How a cartoonist is highlighting the lives of San Diego’s homeless residents


Hari Sreenivasan: A Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist is using his drawings to highlight the growing problem of homelessness in Southern California.

Jeffrey Brown traveled to San Diego to get a first-hand look at the leading newspaper's cartoon series, "Street Art."

Jeffrey Brown: For a newspaper cartoonist like Steve Breen these days, there's one big subject.

Steve Breen: If you study Trump, you know, there's things about his lips that are interesting. His bushy eyebrows are fun. And then just the behavior and the speech is a treasure trove.

Jeffrey Brown: We watched Breen in action recently at his office at The San Diego Union-Tribune, where he's been the editorial cartoonist since 2001, twice winning the Pulitzer Prize.

Steve Breen: Cartoonists are drawn to big egos, drawn to know-it-alls. We're drawn to bullies. And Trump has elements of all those. He's the best subject of my career.

Jeffrey Brown: But the 47-year-old spent much of past year on a very different kind of assignment, something closer to home, sketching men and women living on the streets of San Diego.

Steve Breen: One of the jobs of an editorial cartoonist is to stick up for the little guy.

And, literally, when you step out the door of this building, there are homeless people all over. And my editor and I got to talking one day, and we thought, what can we do that's different? What can we do that's interesting? So we wanted to use my cartooning to cast a light on the problem.

Jeffrey Brown: Last year, homelessness surged in major cities up and down the West Coast, driven by a lack of affordable housing, especially for those most in need.

In San Diego, overall homelessness rose by 5 percent, and the number not using shelters by 18 percent. The city now has the fourth largest homeless population in the nation.

Steve Breen: When you sit and do a drawing, you have to spend a little bit of time. You have to look into their eyes, you know? And you get a feel for them in a different way.

Jeffrey Brown: Breen wanted to find out who these people are. He called the series "Street Art."

And he found the homeless all around the streets of his downtown office building.

Steve Breen: I wanted to ask people why they think they're homeless. I wanted to hear stories about their childhood. I wanted to find out, you know, if they have tried the local shelter, and what they liked or didn't like about it. I wanted to find out where they want to be in a year.

Jeffrey Brown: Was it hard? I mean, did people want to talk to you?

Steve Breen: It was easy.

Jeffrey Brown: Really?

Steve Breen: It was incredibly easy. And I chalk that up to the fact that these people are rarely treated like a human being.

Jeffrey Brown: Breen's sketches and the animated videos that accompanied them told their stories.

Steve Breen: They just needed a place to stay, so that they could find a job and kind of get their lives together. Jenny said she had nowhere to go, and she blew through her savings. She said she has serious mental illness, as well as other health issues.

Coco (ph) found himself in the middle of America's burgeoning counterculture scene. He survived for years by selling drugs, mainly acid packs. Tammy (ph) says the streets are scary at night, no place for lady, as she puts it.

This guy right here, Jack, he claims he was able to throw a 95-mile-an-hour fastball in high school. Yes, I think that the Chicago White Sox looked at him.

Jack's dream today is to visit South Carolina, where he can meet his 6-year-old granddaughter, Natalia (ph), for the first time before he dies. He has her name tattooed on his arm, the same arm that he used in high school to throw those fastballs.

Jeff Mourning: Alcoholism and drug use.

Jeffrey Brown: On our walk with Breen, we met Jeff Mourning (ph), homeless for the last seven years.

How hard is to live on the streets out here?

Jeff Mourning: It's actually pretty hard. People wait for people to go to sleep. And if they see that they look old like me, they have been hitting them in the head with pipes and everything downtown to try to rob them.

Jeffrey Brown: As it happens, Mourning is something of a cartoonist himself. His signs help him get by and have also gained attention online.

You're on YouTube on funny homeless signs?

Jeff Mourning: Yes, if you look at that, you will see it. You see me with a sign that says "Spread some cheese on this broke cracker."

Jeffrey Brown: In his series, Steve Breen also highlighted a deadly hepatitis A outbreak and what many considered to be the city's slow response.

Steve Breen: This is a handwashing station that recently popped up near the corner of A and Front street in downtown San Diego. Health officials have installed 40 of these around town to combat a hepatitis A outbreak that has claimed at least 15 lives and infected hundreds of people since it began in November of 2016.

Jeffrey Brown: So what do you hope people get from the series that you did?

Steve Breen: I hope that people try to resist the thinking that homelessness is caused by laziness or some flaw in character.

But that's really not what drives homelessness. It's mental illness. It's alcoholism, drug addiction and childhood abuse and neglect.

Jeffrey Brown: Breen says he's trying to stay in touch with the people he drew, hoping new portraits will emerge.

You can see his entire "Street Art" series on The San Diego Union-Tribune's Web site.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in San Dieg

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