By Karen Billing
San Diego Veterans for Peace is doing what they can to bring a little warmth to downtown San Diego’s homeless population, as well as shine a light on an issue that is hidden in plain sight. The group’s Campaign for Compassion is raising money to distribute ponchos and sleeping bags to San Diego’s homeless.
Since the week before Christmas, they have delivered 225 sets, including a donation trip last Saturday. So far they have raised $8,744.
“The money has been coming in rather amazingly,” said Gil Field, director of communications, who notes they hope enough donations come to keep the drive going until warmer weather sets in.
Field, a Carmel Valley resident, is an immediate past president of the organization that promotes peace and seeks to increase public awareness of the costs of war.
One way they do that is by creating “Arlington West” downtown near the Midway—they put crosses in the ground to memorialize those lost in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Down near the Midway is where Field and his group connected with several homeless veterans and were given insight into how big the homeless problem is in San Diego. While estimates are that about 40 percent of the homeless people downtown are veterans, the group’s drive is to meet all homeless people’s needs.
Individually members had purchased and delivered 45 sets of ponchos and sleeping bags but it didn’t become a chapter campaign until Dec. 7. Big 5 Sporting Goods and Outdoor Products of Los Angeles gave the group a discount on the items allowing them to purchase, in bulk, very warm 30-degree Coleman sleeping bags and waterproof ponchos.
The sleeping bag is given out in a nylon stuff sack—the sleeping bag only takes up about half the space so people can use the bag to keep other items dry.
Unfortunately, Field said it is not hard to find people in need. He said under almost every Interstate 5 overpass downtown there are at least 100 people living there. He estimates in the four-block radius of 16th Street and Island, there are about 300 people sleeping on the street. This is downtown San Diego, Field said, and yet from the way it looks it’s as though you’re in one of the poorest countries in the world.
“When you go to these enclaves, it’s families, it’s women, it’s old people,” Field said. “Recently it’s a lot of people who look just like you and I, they look like they have all the trappings of being middle class. I’m seeing more and more 20-year-olds, mostly men. They look just like my kids.”
He said he sees people “fresh from housing,” who have nothing but the often-times nice clothes on their back, walk into these enclaves and settle down to sleep on a piece of cardboard.
The city has set up a 150-bed tent for homeless veterans behind the Goodwill off Rosencrantz. There is a civilian tent on 16th and Newton Streets. Veterans for Peace will often go to the tent shelters to find people in need who have been turned away due to capacity.
“I think that our city fathers, by setting up the veterans tent and civilian tent, that is just a drop in the bucket,” Field said. “It doesn’t even begin to serve the need.”
The Veterans for Peace group usually goes out at around 7:30 p.m., when homeless people have settled into their spots. They try not to attract a lot of attention and seek out people who appear to need the most help.
It is a very emotional exchange, Field said, when they give out the bags.
During a Dec. 21 trip in the pouring rain, a proud, homeless veteran in his 50s had tears in his eyes when he received the bag from Field. The man told him, “Thank you for your humanity.” Field hugged him and said, “You’re welcome brother.”
Field has been working with the homeless population for about a year, with the Bethel Memorial AME Church downtown. He and other Veterans for Peace members assist in prepping 500 dinners that the church then delivers to the homeless on the last Friday of every month.
“Five-hundred dinners go away in no time,” Field said. “They allot three hours for the distribution and they don’t even need [that much time].”
If interested in donating to the ponchos and sleeping bags campaign, visit www.sdvfp.org
Checks can also be sent via mail to 11575 Caminito La Bar #23, San Diego, CA 92126. Checks can be made out to treasurer Colleen Angel.