A profile of one San Diegan on the streets
By Will Bowen
Editor’s Note: The viewpoints presented in this article are not of the publisher or editors of San Diego Downtown News or any of its associated newspapers.
While we in our toasty red Christmas sweaters, surrounded with glee-eyed loved ones, sip brandy by the fireplace, all hung with Christmas stockings and good cheer, literally thousands of homeless people huddle outside in the cold and brace against the wintery winds of the lost American dream.
There are even more homeless out there than we might have imagined, here in sun-drenched San Diego — which some people call the “homeless capital of the world.”
“There are a lot more homeless out there than just the ones you see,” said Dr. John Kitchin, a psychologist, who has been homeless in San Diego for the past seven years. “That is because the homeless, out of necessity, are good at hiding.”
Kitchin said he estimates that about 10 percent of the region’s total population of 3.1 million — or 310,000 — are homeless, though city officials may claim less.
“In comparison,” he said, “New York City and Los Angeles only have 2.5 percent homeless — it is the percentage of homeless that make us the top place for homeless in the world!”
What makes San Diego so attractive to the homeless? Some people say it is our good weather that attracts transients and allows people to survive out on the streets year round.
“That’s just not true, the real problem is the cost of living here,” Kitchin said. “In comparison to most other places, the wages here are low and the cost of housing is high. That puts economic strain on people. In crisis situations, it is easy for people to find themselves without enough money to pay rent or mortgage. That leads to homelessness. Homelessness, pure and simple, means you do not make enough money to pay your rent.”
Kitchin has found himself in the position of spokesman for the homeless because he is intelligent, educated, perceptive, articulate, and also homeless.
Although he has been living on the streets, he has still been able to maintain a website for the homeless, NZ9F.com/SDHN, and publish a newsletter called “Homeless City News” for several years now.
In order to accomplish this, he uses the computers in the Central Library, rents one in Tijuana for 40 cents an hour, or uses the free Internet cell phone that the state now gives anyone receiving food stamps.
Kitchin is also a member of a number of local panels and groups, like the monthly Girls Think Tank (GTT), so named because it was started by a group of female lawyers. The panels and tanks are trying to find solutions to the homeless problem. Kitchin could be regarded as a professor of the streets who probably knows more about the homeless situation than anyone else around.
He said he grew up a normal kid in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of an office manager father and a seamstress mother. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin and a doctorate from the now defunct Wisconsin Free University, which was one of the first alternative universities in the land. He said he took classes concurrently for eight to 10 years, seeking — successfully — to stay out of the draft.
While still in college, Kitchin organized a patrol and security company, but it got too dangerous for him, so he switched to running a heating and air conditioning business, that garnered clientele through telemarketing.
At some point he was convicted, unjustly he said, of defrauding older adults by selling them services and equipment they did not need. As a result, he lost the company and was forced to leave the state.
He then moved to San Diego, where he managed Alpine Air Conditioning and drove a taxi, all the while living in an RV park. Business dwindled and he found himself unable to pay the RV space rental and was soon living in his RV on the street.
“Worse came to worse and it wasn’t long before I was ‘in the rotation,’” he said, meaning he and countless others were looking for a place to stay each night — be it a friend’s couch, a campground, or a street corner.
“At some point you exhaust your resources and you are forced to hit the sidewalk,” Kitchin lamented. “You can’t really turn to your relatives because you know that pretty soon they are going to get fed up with helping you.”
Nowadays Kitchin stays on hillsides, like our wild mule deer, because it is too hard for cops and rangers to roust him there. When he has a little extra cash he goes to Tijuana for the night, where rooms can be rented for $2 per night. He gets around with a monthly pass for the bus and trolley, which only costs $18 a month. He also rents an inexpensive storage space to store bedding supplies, and has a disabled person fast pass to cross the border without long waits.
But he isn’t hungry, as one might expect.
“Food isn’t a problem for the homeless these days,” he said. “It’s easy to get food. There is plenty of that around. Everyone wants to give you some food. They feel comfortable with that. The real problem is getting socks and underwear that aren’t dirty and tattered and having a roof over your head.”
Most people like to blame the homeless for their situation, like there is something wrong with them. We judge. The fact of the matter is that many are only a paycheck or two away from the possibility of homelessness.
Kitchin said that being homeless is so stressful that it often leads to alcoholism and drug addiction as a way to cope with the emotional pain, and can eventually lead to a loss of sanity amid thoughts of suicide.
“You find yourself out in the rain and saying to yourself, ‘My life is so miserable that I don’t care if I die’ or you are crossing the street and you think, ‘I don’t care if I get hit by a truck — so what?’”
Kitchin thinks the answer to the problem is to find shelter for the homeless. “We have more than enough empty spaces at any one time in San Diego to house the homeless,” he said.
“By law, 20 percent of redevelopment is supposed to go to homeless,” he continued. “But it doesn’t. When they ‘gentrify’ poorer areas of the city and close down the flophouses, they are supposed to find housing for the homeless that are displaced, but they don’t.”
Even though he himself is near destitute, Kitchin runs his own small kitchen and food distribution center in Tijuana, often out of his hotel room there.
“Food isn’t a problem here in San Diego but it is for the homeless of Tijuana,” he said.
The holidays are an especially tough time for the homeless.
“I think to myself, ‘Here it is Thanksgiving or Christmas and I have absolutely nothing!’” he said. “One year all I had was one can of tuna. This year I didn’t have enough for a Thanksgiving for my people in Tijuana and it grieves me.”
Many homeless go to Father Joe’s or The Salvation Army for a holiday meal, but Kitchin doesn’t like to.
“One year I pigged out going from place to place and I was sick for months —both physically and spiritually,” he said. “I think they put something in the food to drug and stupefy the homeless. Sometimes they harass you or make you feel inferior or feed you too much religion. I prefer to be independent and make my own food.”
Kitchin said he believes that there are extraterrestrials living among us and one of their headquarters is beneath the streets of Old Town. He claims to have conversed with them and used their “Stargate” — which is their portal of travel through the universe.
Why don’t the aliens, who have superior powers and intelligence, help him in his plight?
“They told me that they were going to hold off on helping me because my life as it is was helping to put things into place — it was part of some plan,” he said.
There may be some truth in what the “aliens” said. Kitchin seems to possess that rare gift of being able to help others and draw attention to social evils and injustices even in the midst of his own suffering. This is what makes him a remarkable man.
“Homelessness is nothing like what people think it is,” he said. “Most of the news media and people in government don’t know what it is like to be homeless. They don’t really understand the problem. If you don’t understand a problem, how can you fix it?
“You have to involve more homeless people in the solution-making process,” he continued. “You have to stop blaming homeless people for their plight and look at the society that created them. What can we do to fix our society is the real question, because … homelessness here is 100 percent the fault of the city of San Diego.”
Whatever the cause of homelessness, Kitchin said, it will take a concerted effort to make change happen.
“Be it the city, or the national economy, or people’s lack of the necessary drive, determination, and true grit to make it in the rigorous environment of this stage of ‘late capitalism’ — we all need to step up our involvement in trying to work together to find a solution to the problem of homelessness,” he said. “And we need to do so all year round and not just at the holidays.”
To learn more about what is being done to help San Diego’s homeless, or to help, visit 211, 211sandiego.org/shelter-and-homeless-services; the City, sandiego.gov/homeless-services; the County sandiegocounty.gov/sdhcd/homeless; Alpha Project alphaproject.org; or San Diego Rescue Mission, sdrescue.org.