The Coast News Group
Rodney McGough
Rodney McGough, a homeless man living in Oceanside, founded a "Camp on Wheels" along South Oceanside Boulevard in February. Photo by Joe Orellana

The trauma behind homelessness and the camp that aims to heal

OCEANSIDE — With more and more people on the streets due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many North County advocates and leaders are trying to find solutions to get people back into functioning society.

One unique way this is happening is through a homeless encampment along South Oceanside Boulevard that strives to give people a safe place to rest and realize their own worth.

The encampment that started out as just a few tents has grown to about 40 tents in the last few months. Those who haven’t seen it may expect trash, clutter and other unsightly imagery often associated with homeless encampments, but this particular camp is drastically different.

Instead of trash and clutter, the encampment appears tidy, organized and clear of the trash. The tents are lined up along the side of South Oceanside Boulevard next to the Sprinter train tracks separated by a fence.

Led by Rodney McGough and other members of the “camp council,” those who stay in the encampments are given tents to sleep in and even storage space for some of their belongings. The people who stay there generally look out for each other and try to prevent any theft of personal items.

McGough is a homeless man who moved to that particular area of town a few years ago. He noticed the issues that exist among the homeless who stay in the area and wanted to make a change, which is how his original “Camp on Wheels” concept came about.

The idea was to bring out tents from his storage units to give people a place to temporarily rest and then take everything back into the camp that night or once they were well-rested. Since then, the encampment grew to be much more.

McGough’s intention with the camp is to create what he calls a “trauma-informed safe center” to help stabilize people and allow them to come back from their senses.

“People cannot get jobs or even function correctly if they’re cycling through survival mode and coping mode,” McGough told The Coast News. “What’s kept people out here is being told, ‘you can’t sleep here, oh you can’t sleep here either,’ which keeps them in survival mode, so they’re never stabilizing.”

McGough and his encampment recently made national news in the Los Angeles Times, much to the chagrin of some councilmembers like Christopher Rodriguez, who also took issue with the McGough’s description of the camp as a “safe center.”

McGough bases his concept on research that points to trauma as a big factor in chronic homelessness. He explained that it’s helpful to surround people impacted by such trauma with peers who have gone through or are going through something similar.

“We’re all messed up here in our ways, we’re all damaged,” he said. “We’re just trying to find a way to make it work.”

Rodriguez recently proposed a hybrid voucher pilot program that would establish emergency shelter, intermediary housing and permanent housing as well as increased enforcement of anti-encampment and vagrancy laws. Many in the community pushed back against the concept, which never made it past discussion at the March 10 council meeting.

McGough and the encampment have received an increasing amount of community support over the last month. People have dropped off tents and other supplies for the encampment to use, and even a donation of mulch was brought to the keep to reduce the amount of mud caused by the recent rains.

People like Vanessa Graziano from the Oceanside Homeless Resource have also stepped in to help McGough along the way.

“Vanessa has a played a big part in making it what it is now,” McGough said.

Graziano, who was once homeless and struggling with addiction in the area, has created Oceanside Homeless Resource to help others get out of similar situations like she was once in. She currently operates a shelter with about 34 people and six children out of a Motel 6 off Carlsbad Village Drive. She has also helped people go into drug and alcohol recovery.

Graziano makes an effort to stop by the encampment daily. She allows McGough to use some of her own storage space to store donations, which have grown in numbers over the last few months.

Recently, Graziano visited McGough to work through and establish community guidelines for the encampment.

“Be respectful, quiet time after 9 p.m., throwing trash away, nobody but you in your tent… it’s just trying to get people to treat this like a sacred place,” Graziano said. “You’ve been given an opportunity to be part of this where we’ll keep you safe, but also bring the best of yourself and do the best you can to stay in line and be respectful.”

Anthony Gregory, who more recently started staying at the encampment with his wife, said everyone generally looks out for each other and their items.

Gregory has been on the streets for a couple of years now. In the last year, he and his wife used their stimulus money to buy an RV to get off the street and have a place where they could safely rest and shower, but a few weeks ago the RV broke down and was towed away. Now Gregory and his wife owe more money that they don’t have for towing and for the needed mechanical repairs, which has sent them back to the streets.

Gregory is searching for a way to get his RV out of impound and to a repair shop. He’s also looking forward to potential hotel/motel vouchers the city may be handing out in the upcoming weeks to give homeless people a place to stay in nearby hotels.

Currently, Oceanside does not have a permanent shelter in place, which means by law homeless cannot be punished for sleeping on public property.

“I’ve got seven different citations that say different,” Gregory said. “There’s a real war going on in the rest of the world for those that don’t know and you’re worried about me and my lady sleeping somewhere? I don’t get it. We’re aren’t trashing the place, we’re just trying to sleep.”

The city recently announced plans to open a transitional homeless shelter with “wrap-around day services to obtain stability and transition people into permanent housing.” Staff is currently collecting proposals and expects to select a shelter operator in June 2021.