By Lucia Viti
Tony Rodriguez is an intelligent and articulate man. The San Diego native is described as humble, kind, compassionate, loyal and creative. Sporting an associate’s degree in graphic arts from Mesa College, Tony draws, paints and assembles sculptures made from discarded items. Tenacious and handy with tools, he can even fix a bicycle “in a heartbeat.”
Five years ago, Tony lost his job as a waiter, despite a 15-year tenure. Lacking financial and familial support, he could no longer afford his basement apartment. Homeless, Tony said he learned to survive living on the streets because it was “easier than living in shelters.”
For the record, Tony is not — and never has been — an addict or an alcoholic. And he doesn’t suffer from a mental illness. Gaming the bureaucratic system is also out of the question: He has never applied nor received a single disability check.
One morning, a well-dressed “professional” woman walked by Tony “looking directly at me.” Since most people avoid eye contact with the homeless, Tony felt buoyed. In his world, a “normal interaction between two people” rarely occurs. In passing, she leaned into Tony and whispered into his ear: “You bum.”
“I literally fell to my knees,” he said. “She got me. She tore into my soul. This was intimate and it hurt.”
One individual tried to poison Tony, another offered him a sandwich filled with glass shards, while another gave him a sandwich oozing with the hottest sauce “you could ever imagine.” And yet, despite people “wreaking havoc to beat you down,” Tony overwhelmingly believes that most people are generous and kind.
“And that,” Tony said, “is what I choose to focus on.”
Today, he is the star of his poignant story, “Tony – The Movie.”
“It’s bizarre to be filmed,” he said. “At times I felt like a star until the seriousness of the issue weighed in. You quickly realize it’s not all fun and games.”
North Park filmmaker
Hobbyist filmmaker Dennis Stein, a North Park resident, will show the documentary on Oct. 28 at the Observatory North Park in an effort to “jumpstart a community discussion on our region’s homelessness crisis.” The free public event will also feature “Shine,” an animated short film from Father Joe’s Villages.
Filmed in 2016-17, the biopic on Tony is also an exposé for implementing solutions to San Diego’s pervasive homeless issue. America’s Finest City ranks fourth in homeless overall, and second in the number of homeless veterans.
“Tony’s story highlights the need to support the homeless,” Stein said. “Chronic and challenging, the issue of homelessness in San Diego is not being properly addressed. Filming the struggles of life on the street made me question: Why is it like this? What changes can we make? ‘Tony — The Movie’ focuses on the importance of supporting solutions based on what does and doesn’t work.”
“Housing first” is the underbelly of the documentary’s message. Stein advocates a regional plan emanating from San Diego’s political affiliates and elected officials including mayors, county supervisors and City Council members, to replace programs that serve only as bandages and not resolutions.
“Housing first is not only key, housing first works,” he said. “A percentage of San Diego’s 9,000 homeless have endured underserving challenges. Others ride the system. But how can we judge those who deserve help and those who don’t? It’s impossible. Judgment leaves people on the streets without solving the problem. Non-judgment houses people. Would you rather house the homeless or step over them on your doorstep?”
According to Stein, transitional housing cost $36,000 per year and often loses participants who can’t adhere to program rules. Tenting — shelter tents — costs $6,000 a year per person.
“Why not spend that money to house people so they can efficiently accept help and get their lives back together?” Stein said. “Government research shows that housing first is the most effective long-term solution to homelessness. The public should visit the East Village, become outraged and demand an immediate response. San Diegans can make it politically infeasible for our elected officials not to implement housing first.”
Priced out of housing
Facing a “tsunami of rising costs,” Tony explained how San Diegans “living on the edge of homelessness” are often priced out of their apartments. Residents get evicted without being offered alternative housing. And yet, Rodriguez remains sympathetic to the public’s understanding of housing first.
“I understand how many view housing first as unfair,” he said. “Families pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for their homes and now we want them foot the bill to house the homeless. But what does it say about our society if we let anyone — especially the mentally ill — live outside? I know an elderly man who sits on the pavement rocking a huge teddy bear. He’s dirty. The teddy bear’s dirty. It rains and people simply walk by. How can we as a society turn our backs?”
