Ocean Beach ‘bums’ test a laid-back community’s tolerance

Time was when “beach bum” was a phrase of endearment in laid-back Ocean Beach.

No more.

This normally quiet neighborhood is being torn by a dispute over the recent emergence of a beach subculture of unkempt young males sleeping in doorways, urinating in public places and panhandling aggressively.

The flash point was the appearance of bumper stickers proclaiming: “Welcome To Ocean Beach. Please Don’t Feed Our Bums.” The stickers — sold at a local landmark business, The Black, better known for the sale of bongs, posters and jewelry — are flying off the shelves and cropping up on shop windows and cars around town.

The community seems split between residents who feel it’s about time something was done and those who feel the bumper sticker is crass and out of character with Ocean Beach’s traditional tolerance for all manner of idiosyncratic lifestyles.

“It’s ironic that it’s happening in this community known for its live-and-let-live spirit,” said Tony Manolatos, spokesman for San Diego Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who represents Ocean Beach. “That said, they’re targeting one kind of homeless: able-bodied white males with laptops and cellphones.”

Kathryn Rhodes, a member of the city’s homeless task force, said she finds the sticker “dehumanizing” toward the homeless population. But she concedes that Ocean Beach has a growing problem.

“They’re saying that homeless are like animals, and that’s not good,” Rhodes said. “But we’ve got a lot of young men just hanging out and getting pretty aggressive in asking for money. It’s not fun, it’s very rude.”

In hopes of cooling local passions, which have sparked several street-level confrontations, a coalition of churches is hosting a town meeting Tuesday in the parish hall at Sacred Heart of Ocean Beach.

“We recognize the complexity of homelessness. We regret the polarization which has occurred in our community,” the group said in announcing the meeting.

This is a palm tree-lined neighborhood where the annual Kite-Flying Contest in March and the Street Fair and Chili Cook Off in June are, as the community website notes, “high holy days.”

O.B., as residents call it, is not just a residential enclave, but a state of mind.

Surfers, motorcycle club members, young families, retirees, artists, unreconstructed hippies and a colony of feral cats have long lived here in harmony.

But these days, San Diego police who patrol Ocean Beach begin their mornings by rousing sleepers from the doorways of businesses.

“If someone is blocking the sidewalk, we like to talk to them,” said Sgt. Jack Knish as a colleague talked to a young couple sprawled in front of a Starbucks. “Yesterday, we had someone licking the window with their tongue.”

After a polite discussion, the couple moved on to the parking lot next to the beach.

“We’re not bums, we’re travelers,” said Lili Ford, 26. “We travel to Ocean Beach because most of the people are cool, and they help us with money.”

A fellow traveler, Eric “Kandy” Diaz, 19, said he’s made a discovery: “If you treat the police in Ocean Beach nice, they treat you nice.”

The community has largely resisted the gentrification and commercialization that have transformed other beach communities in Southern California. The housing stock leans toward aging California bungalows and low-rise apartment buildings. Rent, never cheap, is at least affordable.

Newport Avenue, the main drag leading to the beach, has antique stores, small eateries, surf shops, comic book stores, hairstyling parlors, record stores and a bikini boutique.

The Ocean Beach Pier is popular with fishermen, and the beach is wide and accessible (and equipped with showers). A long stretch of it is open to dogs, no leashes required.

Hodad’s, the near-legendary burger joint, has a sign telling the world, “No shirt, no shoes, no problem.” Its delivery vehicle, a battered Volkswagen, gives its location as “The People’s Republic of O.B.”

“It ain’t no Jack in the Box, man,” said a Hodad’s patron who identified himself as Will Freely. “That’s what we like.”

Before “Don’t Feed the Bums,” possibly the most popular local bumper sticker was “Keep Ocean Beach Funky.” Or maybe the one that ordered “U.S. Out of O.B.”

Frank Gormlie, editor of an Internet newsletter, (put out by “freaks, uppity women and politicos”), started distributing his own sticker: “Welcome to OB — Generosity, Caring, Empathy, Tolerance.” The anti-bum sticker, he said, is a violation of the civic zeitgeist.

“This is not Ocean Beach,” he said.

Maybe not, but at The Black, the stickers are selling briskly, priced to move at $1.48. “We can’t keep them in stock,” said a clerk, preferring to be known only as Jeff.