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By Fred Dickey

Dec. 30, 2013

I’ve never cared for the word “ghetto.” It seems a put-down of good people forced by circumstance into a bounded living space.

But the word fits like no other for an area of San Diego just south of downtown along Interstate 5 and east on Imperial Avenue. It’s a ghetto of dire circumstance that remains largely hidden because most of us avoid seeing it.

If old-industrial Ohio is the Rust Belt, then this is the Grim Belt. Welfare agencies are the only growth industry. There is no grass here; even the weeds seem stressed. Midday, the traffic is light and then largely of trucks that pass on through, watchful black and whites, and tired autos scarred by the dent-wounds of a long life.

Along the streets are people from whom we avert our eyes. They are mostly men, often with scruffy, graying beards pushing purloined grocery carts or carrying large plastic bags over their shoulders. Adrift on a river with no name. They don’t appear to speak, even in their clusters that gather in the corners of parking lots. There’s not a lot to talk about. Obamacare? What does that have to do with me? The Chargers? Are you serious?

They already know where the meals and beds can be found. Any casual comment might ignite a rambling tirade from someone off his meds and whose mind is traveling somewhere off the coast of Saturn.

The few women tend to be younger, and not by accident. Living on the streets is not a place for a woman to grow old. Things happen. The women we see tend to keep walking, en route to a seedy apartment, or perhaps to see the fellow who sells the meth, or maybe a step behind some guy they should run from like a plague carrier.

There are no children visible, and if there were, they wouldn’t be playing.

There is no reminder that this is the holiday season, until … in a small front window of a shabby and tiny house, something is written, facing outward, scrolled free-hand with what looks like soap. It says: “Happy Holidays.”

But it says more. It says: “I am here, such as I am, and I want to be happy, too.”

In a paved lot at the corner of 16th Avenue and Newton Street, there is a circus-size tent. It’s the San Diego Winter Shelter Program for the homeless, operated by the Alpha Project, one of the charities that actually grabs a shovel and does heavy labor serving the unbeautiful and the poor.

The tent looks like a refugee center thrown up to shelter victims of some hellacious storm. This is turbulence not seen on the weather report.

Inside, the tent is organized along rows of bunks, some stacked two high. Men are at one end, women at the other; also separated are husbands and wives. And that line is not crossed. Security is tight and no-nonsense. There are no children. The bunks are piled high with residents’ plastic-bag luggage holding the essentials for surviving in their Kalahari, and perhaps a few keepsakes from a better life. To many, the term “new year” is empty of promise, bereft of hope.

At midday, many of the men are lounging on their bunks or asleep; few of the women are. Residents have hot showers. Outside are a few computers for their use and a row of 26 porta-potties, including some for the disabled.

The Alpha Project serves a continental breakfast and dinner. For lunch or snacks, the folks go without unless they can afford to shop at what construction workers inelegantly call the roach-coach parked near the entrance. In this neighborhood, you look in vain for a Ralphs or Vons.

Waiting near the entrance to the big tent is Pamela Cooks. She knows exactly where she is, which makes her wide smile a thing of wonder. She’s a large woman of 42 with a puffed face caused by a diversity of pills so numerous they require a separate case.

In recent years, she’s had a long battle with three kinds of cancer, Type 2 diabetes and anemia. She’s been cursed with the BRCA gene mutation that turns the body’s pathway to breast and ovarian cancer into a highway. It also probably led to her mother’s death from breast cancer.

“You carry it in your body,” Pamela says, “and in some form or another, it has a tendency to keep coming back, like mine did.”

Now, as to the why of the smile. … Remember the “Happy Holidays” in the window? Pamela is like that. She looks at her life and sees not sickness and a bunk in a tent, but hope for the future and a claim on happiness.

Pamela knows she doesn’t belong here: Her education and values are solidly middle class. She’s a graduate of Southwestern College and is a licensed vocational nurse. She’s not addicted to anything except hopefulness.

Her husband, Terrence Livingston, 48, a truck driver, also lives in the tent. He works as a day laborer doing event set-ups and is training for a new driving job with a major oil company, she says. He formerly worked for the delivery service DHL, but couldn’t maintain the schedule because of ministering to her health needs.

“He’s my caregiver and my rock, yes he is,” Pamela says of her husband.

She has two sons, one in the military and the other a graduate of San Diego State University. The older son was born when she was 16 and single, which was an act of youthful stupidity she’ll confess to.

“I was very naive, and wanted to please somebody else instead of pleasing myself, so I became pregnant.”

And you believed his promises?

“Yes, I did. I did. But I was blessed because when my son was 6 months old, I met my husband and he accepted my son, and we’ve been together 27 years.”

In 2000, while working as an LVN, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which got progressively worse until treatment put it into remission. Then, it was leukemia, and finally ovarian cancer, both of which responded to treatment, but which require constant medical attention and drugs.

“I get chemotherapy twice a month, which I will have to do for the rest of my life. You get used to it.”

Pamela recounts the unhappy events that led to a tent home. “We lost our home in 2008. We were renting to own, but we were paying $1,880 a month, and when the lease came up to resign, we didn’t because we knew my husband’s (reduced) income wasn’t going to carry us.”

They ended up living in a hotel at more than $400 per week, which, obviously, they couldn’t afford either, because the rent almost equaled her husband’s income. They searched all over the city for a shelter that would accept them both, but the answer was a drumbeat: We’ll take you, but not your husband, or, your husband makes too much money.

Finally, Alpha Project offered them beds. As she says this, Pamela’s eyes well up, and she says, “I mean, that was like … I’m going to cry, because that was such a blessing for us.”

Refuge from the streets though it is, a large tent in a parking lot is not what she went to school for, or what her husband drove trucks in busy city traffic for. When she looks around, one would think self-pity would creep into her brain and demand an answer to, “Why me? Why am I here with these people?”

“No. I’ve never said that. I believe things happen the way they’re supposed to, and for some reason, this is what I’m going through. But this too shall pass. I read my Bible and pray every day.”

The only public assistance they receive is Social Security disability benefits of $3,300 per month. Of that, her medical costs are almost $2,000. Much of the remainder they’ve been able to save and are in a program for first-time homebuyers. As a transitional step, they’ve qualified for assisted housing to get out of the tent.

“Some people come in and they need to detox or they have mental issues, but … how do I put it? I mean, 230-plus people in here, and you would be surprised how well we get along, how well it runs on a day-to-day basis.

“I’m not happy about the situation and I want to get out, but for the time being, it’s home. I’ve made friendships that I’ll carry with me forever. Some of the people, though, I never want to see again. I have to be honest.”

Where would you like to see yourself in a year?

“In my own home, putting up my own Christmas tree, with all my family together.”

The tent community where Pamela now lives is a hiding place from hunger and cold. But it’s also a warehouse filled with people and crowded with hopelessness. Though Pamela finds herself one of the homeless, she’s intent on reversing it by effort and attitude.

The wise Viktor Frankl wrote: “The last of (our) freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any circumstance.”

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