On a warm autumn afternoon, a homeless man lies against a wall on First Avenue just south of Ash Street. He's sharing a bottle of cheap vodka with an older homeless man in a wheelchair. They're both drunk. With Thanksgiving coming soon, what plans do these men have? The older man, Troy Bullock from Lubbock, Texas, talks first.
"I'm 62. I've been in and out of here since 1965. I got family in L.A. --Long Beach and Westminster -- aunts, uncles, and some cousins. I been married 'bout four times and had four kids." Bullock is unable to recall what exactly his disability is. "I get veteran's [benefits] and I get Social Security. I got shot at in Korea. I wasn't in the Korean War -- I was there after it was over with. Eisenhower, that goofy-ass son of a bitch, was the stupidest goddamn president we ever had. That asshole cut out the G.I. Bill, then Kennedy reinstated it.
"I'm thinking about going back to Dallas for Thanksgiving. My mother and brother are there; they live at Cedar Creek Lake. I may fly or go on a bus. Last Thanksgiving I was at my own home. I got two homes, one in New Mexico and one in Texas. But I love San Diego. I love bein' on the street in San Diego."
The younger man, Edwin Hill, 45, is even less coherent. "I'm from South Carolina. I been here for seven years, since I got divorced. I caught my ex-wife having sex with a German Shepherd -- bestiality. I have no children, but I have 12 Morgan horses. I train horses and I'm also a blacksmith. I have $56,000 in the bank..." He totters and smirks. His plans for Thanksgiving seem definite. "I'm gonna get on my knees and...and pray! Heh heh! I'll go for dinner at the South Bay Community Church. Great church."
Under the marquee of the California Theater on Fourth Avenue, two men and two women sit huddled against the building. They share drinks, cigarettes, and conversation. The most outspoken is Goldie Harris, 41, a black woman sporting a baseball cap. Next to her sits Stormy, 42, who looks exhausted.
Facing them are Albert Lee Dixon, who is visibly drunk, and Tony Glenn, the cleanest-looking and quietest member of the group. Harris cannot wait to speak her mind about being homeless.
"I'm from Wichita, Kansas. I been in San Diego too damn long. I came out here to take care of my grandmother, who had a blood disease. My uncle, who was taking care of her, had a stroke, so I came out with my mom. That was about eight years ago. I got my mom out here, but I got a lot of homeless people that love me more than my own family...thank you, Jesus.
"They got the Mexicans, they got the Orientals, they got every motherfucker out here livin' better than the original white folks and black folks that built this country up. All these damn foreigners are livin' better than us! Do you see any homeless Oriental motherfuckers? I don't! Do you see any Mexican homeless people? This shit is so fuckin' sick. People come over here from other countries and boom! The assholes and motherfuckers that are running these offices are bullshit. The police been fuckin' with homeless people the last couple of days because it's election time. The police asked this one nigger to come across the street, then he gave him a ticket 'cause it was a red light!"
Stormy, a native of Orange County, came to San Diego three months ago. "I was arrested in Monterey Bay and brought back here for not doin' my community service. I've actually been here off and on for seven years."
Dixon, 44, came to San Diego from Michigan 11 years ago. He proudly displays his veteran's ID card. He talks to himself and interrupts everyone else's conversation. "Do you understand who I am? You can learn a lot from a dummy. I was dragged here for a situation, and I liked it. I love the people, so I stayed."
Glenn sits quietly as he stares at the others intently. "I'm from Fort Worth, Texas. I've been married twice. I had a brother who was dyin', and I was drivin' a semi. When I came back out of Dodge City, Kansas, I had a load of beef, and I asked him where he wanted to go. He said, 'I wanna go to San Diego.' I said, 'Okay, if you wanna die in San Diego, you're gonna die in San Diego.' I drew all my money out, we came to San Diego, and he died six months later. I pretty well been here ever since -- that was 1996. We [he points to the group] started partyin', and we've been partyin' ever since. I've worked a little, off and on, and I've noticed that there's good people here in San Diego. They got great heart. They try to help people out. But I've figured out that if you're in good health, like I am, you gotta get up and you gotta do something. I've done a little fallin'."
When asked about their plans for Thanksgiving, the group erupts into laughter.
Harris explodes into another sermon: "What the hell have I got to be thankful for? I'm homeless. I'm broke and disgusted. But I can be trusted. We saw a million and a half motherfuckers walkin' past us today, lookin' at us, laughin' like we was a piece of shit. But they're livin' large! These are homeless veterans and shit. I've seen so many damn veterans and people with schizophrenia -- people who don't even know where the hell they at. California sucks. Look!" She points to a well-dressed Mexican man crossing the street. "See what I'm sayin? And they all dressed up all pimpy and shit, and we all look like scrubs. The foreigners have taken over the whole country -- the hotels, the liquor stores, every fuckin' thing! God bless America."
