Special Report: The hidden homeless community of National City

NATIONAL CITY (KUSI) — We’ve heard of people sleeping in parks, on sidewalks and even doorways, but frankly we were stunned when advocates for the homeless showed us another place that one would not expect to see men, women and children taking shelter. 

We were brought out to National City near the banks of the Sweetwater River, where down in the storm drains Jose Orozco and his fiance get by every day. National City hired the Alpha Project last December to reach out to those who are living in unimaginable conditions like these.

"It is hell," Orozco said of living in the storm drain. "It’s some place that I wouldn’t like to be, but it’s the only place that I can be."

Jose and Vanessa have so little: a thin mattress, a few backpacks and a bike. But they have each other. Outreach workers with the Alpha Project visit this neighborhood near Sweetwater Road. about two to three times per week. They call the storm drains "the tunnels," where we immediately stumbled upon crude sleeping quarters built out of cardboard.

The dark path is a devastatingly-long 150 ft. of concrete shelter  — half the distance of a football field. The smell of urine and feces is overwhelming. Even in broad daylight the tunnels are almost pitch black. In the heavy rain there’s nothing to prevent rocks, boulders, glass and other debris from shooting through these storm drains and washing everything and everyone away. 

"They can drown," Larissa Wimberly with the Alpha Project told KUSI. "The water comes in from all parts of the city, it fills up these tunnels, and it comes through really really fast."

How do people wind up living like this? The answers are not simple. Some people struggle with mental illness, alcohol or drug addiction. Others somehow got lost and still haven’t found a way back. Still, even in these conditions Jose Orozco remained optimistic about his future with Vanessa. 

"We want our life back," Jose said. "I’m very hopeful." 

The Alpha Project works with people living in these conditions, working to bridge the gap and transition their life toward an improved future. Even in the darkest of tunnels there’s still a light to find at the end. A journey to be taken one step at a time. 

Categories: Local San Diego News