San Diego State University researchers took photos of places where homeless people congregate and said they found the environment perpetuates the stigma of homelessness.
By GARY WARTH
Subtle signs and actions in San Diego may be adding to the stigma of homelessness, a team of San Diego State University researchers said following a study they conducted over a year and a half.
“Stigma rose to the top as the root of so many issues,” said Jennifer Felner, a postdoctoral research fellow at the SDSU School of Public Health. “We learned how much the environment in San Diego feels like it’s just perpetuating the stigma of homelessness.”
Felner worked with Associate Professor Jerel Calzo of the SDSU Division of Health Promotion and Behavioral Science on the study, Action 4 Health San Diego. The team focused on homeless youth age 18-24, but say their findings could be applied to any age group.
Their approach, known as community-based participatory research, involved partnering with two young men who had been homeless and interviewing service providers, a representative from county Health and Human Services, members of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless Youth Action Board and other stakeholders.
They also used PhotoVoice, a research method that involves taking photos of areas and analyzing their meaning. Several photos are of signs that may appear mundane to many people, but have another message to the homeless, Felner said.
One photo from Ocean Beach shows the words, “Do not obstruct,” and a municipal code stenciled on a curb in front of public art.
“We wonder — who is this ordinance actually serving?” the caption reads. “This is a busy part of the neighborhood, and it is a logical place for people to meet or hangout near the beach.”
Another photo shows the many restrictions on the beach in OB, including a prohibition against sleeping there overnight.
“We see signs like this daily, and some of us are affected much more by them than others,” Felner said. “If I’m hanging out in OB or Imperial Beach and I’m doing one of the things that the sign tells me not to do, I probably won’t get in trouble because I look like I belong. But if my hair is dirty and I have a lot of bags, is someone going to be OK with me taking a nap on the beach? Probably not.”
A report released in April by the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless, which conducts the annual Point-In-Time Count, found 8,102 homeless people living throughout the county. Of those, 3,626 were in shelters and 4,476 were living on the streets, vehicles, canyons or other open places. The numbers represent a 5.5 percent drop from last year.
San Diego residents have long complained about people sleeping on downtown streets and in beach communities, saying the situation poses public health and public safety risks.
One photo taken by the SDSU researchers shows a sign at a 7-Eleven asking people to say “no” to panhandlers, another shows an Amtrak station sign that designates restrooms for customers only, and another asks people to put change in a device that funds homeless services rather than give money to panhandlers.
“It feels like an empty promise,” Felner said of the coin-collector device. “And the benefit is for those who are bothered by panhandlers.”
While those photos illustrate messages homeless people encounter daily, others show public restrooms with no soap or toilet paper, a phone-charging station that charges $3 for 30 minutes, police cruising by homeless people on downtown sidewalks and a hand-washing station with no soap.
The photos were displayed at a May 15 City College forum that attracted about 100 people and will be attached to a report and journal article that will be published sometime in the future.
Calzo said the project was launched after the researchers observed the city and county’s response to the 2017 hepatitis A outbreak that caused hundreds of homeless people to be hospitalized and left 20 dead.
Hepatitis A is spread through unsanitary conditions, and the outbreak has disproportionately affected the homeless population and drug users.
The response included inoculating people on the street, which Calzo said made sense on some levels but also was a missed opportunity to do better outreach and perpetuated a perception that homeless people were at fault for spreading the disease.
Felner said some homeless people believed the inoculation teams seemed detached and the approach lacked a human touch or an offer of other assistance, such as a blanket to stay warm at night.
“Who are you protecting?” she said she heard from some homeless people. “Are you protecting me, or are you protecting other people from me?”
A state audit in 2018 found that the city and county could have and should have responded more quickly, and more aggressively, than it did to the region’s deadly outbreak.
Summarizing the findings, Calzo said small challenges and subtle messages can add up to further stigmatize homelessness, but relatively small efforts to improve their situation can have lasting effects.
“If you’re living on the street, sometimes people won’t even make eye contact,” he said. “if you make eye contact, that recognition can change your entire day.”
The executive summary on the study is expected to be released within a month and a community report will be published later. For more information, follow Action4HealthSD on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.