Does La Jolla have fewer homeless people since the recycling center closed?

In an interview conducted on Pearl Street shortly after the nearby recycling center closed in August 2019, Vince Robertson said he was headed instead to Pacific Beach or Mission Beach to recycle.

The number of homeless people living on the streets of La Jolla has declined since the summer, according to an unscientific survey of 15 La Jolla residents and merchants willing to speak to the Light about the controversial topic.

The probable cause? The closure of the RePlanet recycling center behind Vons in August. (RePlanet went under due to China’s restrictions on accepting recycled plastic, shuttering all 284 California locations.)

“The really aggressive homeless people who recycled are all gone,” said Bill Robins, a longtime La Jolla resident and community activist who estimated the decline in population at about 20 percent.

No official tabs are kept on changes in a single town’s homeless population. According to City of San Diego Police Department spokesperson Shawn Takuchi, calls to SDPD’s Homeless Outreach Team are tracked only across the entire Northern Division. Also, since homelessness is not a crime, an arrest of a homeless person for disturbing the peace would be logged only as “disturbing the peace.”

However, to our survey respondents, the streets of The Village seem less lived-on the past five months than they have in the past five years.

Doug Moranville, owner of the Branding Iron silk-screening shop, 7464 Draper Ave., estimated the decrease in homeless numbers at “a third or more.”

“You don’t see too many on a daily basis, like you used to,” he told the Light, “although some of the ones who are left are pretty hardcore.”

Adam Barno, owner of Dick’s Liquor at 737 Pearl St. — and, since December, Wine Time at 7474 Pearl St. — estimated a much steeper population decline of 50 percent.

“What you really don’t see anymore is the people riding around on their bikes with the big bags,” he said. (Indeed, on a landing behind Vons overlooking the former RePlanet site, the Light spotted just such a bag — containing about 50 cans with a recyclable value of $2.50. It appeared to be several months old.)

An abandoned bag of recyclable cans sits on a landing overlooking the former site of La Jolla’s RePlanet recycling center behind Vons.

Shortly after the recycling center closed in August, the Light approached a man pushing a cart brimming with plastic bottles west on Pearl Street.

“I don’t even know where I’m taking this,” said Vince Robertson. “I’m about to go down by PB or Mission Beach,” he said. “They’ll have some people who recycle there, who have vehicles and who will buy your stuff off you. They know the cash value of it, so you negotiate a good deal.” (The likely ultimate destination of his bottles was the Allan Company’s recycling facility at 6733 Consolidated Way in Miramar, which is still open.)

Robertson said the process was “a lot more of a hassle now.”

More recently, Robert — who said he lived in La Jolla for 30 years before becoming homeless due to skyrocketing housing costs in 2014 — explained that the elimination of the recycling opportunity is only one reason many other homeless people have left La Jolla. (Robert said that he receives Social Security benefits, so he has never had to rely on recycling income or panhandling.)

Another reason, Robert claimed, is the worsening treatment homeless people receive from business owners and managers.

Whereas some restaurants used to feed homeless people for free, Robert explained, he was recently kicked out of a fast-food eatery just for asking for a discount. Robert also said he was asked to leave a drugstore for trying to shave his long beard in the women’s restroom. (The men’s restroom was locked, he said, and store employees refused to give him the code.)

Father Joe’s Villages president/CEO Deacon Jim Vargas, who works closely with the homeless across San Diego, cautioned against jumping to conclusions based on anecdotal evidence.

“All in all, I’m not sure the overall number (of homeless people) has dramatically changed in La Jolla,” he said. “The closing of the recycling center may have had an effect on the number of those in the area. From what I’ve noticed over time in La Jolla, however, the transient nature of those who are homeless results in the absence of some of them for periods of time and then their return. Also, there are some new faces, even though some of the regular faces leave.”

Torrey Pines panhandlers say they’re not homeless

John, a 62-year-old panhandler with white hair, dark glasses and a pleasant demeanor, is a familiar face on the median before eastbound Torrey Pines Road splits off into La Jolla Parkway.

During an interview with the Light conducted on that median, John said he does not live on the street. None of the people he knows who work this median do, he explained. They’re either living in their cars or, like John, in a shelter in downtown San Diego.

John said the panhandlers on this intersection all know one another and share shifts graciously.

“An hour on, an hour off,” he said, explaining that schedules are not coordinated beforehand, “so if someone comes and someone else is on the median, they’ll wait on the side or come back in an hour.”

John said it’s “like a job,” estimating it pays $15 or $20 an hour.

“But how broke do you have to be to let it come to doing this?” he asked before politely excusing himself to continue panhandling.