San Diego resident Deborah Bilkovic lives her life day to day. Being homeless, however, this wasn’t a lifestyle decision she had the leisure to make, but rather one she had to make.
Bilkovic has a heart condition that makes it extremely difficult to find work, she said, and without work she has no money to pay rent. Bilkovic moved to San Diego in 2007, moved away in 2010 and returned in 2012. Though health and different residential recommendations from various doctors pushed her into this transient lifestyle, Bilkovic recently decided to settle in San Diego for good.
“I’m homeless,” Bilkovic said. “I live on the street. I just pass each day as well as I can. I’m a heart patient so I can’t work and there’s a lot of things I can no longer do. So I just take every day as it comes.”
Though there are numerous shelters in San Diego that benefit and give space to the homeless, Bilkovic said she isn’t able to join the shelters because of her health. She said that the shelters don’t covers certain problems such as heart problems, epilepsy, certain kinds of brain cancer and pre-existing conditions. Because of this, Bilkovic said she would have to get covered on a separate policy that most shelters can’t afford. Bilkovic is one of the 46 percent of homeless people that report having chronic health problems. For people like her and the 39 percent who report having mental illnesses, it can be hard to find accommodations, she said.
In addition to mental illnesses, substance abuse is one of the top three leading causes of homelessness, according to pbs.org. San Diego resident Carl Christie, though now living in a senior center, lived without a home for many years. He acknowledged the prevalence and repercussions of substance abuse in the homeless community.
“Lot of homeless people want to be homeless because they get SSI and social security,” Christie said, “but if they were to get inside [a home or apartment] they wouldn’t have money for their drugs or their alcohol.”
People like Christie and Bilkovic are only two of the thousands of homeless people who inhabit San Diego. San Diego city ranks third in the nation for overall homeless population, according to the United Way of San Diego County. In 2012 there were 9,638 homeless people in San Diego, a sharp increase from the 8,879 in 2013. However, the national overall homeless population decreased by .4 percent or 2,325 people, according to endhomelessness.org.
However, San Diego resident and Best Western Bayside Inn security guard, Will Smith, has seen an increase of people sleeping on the streets at night. Smith has been in San Diego for around 22 years. He used to live in the suburbs, but ever since he moved downtown, his eyes have been opened to the prevalence of homelessness. Though Smith acknowledged drug and alcohol abuse as factors that contribute to homelessness, he said he places a lot of blame on war and government involvement, especially when it comes to war veterans. Approximately 40 percent of all homeless men are war veterans, according to pbs.org. As a veteran himself, Smith said the issue hits home for him. He believes Former President George W. Bush and Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice own much of the blame for young veterans who end up on the streets.
“I blame a lot on Bush because he waged these wars and this is the aftermath that we’re dealing with now,” Smith said. “Condeleezza Rice … that b—- is guilty, she’s a war criminal. All these homeless people you see, that’s [the government’s] fault. It’s not just what they did to the Middle East, it’s what they did to a whole generation of young people. I have a son myself who’s 23 and I made sure he didn’t join the military. There’s no way he’s going to end up out here fighting this stupid a– war for nothing, being homeless.”
Bilkovic also believes that veterans make up a significant portion of the homeless population. Unable to acclimate to a normal lifestyle after experiencing trauma during service, some veterans choose the homeless lifestyle instead. Both Smith and Bilkovic said that conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can make acclimating to society difficult for veterans. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans’ website states, “… a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks. Additionally, military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment.”
Though there are some uncontrollable factors in play, Smith believes the concept of “choosing to be homeless” is highly common. A network of individuals exists who are homeless by decision rather than circumstance, he said, and many people carry out the majority of their life in this manner.
“The homeless problem isn’t as black and white as what people think it is,” Smith said. “You have your normal reasons like alcohol abuse, mental illness and substance abuse. Those are factors but they aren’t the only reasons. And you don’t want to say it because you don’t want to come off as some kind of a right wing nut, but a lot of them don’t want to have a home. It’s like an alternative lifestyle.”
Bilkovic recognizes the portion of the homeless community who choose to live on the streets. However, she said this population represents a select few. She also believes the population of homeless individuals who are refusing help due to drug and alcohol abuse also represent the minority. But, she also agrees that for some individuals, it would be more financially efficient to remain homeless. Bilkovic can’t afford most of the rent in a city like San Diego, and even if she got a job, the large percentage of her money would go toward transportation costs and housing, and in that situation, she said many would give up.
“We need low-income housing,” Bilkovic said. “We need to encourage jobs in San Diego itself, even the low-income jobs where basically all you need is a high school diploma. San Diego needs to understand that most of the homeless they’ve got out here, they put them here.”
Despite putting a portion of the blame on the government, both Bilkovic and Smith believe that the biggest factor in getting a person off the streets is their mentality. They both agree that the change has to come from within, and unless an individual wants to change their situation, their isn’t much one can do.
“You can’t do nothing until the person wants to do it for themselves first,” Smith said. “Then once they do that, they’ve already got programs set up. They’ve got to take the initiative to get up and take advantage of the programs that are available, but it’s a mindset. You’ve got to change your own mind.”
Bilkovic believes a final but crucial enabler of the problem comes intangibly, in the social prejudice against the homeless. She said this prejudice not only hinders many homeless individuals from asking for help, but also hinders much of society from the ability to empathize.
“Society has to realize that the homeless aren’t animals. We’re people,” Bilkovic said. “A lot of us have made mistakes in our lifetimes, a lot of us still make mistakes, a lot of us want to stop but we don’t know how to ask for help … stop treating us like we’re brainless pieces of garbage. We all think, we all want, we all need, we all breathe.”
By Trisha Chaudhary and Anna Wright