By Cynthia Robertson
In early December, San Diego County residents were on edge because of the extreme danger of fire. The wind tossed leaves, tree branches and trash into the streets and sidewalks. Safe from the harsh wind and heat, Tony Rodriguez had his tent set up in in the parking lot of Grassroots Oasis, a performance venue in Old Town. Martha Sullivan, proprietor of Grassroots Oasis, had welcomed him to camp there.
Rodriguez is the main character in the locally made “Tony — The Movie,” a documentary about San Diego’s homeless, a true-to-life, day-to-day detailed account of what it is like living on the streets.
Sullivan admired the way Rodriguez had decorated his tent with leaves that had blown about in the Santa Ana winds.
“Might as well do something nice with them,” Rodriguez said, good-naturedly. He could have moved inside the Grassroots Oasis building, but he preferred to be outside.
“Look what he’s done over here,” Sullivan said, pointing to some exotic succulents, one of them nearly 10 feet tall. “He has planted a few vegetables, too — and, look — just this morning, I discovered some tomatoes growing.”
Rodriguez smiled shyly. “I just love to garden,” he said.
In the same way that Rodriguez brings fresh life to plants that might otherwise die on the vine, Sullivan helps bring about a sense of hope and purpose to people who are ignored and beaten down in society.
Inside Grassroots Oasis, the cool and dark is a refuge from the wind and worries outside.
“That’s what I call this place, a sanctuary,” Sullivan said.
When she first opened Grassroots Oasis, Sullivan had wanted to provide an affordable space to do political organizing and offer cultural events. The space has indeed accomplished that to the point of great community enrichment.
Sullivan is a self-confessed activist for people she calls “the unsheltered” — they are the ones who do not have shelter of any kind, as opposed to some who have a place to sleep at night, even if on a friend’s couch, she explained. Through several years of working closely with people who have no voice, no way of speaking up for themselves in the political machinery, Sullivan has become their advocate.
Her newfound role as advocate for the unsheltered came about gradually. Sullivan had worked for years for the Public Utilities Commission.
“I saw huge political corruption, and I got really tired of it,” she said.
In the fall of 2011, Sullivan became involved with Occupy San Diego. She went Downtown nearly every day, helping with logistics, such as transportation, setting up a medical tent and making sure there was food for everyone.
“Lori Saldana and I worked a lot together, putting in some pop-up cooling stations with shade and water for all the people,” Sullivan said.
During that time, Sullivan became painfully aware of not just how many people were living in the streets, but how they were treated as non-entities.
“At first, I think the security aspect drew a lot of people [to Occupy San Diego], and then it was the fact that they could have a voice. That’s what my grassroots organizing is about, helping people use their voice,” she said.
Sullivan said she came to know a number of unsheltered people, and Occupy San Diego provided them with a community.
“That is one of the most difficult things about being unsheltered — that you’re not part of a community and being apart from safety and security. [It’s important to have] that sense that you belong somewhere and you know you’re part of a bigger purpose,” Sullivan said.
John Brady, one of the people temporarily staying at Grassroots Oasis, knows how important a sense of belonging is. He is a member of the Voices of Our City Choir, a singing group for unsheltered people that Sullivan helped bring about along with professional musicians Steph Johnson and Nina Deering.
But nearly a year ago during heavy rains, Sullivan wanted to provide some of the choir members with shelter at Grassroots Oasis. It was just one year after she had opened its doors. Sullivan admitted that taking in the unsheltered was a daunting task because she did not have the experience, particularly on matters such as how to coordinate with social workers.
When the police ticketed choir members for camping outside of the Living Water Church where the choir rehearses, Sullivan opened the doors of Grassroots Oasis to some of the choir members. Deciding who and how many people could stay within her building was a carefully thought-out process.
“One big lesson I’ve earned is unsheltered people are a microcosm of our society. They are no worse and no better than us sheltered people. They have the same issues we do, in terms of how to live with one another.
“Anybody who’s ever had a roommate knows it’s not easy to throw people together, even if you love each other. It’s just not easy to put people together in close quarters,” she said.
“You know they are no worse and no better than you or me. We find the same exact range of activities and issues in whatever situation. It’s just that unsheltered people can’t go behind walls and shut the door. They’re out in the open, so when you are talking about these issues, be it addiction or hoarding, the fight for them has to be a just fight,” Sullivan said.
“There’s so much judgment by people out there in the political world. For example, the county board of supervisors’ biggest point of pride is that they built up this $2 billion reserve they got from federal and state government. We need to take care of our people, give them permanent housing, food and provide medical attention.
“In truth, they [the county’s board of supervisors] are the hoarders. They’re hoarding money,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan was instrumental in organizing the Light Brigade on Jan. 11, the evening of Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s State of the City Address. About 20 people held lighted letters of “HOUSING NOT HANDCUFFS” in the hour before the mayor’s speech at the Balboa Theater.
The work of Sullivan, Deering and Johnson have garnered the attention of a wide variety of people, including Susan Polis Shultz, of Blue Mountain Arts fame. Polis has created a film, “The Homeless Chorus Speaks,” which was shown on Feb. 21 at San Diego Central Public Library. The Voice of the City Choir also performed two songs.
“Homelessness is a devastating epidemic in America, and I hope my film will shed light on the inhumane way that people are treated, in addition to showing how human they are,” Shultz wrote in an email.
In Shultz’s interviews of 14 homeless members of the Voice of the City Choir, the people tell their stories, from those who have been abused and used to those battling addiction, to people who just can’t afford housing and to those who need medical care.
In the meantime, Sullivan is still holding different events for musicians, poets and other performers at her Grassroots Oasis.
“We’ve got a good vibe here. We’re giving voice to the people,” she said.
— Cynthia Robertson is a local freelance writer.