San Diego Ministry That Helps the Homeless Struggles to Keep Its Property from Developers

Mary Lundy, originally of Chula Vista but now homeless, lives on the Island Avenue overpass of Interstate 5 in San Diego.(John Gastaldo/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

When the San Diego Padres open their home baseball season on April 7 at Petco Park, many fans will drive through a homeless encampment in East Village a few blocks from the ballyard and near Interstate 5. Hundreds of homeless men and women who sprawl in that desirable location are in the crosshairs of city planners and developers. While neighbors worry about drugs and crime, Christian ministries try to help their homeless neighbors.

Twenty-four years ago, Curtis Bernstein walked into God’s Extended Hand, a ministry in San Diego’s warehouse district, and announced that God was calling him to live with the homeless. The minister in charge greeted Bernstein as if he had been waiting for him: “Let me show you your room.” Today, Bernstein still lives upstairs—only now he’s the minister.

Over the past quarter century he’s seen the homeless problem worsen. Single room occupancy (SRO) apartments have closed, and housing prices have skyrocketed. A patchwork of tents and tarps has spread like cobwebs over sidewalks and bicycle lanes. The city says hand-built structures increased 69 percent last year. Trails of refuse stretch for blocks, and drug use on the streets has spiked.

Before the All-Star Game last summer, city officials swept hundreds of homeless people out of the blocks adjacent to Petco Park. Most of them simply moved east, concentrating the population. Other cities have sent their homeless here: Denver has given to the homeless hundreds of one-way Greyhound tickets out of town, including one to Austin Blitzer, 27. According to Denver’s NBC affiliate, Blitzer decided to go to San Diego and said his new life there included riding around and smoking marijuana.

The numbers tell part of the story: Officials counted 1,162 homeless people living on the streets in downtown San Diego last summer, with 1,500 more elsewhere in the city. Overall, the region’s homeless population jumped 19 percent in a year. The San Diego Housing Commission spent $44 million in 2015-16 addressing homelessness, and the city continues to hire staff to deal with the problem. In January, Mayor Kevin Faulconer declared it a crisis.

Nowhere is the problem more acute than in the East Village. Across the street from God’s Extended Hand, a 21-story building is under construction with plans for 368 new luxury apartments and 19,000 square feet of retail space. A few blocks west, the Alexan nears completion. It’s an 18-story luxury tower with 2,200-square-foot penthouses. The 45-story Pinnacle on the Park looms over the East Village and recently started leasing apartments from $1,800 a month.

Curtis Bernstein knows the luxury-apartment dwellers won’t want to look at his old building or ragged clientele. He suspects the city is trying to evict his homeless ministry: “With this development going on, we’re under tremendous pressure.”

On a cool, sunny morning in January, hundreds of people emerged from their makeshift tents, oblivious to a brewing storm off the Pacific coast that meteorologists predicted could bring 5 inches of rain. Jerry Johnston spoke with a smoker’s rasp: “If you’re going to be homeless, this is the place to be homeless.” He blamed crystal meth and other hard drugs for the spike in homelessness: “You can’t walk 20 feet without running into the stuff.”

Wearing an inside-out sweatshirt and constantly scratching or fidgeting, Marty Hayes denied using drugs himself, but said, “If you’re going to be sleeping on the street, it helps to have a little vodka.” With leathery hands he took frequent nips from the bottle of Crystal Palace he kept in the front pocket of his jeans. He explained how he’d hoped to be a telemarketer: “I talk well on the phone. I e-nun-see-ate. But times are tough, you know? Not a lot of jobs out there.”

Joel Rocco—a stout Long Islander and former bare-knuckle boxer—owns the Mixed Martial Arts gym across the street. He doesn’t have much sympathy for the homeless. The “No Loitering” signs hooked to his chain-link make the point. So do the Belgian shepherd and pit bull who live with him upstairs. If the signs and the dogs aren’t enough to keep vagrants away, he counts among his customers a number of Navy SEALs and one Army Ranger who warms up by sprinting around the block twice. A mural inside boasts, “San Diego’s Toughest.”

Click here to read more.

Tom Pfingsten