every time they hear those words from me as a homeless person.    

Ed Pelzer is a meth addict and every day we don't find him is a push deeper into the destructive black hole of drug addiction. Unfortunately, our team didn't find Ed on this trip. But we found many homeless people who are an "Ed" to a family and are waiting for their "Ed" to also come home and get rehabilitated.

When I got home, family and friends asked what I learned from living on the streets for a week. Here are my thoughts:

  • Do not judge. Treat all human beings with dignity and respect regardless of their life's condition.
  • Do not look away when you see a homeless person. If you can't give money, a look or a smile is good enough even if you think you cannot help.
  • If you don't want to give cash, give a gift card to a fast food or grocery store. The gift card will also allow the homeless to use the store's bathroom.
  • Don't worry too much about giving cash to homeless. Giving is always the right thing to do regardless of the outcome.
  • Donate blankets and clothing you no longer use. Warm and practical clothing are needed.
  • Financially support program and institutions that help the homeless such as soup kitchens, shelters, women crisis center and the like.
  • Volunteer at soup kitchens. You can help buy supplies, help prepare and distribute meals.
  • Stay away from illegal drugs.

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