Job hunting is also impeded by a lack of housing.
“You need a place to live in order to look for a job,” Stein continued. “You can’t wake up dirty and need to move and guard your possessions while making interviews and appointments. Housing first, jobs second.”
“How can anyone have the mental space to find a job when you’re constantly running from the cops?” Tony said. “Cops beat me down. I’m not a criminal. I don’t do drugs. I don’t steal. But I run from cops. Every. Single. Day. ‘Move along,’ they say, ‘we just got a call.’ ‘How could you get a call, we just got to the coffee shop? Just let us sit and buy coffee.’
“Bicycle cops move you all day long,” he continued. “Well, there’s no place to sit on the street. You’re constantly on the go, spinning your wheels and getting nothing done. You’re beaten down and beaten down, another nail in the coffin of your self-esteem. Getting back on your feet requires help from a mentor or a support group. I can’t do this on my own.”
Police enforcement remains a tenuous issue. The city of San Diego was cited and successfully sued for ticketing people who slept on the streets. Individuals now have the right to sleep on “certain streets” unless an alternative is provided. Ticketing is no longer allowed between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. unless subjects engage in illegal activity or disturb the peace. However, street dwellers must be gone by 5:30 a.m. or they face jail or losing their possessions.
Moving possessions is “tough.” What can be stolen is housed in wagons and carts, covered by sleeping bags, blankets, even a carpet and secured with large chains. What can’t be stolen is carried — phone, charger, flashlights, keys, art supplies and basic tools to fix bikes and cut wood. Rodriguez had a storage unit but was “booted out for a nonsensical reason.”
“In other words, you’re homeless, you don’t fit in and you’re not welcomed,” he said. “The same thing happened at the dog park. Another nail in the coffin of destroying self-esteem that we suffer every day.”
Tony spoke of the common misconceptions surrounding homelessness, which is made worse because “homeless people are generally secretive.”
“Homeless people are no different that you and I,” he said. “Bureaucrats like to rope us in with criminals. Yes, there’s a criminal element just like there’s a criminal element in every society. Good and bad people exist everywhere.”
Tony shares a “symbiotic” relationship with his girlfriend Ginger and their dog, Bambi. “Working together to protect their possessions,” he said their day begins with canning and dumpster diving, “an arduous full-day endeavor.” Money is used to purchase food, cigarettes, towelettes (since there are no showers) and sundries required to live on the streets. Dumpster items are often used for “trade.”
“I never ask for money,” Tony said. “I never ask for anything. I find it offensive.”
Stein affirmed that: “Tony never asks for anything because he doesn’t feel like he deserves anything.”
“I left one society and became a member of the homeless society,” Tony said. “I don’t choose to be here, but it’s where I am. I tread water to survive. I need help, but not forever. I want to live in the other society. But I need a place to stay. I need counselors. Something within me has changed. Going back to that life is very, very … I’m stressed at starting my life over from ground zero at almost 60. I’m from the bottom of society. I have no car, no house, no kids. I’ve never been married. But I must find a peace, an identification with rejoining society because street life is survival in no man’s land.”
Ultimately Tony hopes to live with Ginger and Bambi and work as an artist. “Even a garage will do.” But at the moment nothing’s changed. He works odd jobs for Stein, while Ginger watches their things.
“I like to work,” he said. “I work every day. But I’m so beaten down, I can’t promise an employer that I can work full time. I’m impeded by physical and emotional reasons, including depression. I can begin with part-time employment and flexible hours.”
Tony also spoke of the importance of his faith.
“I connect with my God,” he said. “He answers prayers. I’ve prayed for direction. I’ve prayed for the second half of my life to be worthwhile. This part of my life’s a mess. I’m wasting my talents. I have regrets, but nothing to hide. Working with Dennis was an answer to a prayer, an opportunity to create positive change.”
Transformed by the filming experience, Tony plans to continue to champion housing first. Stein added his own commitment.
“I know too much now,” he said. “I’m involved.”
— Contact Lucia Viti at email@example.com.