By J.M. GARCIA
On a recent overcast afternoon, James Wheat stood beside his white pickup outside the Hillcrest DMV on Normal Street and reflected on his life with outreach workers from the nonprofit, People Assisting the Homeless (PATH).
A self-employed handyman, Wheat saw his jobs dry up during the COVD lockdown. He still dresses for work. On this day, he wore a white, long underwear shirt, dark jeans and work boots. His light brown hair fell evenly to his shoulders, his goatee neat and trim. He has been living in his truck since November 2021 and helps the DMV staff keep the sidewalk clear of other homeless people, an irony he recognizes with a self-depreciating grin.
He has always worked for himself. He has a criminal record, breaking and entering, that sort of thing, to support a crack habit, he kicked 20 years ago. Every morning, he walks to a nearby gas station to clean up. A convenience store supplies him with coffee. He was raised in an orphanage and blames that experience for his poor memory with names. No one was ever around long enough for him to remember them. But he enjoys talking when the opportunity arises. Not too many peo-ple, however, show interest in a man who to all appearances looks as if he’s part of the crowd waiting to enter the DMV.
One of the outreach workers, Brian Gruters, told Wheat that PATH might be able to enroll him in a construction training classes. Wheat said he would be interested and gave Gruters one of his handyman cards: Handyman Servies-Painting-Tile-Repairs-Remodeling. Free estimates. Senior discounts. Gruters promised to get back to him.
“I’m always here,” Wheat, 59, said.
Wheat is among the thousands of San Diegans who have no permanent place to live. A recent cen-sus found that almost 8,500 men, women and children live in shelters or outside throughout the county, a 10% jump from 2020. Housing costs continue to be a major obstacle for getting people like Wheat off the street, Gruters said.
“Inaccessibility of housing is a major issue,” Gruters said. “Once in housing, with support, the re-tention rate is very high. Even with alcohol and mental health issues, those problems become much more solvable if the person has a place to live.”
The aging population of homeless people has made an intractable even more difficult, Gruters con-tinued.
“We’re seeing chronic health issues,” he said. “Some of these people can’t go to shelters because of mobility problems and incontinence issues. They’re on fixed income and can’t afford housing. Some of the cheaper single room occupancy hotels aren’t disability accessible.”
Gruters and his two colleagues, outreach specialists Gabriella Ledezma and Nate Dressel, walked past the DMV toward Newbreak Church on Normal Street. Around a corner, about half a block down, an elderly man appeared asleep on a patch of grass beside a shopping cart, a blue box of ce-real poking out of it. Ledezma recognized him. She said he was kind and smart and suffered from Schizophrenia. Despite his problems, he would express gratitude when she stopped to talk to him and offer him food and a hygiene kit. When he was not hallucinating, he would talk and ask her how she was.
“Many homeless people aren’t used to having people who will talk and listen to them,” Ledezma said. “As you gain trust, they will share more, trust more. I just let the conversation flow until it ends naturally.”
Another, younger man stood with a thin, scrappy beard stood close by. He wore a long, stained trench coat and held two stuffed plastic bags that held among other things a bottle of Gatorade and duct tape. He rummaged in his pockets with his free hand and spoke to himself. Ledezma of-fered him a hygiene kit. The man asked if she knew where he could take a shower.
“What’s your name?” Ledezma asked.
“Retired,” the man replied, and smiled.
“Are you interested in shelter?”
“We can help with that,” Ledezma said. “As long as we know where to meet you, we can get you in a shelter. Do you know where you’ll be tomorrow?”
Recently, PATH staff have received calls from hotels with families on the verge of homelessness. Mom and kids out of rent money, can you help? Gruters and his colleagues have seen an increase in single mothers and their children living in cars and tents.
“There is a need for preventive measures to help in these kinds of situations,” he said, “before they land on the street.”
Not far from Newbreak Church, Kim Chow and Damon Hart sat in an alley behind a store with a shopping cart loaded with garbage bags stuffed with cans to recycle. A dumpster stood off to one side reeking of garbage, the concrete around it slimy with ground-in trash.
Chow, 66, had on a black dress with a necklace. Ledezma gave her a blue dress.
“It’s cute,” Chow said. “Nice color.”
“Have you seen, Joe?” Ledezma asked, referring to a homeless man she knows.
“He’s across the street,” Chow said.
She has been homeless for nine years. Depression, she said, put her on the street.
Hart, 60, stared at the outreach workers from behind dark sunglasses. He ran a hand through his gray hair he had tied off in a ponytail and he tugged at a blue kerchief around his neck. Hunched over from arthritis in his spine, he turned his head when spoken to but tried not to move the rest of his body. He has been without a home for four months. He complained that security guards of-ten roust him and other unsheltered people. When he gets kicked out of Hillcrest, he goes to Mis-sion Hills. He returns to Hillcrest when he can no longer stay in Mission Hills.
“I’m tired,” he said.
Homeless people, Dressel said, consider Hillcrest a safe area. Parts of Downtown, too, are deemed safe like City Center and C Street near the trolley between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. But they have to leave in the morning. Their plight takes a toll.
“This work is emotionally intense,” Dressel said. “You care about a lot of people out here. You want to help. You do your best but you hear word of mouth that someone died. It’s tough. You’re not always prepared for it. But it’s a real high when you get someone into housing.”