The AjA Project: Photography Programs for San Diego Youth

City Heights Homeless Speak for Change

By Brent Jensen, Kiran Mehta, Beto Soto, Binti Musa and Karla Flores, members of the AjA Project’s YAC Youth Media Team.


In efforts to positively impact the community, Price Philanthropies and California Endowment invested an estimated $265 million in City Heights over the past 15 years. The construction of the City Heights Urban Village, a cluster of restaurants, retail stores and produce markets located at Fairmount and University Ave., is one of the most tangible developments funded by Price Charities that are recognized by City Heights residents. Guided by a ‘bottom-up’ approach, the California Endowment has made investments in local non-profits with the aim of empowering City Heights residents to become the leaders and change-makers in their community. However, as reported by Megan Burkes of KPBS, the impact of the both foundations’ contributions to the city have not been reflected in traditional statistical studies. This presents an interesting dilemma as City Heights still performs worse than the county average when you look at income, employment, obesity rates, educational outcomes and crime.

The AjA Project’s YAC Youth Media team approached the topic of measuring change by exploring how the individual perceives community change through a qualitative lens. The Youth Media team reached out to residents of City Heights and asked how they have seen their community improve over time, as well as what changes they believe would prospectively have the greatest positive impact on their community in the future.

The opinions and sentiment of the homeless population in City Heights is the focus of this story’s outreach.


Susan Davis was drawn to City Heights in 1987 by the prospect of affordable housing. She owned a home where the Urban Village currently has footing. Davis noticed the Urban Village as a fixture that increased the overall feeling of safety in City Heights. This, along with the presence of several nonprofit organizations and youth advocacy programs, has begun to positively shift the climate of the community, according to Davis.

Davis feels women’s safety in City Heights is at risk, specifically noting instances of “guys dragging girls into alleys in broad daylight.” Davis also noted the police force in the community has made the drug and gang presence “more covered up, less visible and [less] available to our young people.”




Marissa and Adrianna have been part of the transient population in City Heights for 4-5 months, relying on different family members for temporary housing.

“Me and my sister are kind of struggling to get clothes for ourselves,” Marissa told the AjA Project’s Youth Media team. “Some homeless people don’t know their resources and opportunities and things they can do to get back on their feet,” she said.

Marissa would be happy to see more community resources for clothing and food for homeless people in the area; similar to the resources set up by St. Mark’s Episcopal Church located at 4227 Fairmount Ave. Marissa believes there are too few opportunities in the work force for people who do not have a college degree.

“I’m good with kids, but they want an associates degree” Marissa said about her ability to find a job in daycare. Adrianna has a serve mental handicap which makes living conditions even more difficult for these two sisters. Marissa is adamant she takes adequate care of Adrianna: “My little sister comes first,” she stated.




Jane has lived for 14 years in City Heights. Her ongoing battle with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) left her with several problems that continue to exacerbate the difficulties of being homeless. There is no place to plug in an electric wheelchair on the street and there is restricted access to shelters because of my oxygen tank, stated Jane.

“I’ve had three strokes,” Jane said, who often has trouble crossing the street without assistance. According to Jane, her troubles are worsened by her experiences with the police who “treat you like crap” and want to “shove us out.”

Jane addressed the need for “public showers and public bathrooms” and the need for “a place where homeless can check in and have a place to stay and a safe place to put their things.” Often times, homeless shelters do not make accommodations for those who are sick or handicapped, Jane noted. More often than not, these physical limitations prevent Jane from accompanying her daughter to stay in homeless shelters due to the necessity of her wheelchair and oxygen tank.




Tommy takes recyclables in for a refund everyday. This money, in addition to food stamps, gives him comfort in the way of satisfying everyday needs. In his nine years homeless in City Heights Tommy has observed “new buildings…not much.”  Tommy said access to outhouses would improve the hygienic situation of the homeless, who are often without bathroom facilities. Public showers are also needed, according to Tommy.

When he isn’t able to collect the groceries periodically distributed by churches, his friends share their portions of food with him. He has seen homeless women living and traveling alone, and has heard “horror stories” of women being abused. He would like to see more programs in support of safety for homeless women. Tommy stays in his pickup truck, and when asked if he stays warm, he answered in the affirmative, laughing.




Larry Pusey has been on the streets for 11 years. “We are not ready for this epidemic of homelessness,” Larry emphasized. He stressed that the homeless members in City Heights are not adequately equipped to combat their difficulties. “People have their whole lives in their shopping cart,” and the community has “no place for people who loose their homes.” Larry sleeps at Officer Jeremy Henwood Memorial Park on Fairmount Ave, but according to him, police often disperse the homeless occupants at night.

“They disrespected my rights as a homeless person,” he said resentfully, stating that certain officers “lie to homeless people.” During our interview Larry also gave a friendly greeting to an officer in passing, and explained that there are also many individuals within the City Heights Police Department whom he has affinity and respect for. Larry shared that although his mother is no longer with him, he feels he is “the richest man in the park” and “blessed to be here.” Though he struggles with addiction, Larry invests his hope in the youth of City Heights and believes strongly that the future of the community rests in youth development.




The Youth Media team met Faith Norman outside of the AjA Project building, where she took refuge from the rain. Faith has been in City Heights for almost 30 years, and has been homeless since August 2014. “I’m on my own. I’m surviving.  I do what I can,” she said.

Faith receives stipends from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), although as a frequent victim of petty criminal activity, Faith has been deprived of her of most of her personal belongings. “I had a shopping cart. They took everything.” Faith said. She occasionally finds aid from the Safe Havens in downtown San Diego, a transitional housing organization funded by the Episcopal Community Services.  She feels that “it’s up to the individual” to improve their living condition. “It’s not the place, it’s the people in the city,” suggesting a weakness in the moral constitution of certain individuals rather than a failure in the community. While speaking with us, Faith was given alms by a sympathetic passerby. “By March I should be able to find me a place,” Faith said with a tone of self-reliance.




Heather Smith helps operate the Pantry, a “food cupboard” program at St. Mark’s Church located at 4227 Fairmount Ave. All residents of San Diego County are eligible to receive meals and packaged food from the program. St. Mark’s also hosts a fresh food distribution on the third Saturday of every month at 9 am. The food distribution is free to anyone over 18 years old. According to Smith, Funds would be essential to provide more food for homeless and low income families, assist in building a strong volunteer base, and increasing education and resources, all of which are limited without a budget.  Smith recommends “vast transportation improvements” for homeless people who need to access resources downtown. She also sees the need for a “place to facilitate identification processing,” which many homeless people do not have. “Mobile showers are implemented in other parts of San Diego and may come to City Heights with the right political groundwork,” she said.  Heather is impressed with the community’s active youth population, and sees “young people taking a real part in improving the neighborhood.”




The AjA Project is a nonprofit organization based in City Heights, providing photography and media-based programming for youth to facilitate individual and community-based change.

The AjA Project’s YAC Youth Media team seeks to record and elevate the voices of those who do not have an outlet for expression and social commentary. Every individual understands their neighborhood in a personal and intimate way. When these distinct voices are heard, a portrait of the community becomes clearer and more comprehensive.




St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
4227 Fairmount Ave.
San Diego, CA 92105
(619) 283-6242

St. Mark’s City Heights Community Programs:

  • Refugee Tutoring: 3:30 pm – 5:00 pm | Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays
  • Food Cupboard and Computer Lab: 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm | Wednesdays, Thursdays
  • Survivors of the Streets: 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm | Tuesdays
  • Mobile Pantry: 9:00 am – 12:00 pm | 3rd Saturday of every month