Stormy is more subdued. "I get very depressed. I have no family. I only got an 18-year-old boy in Modesto -- which I'm tryin' to get back there. I'm just stuck here. Goldie's right. The foreigners, they get everything and they treat the homeless like dirt. And they wonder why we drink. The cops constantly have us moving." She's not sure how long it will take her to get to Modesto. "Since I'm not a prostitute, I don't know! I might make it panhandlin'!" They all laugh. "It costs $46.54 for bus fare."
Dixon's Thanksgiving plans have something to do with a mysterious woman. The others laugh at the mention of her name. "I'm gonna see Gretchen. Gretchen loves me. I haven't met her yet!" The others laugh again.
Glenn plans to spend Thanksgiving with family -- his family of homeless companions. "I want to spend it with family -- people I know, people who love, and people who care. That's a good feelin'. They're not blood kin, but they're family."
J. Kakei bounds down 16th Street past St. Vincent de Paul Village carrying a large sack. "I got some beer. Come on around the corner and we can talk." As we turn the corner, he leads me to a stretch of Commercial Avenue that looks abandoned -- except for the long stretch of homeless people lying on the shady side of the sidewalk against a wall. This is the largest and sickest-looking homeless group I've seen yet.
Kakei, 46, speaks eloquently about his life, like a professor of homeless studies. "I come from D.C. originally, but I've been here for 25 years. I consider this my home." Kakei will not discuss how he came to San Diego, except to say it's related to a divorce. "I used to have family here, but not anymore -- we don't want to get into that. I've been on the street off and on since '87.
"You know what? I haven't even thought about what I'll do on Thanksgiving. I do have friends in El Cajon."
Lying on a blanket next to Kakei is David Clinton Reed. Reed came to San Diego from Iowa 21 years ago for the weather.
"I've been on the street for 15 years -- that's when I was diagnosed with AIDS, 15 years ago. This is my family here. The homeless people are my family. That's why we're all together, and we all stick up for each other. That's why you never see anybody alone. If they're alone, they're in trouble. They can get robbed, they can get raped, butt-fucked, you name it. These people protect me, they watch over me -- I'm five foot two --I'll get mugged, I'll get robbed, everything, 'cause I'm short and people take advantage. The homeless steal from the homeless also, and that sucks.
"I have no plans for Thanksgiving. Just be with good friends, like my family here and with Sister Winnie and St. Vincent's -- they feed the homeless -- and the Salvation Army."
Kakei: "Sister Winnie is over at 16th and Island. She's very good. Horizon is the best one for Thanksgiving. You get showers, you get clothes, you can have anything you want there. You also get an eye test and a glaucoma check. They have doctors -- they have everything. It's in Clairemont."
Reed: "The police harass the homeless."
At this point, Mathew Castel, 45, joins in the conversation. "I asked a cop why he was fuckin' with the homeless, and he said, 'It's my job to fuck with the homeless!' Those exact words. He was telling us to move off the sidewalks over on L and 14th. He said if I didn't leave I'd get a ticket for illegal lodging.
"I've been here one year. I had a job for a couple of months and a hotel room a couple of blocks from here. I moved here from Salt Lake City. I was here for 15 minutes, and my best friend stole my car, and everything I owned was in it. I have family in Manhattan Beach -- that's where I'm from. I hope to be back in Utah by Thanksgiving."
Despite their complaints about the police, they all admit that the police have never roughed them up.
Kakei: "We've been here about five days. They've left us alone here."
Reed: "Until they roll us up and say, 'You gotta move.'"
Castel: "They kicked everybody out from under that bridge the night it was going to rain."
Kakei: "The city government is so fucked up. It's all a bunch of Republicans."
Reed: "The best mayor this city ever had was Maureen O'Connor. She was 200 percent for the homeless. I'm gay, and she was up at the Gay Pride parade up in Hillcrest. She was there, in a car, backing up the gays and the homeless."
Next to Kakei sits a small man with long hair and sunglasses named Ozzie. Ozzie, 49, suffers from multiple sclerosis and has difficulty speaking clearly. "I come from western New York state. This is the second time I've been here. I've been here for about three days. I hitchhiked across the United States to get here. Sometimes it was scary. I have nobody. These are my relatives.
"I haven't really thought about Thanksgiving. I'll probably eat with my friends. It's very hard for me to walk. My brain stem is gone, and I'm getting worse. I'm thankful that I have my friends. These guys take care of me."
Tony Goucher, 47, is a native of San Francisco and has lived in San Diego off and on for five years. He sits on the curb in front of the clinic at St. Vincent de Paul Village. "I was homeless, but I'm a resident here now. I originally came to San Diego for family reasons, and I've been living here off and on for five years. I've got a couple of job prospects lined up now -- both at restaurants.
"I'm spending Thanksgiving with my sister. She lives in North Park. I stay with her once in a while. But I live here for now -- it's a four-month program. So far, so good."