This Oceanside homeless encampment has one rule: Keep it clean
Each tent has a storage unit to keep the area free of clutter and litter
The row of tents lining a side street near Oceanside Boulevard looks alarming at first sight, and anyone passing by might expect to see the area overrun with the trash and clutter generally associated with homeless encampments.
A closer look, however, reveals the area is spotless. The tents look new, clean, and in a uniform order, with each one separated by a short, red, tented storage bin.
“We understand that trashing this area is the No. 1 reason why people wouldn’t want us here,” said Rodney McGough, a homeless man who lives at the site and has led the effort to keep it clean.
McGough, 52, said he has been homeless off and on since he was 17, but also was married for 14 years, has held jobs and once owned a home in Oceanside.
He said early trauma in life led to years of instability, and his latest stint with homelessness began about two years ago when he had a falling out with the 12 Tribes religious group in Valley Center, where he had lived for about 10 years.
He gravitated to an area off of Oceanside Boulevard just east of Interstate 5 near the Oceanside Town and Country shopping center, which is about a half-mile from the Bread of Life Rescue Mission. Homeless people are a common sight in the neighborhood.
“It was a disaster area,” he said about the area in October 2019, when he first set up a tent on South Oceanside Boulevard, a short street in front of the shopping center and just south of Oceanside Boulevard.
McGough began cleaning up the area, and that November he came up with a plan to create a small community on the block. With money he receives from Supplemental Security Income, he bought about six tents and some small carts, which he kept in a storage unit he rents across the street.
He would cart the tents out of the storage unit at the end of each day to create what he called Camp on Wheels, and he began offering them to other homeless people in the area, with the agreement they would keep the street clean.
There was more to his plan than just keeping the block tidy.
Motivated to help those around him by his deep religious beliefs, McGough said he drew from his studies of trauma, cognitive emotional behavior therapy and the brain’s complex limbic system to create a strategy to connect people with mental health services. He had studied the subjects for years while examining his own issues.
“I guess you’d call me a social psychologist,” he said with a laugh. “I’m a professor in isolation.”
McGough calls the row of tents a trauma-informed safe center, and he said the first tenet of trauma-informed care is to have a safe place, which is what he said he has created.
Didier Dunatte, 54, has a tent on the site and has been homeless about 30 years, and he said his outlook on life has changed since meeting McGough about six months ago.
“Rodney convinced me to go to therapy, and what a blessing it was,” he said. “I had to humble myself to do that. Without him, I wouldn’t have gone.”
McGough said five people living at the site have been connected to professional mental health services.
Eleven men and two women live on the site, and McGough said he plans to bring in more tents and create a section just for women. About half the tents on the site have come from donations, including some from Humanity Showers and from two online fundraisers. One fundraiser can be found on Isaiah Briggs’ Instagram page BSSC, an acronym for Brigg’s group Bajo Un Solo Sol Collective. Another can be found on Instagram at oside.peoples.kitchen.
Oceanside Mayor Esther Sanchez said she knows of McGough and appreciates how he and others there have kept the area clean.
“I think it actually looks pretty good,” she said. “ I don’t question at all the phenomenal intentions of the person doing this. I’m very grateful that the manner they’re doing it in is very respectful.”
Sanchez said the city has no plans to run McGough and the others off the site, and she noted a precedent-setting court decision that allows people to sleep outdoors when there is no other place for them to be. The city’s only shelter was one operated only in winter at Bread of Life, and it closed two years ago.
Sanchez said Oceanside has been taking steps to create more affordable housing and an emergency shelter to address homelessness.
On Monday, the city will release a notice of funding available for affordable housing, and Oceanside also has requested an additional 100 housing vouchers to help get people off the street, she said.
Oceanside also is considering opening a bridge shelter for homeless people at the former Oceans Shores High School site on Oceanside Boulevard and El Camino Real.
In a similar effort, San Diego Rescue Mission President and CEO Donnie Dee said his nonprofit has made progress in its search for a coastal North County homeless shelter. The Rescue Mission merged with Bread of Life last year.
Vanessa Graziano, a local homeless advocate and founder of the grassroots nonprofit Oceanside Homeless Resource, supports McGough and has helped buy tents for the site.
“People may not like what it looks like, but they’re forgetting that there’s people inside those tents,” she said. “We really need compassion.”
Graziano said she has had some exchanges on social media with people who are opposed to the tents, and she’s responded by saying she also does not think there should be tent cities for homeless people in Oceanside, but Rodney’s project is different.
“What I do support is Rodney creating a safe environment,” she said. “There’s a couple of women I know who are there and feel they are safe now.”
McGough said he plans to keep his homeless community in place, and he vows to keep it a safe place free of trash and a harbor for people seeking a new start. He and other homeless people at the site also have helped clear trash at the shopping center across the street.
“You have this almost surreal sense of home, a place where you belong,” he said. “This is conducive to healing.”
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