On a typical day, NBA Hall-of-Famer Bill Walton would love to swing his long legs over his bike and take a ride through San Diego’s Balboa Park, a massive open space of natural vegetation, greenbelts, gardens and paths that can be seen from his backyard.
The loquacious septuagenarian who’s nearly as well known for his TV sports broadcasting career said he’s loved living in a home that overlooks one of the park’s canyons for 44 years.
In fact, Walton loves a lot about his life.
The unabashed Deadhead, whose home is filled with Grateful Dead relics, a full-scale drum kit and an assortment of sports bobbleheads and photos of him with fellow NBA legends like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, says he’s enjoyed his grocery trips to Hillcrest and walks on the Embarcadero.
But one thing is becoming abundantly clear as the days and years pass on in his life.
Endless homeless camps
The 70-year-old says there are many days he can’t ride on the bike path, walk on the Embarcadero or go downtown.
And, it has nothing to do with his numerous struggles from chronic pain from his back and a broken ankle, leg and several bones in his feet during his playing days.
Walton is furious that homeless encampment after homeless encampment line the roads and pavements in Balboa Park and around San Diego.
He points to human feces smeared on the ground, dirty streets in front of Balboa’s museums, and homeless people laying on the canyon trails.
It is tragic, it is depressing, it is sad for everyone involved.”Bill Walton
“It is tragic, it is depressing, it is sad for everyone involved,” Walton said in an exclusive interview with The Coronado News.
Walton now is partnering with Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey and other city leaders on the island and in greater San Diego to address the problem through TakeBackSanDiego.com.
The group includes A-1 Self Storage CEO Brian Caster, former U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer, retired Marine Corps. Col. Patrick J. Gough, retired Navy Capt. and former Coronado City Councilman Phil Monroe and Cindy and Martin Blair, owners of Kansas City Barbecue or the “Top Gun” bar.
They are promoting Sunbreak Ranch, a plan for more than 2,000 acres of community tents or individual tents in designated and protected areas for the homeless, with portable toilets and showers and medical tents in the unused empty federal lands just east of Interstate 15 on the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
The plan is for the ranch to have a permanent 24/7 public police station onsite to ensure safety.
Mullen and Walton banded together to address this topic in an op-ed in several publications, including The Coronado News.
At 6-foot-11, Walton remains a towering figure as he sits at his dining room table next to George Mullen, principal of StudioRevolution and co-founder of Sunbreak Ranch.
As a native San Diegan, who also does business in Coronado, he shares Walton’s exasperation.
Mullen doesn’t want to see his home become like so many other cities that have fallen to the homeless crisis.
It’s city suicide.”George Mullen
“When you see what’s happened to San Francisco, it’s coming our way,” Mullen says. “It’s city suicide.”
According to the Downtown San Diego Partnership’s Monthly Unsheltered Count, there were 2,104 homeless people in downtown San Diego in May.
The unsheltered homeless count increased from 3,971 people in 2020 to 4,106 in 2022 according to the City of San Diego’s annual homeless count.
The number of homeless deaths have also increased by almost 500 people from 2012 to 2022.
Putting pressure on local officials
Numbers like these are what makes Walton angry.
“We’ve been [in this house] 44 years, and I was born here in San Diego. I grew up in Balboa Park, and we should not have to move because our current local politicians are not doing their job,” Walton says, his voice low, rumbling over the sentences.
Walton is putting pressure on local government officials – specifically San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria.
Gloria was not able to be reached for comment.
One of the issues that Gloria focuses on is homelessness, as stated on his website.
However, with an increase of 22% in the homeless population from 2022 to 2023, Walton strongly believes Gloria has much to do with that.
“Todd Gloria ran on the number one campaign promise: ‘I am going to solve the homeless problem,’” Walton says.
But, Walton said the situation “is worse every day in every way.”
Walton says he’s been quietly fighting this for too long, and has recently been more vocal about his feelings on the crisis.
“I also know, from a lifetime of civic engagement, that you have to start local,” Walton says.
Partnership with Richard Bailey
Walton partnered with Bailey, Coronado’s mayor, to spread awareness on the lack of change after Bailey made national headlines earlier this year while appearing on FOX News to discuss how Coronado has taken actions to mitigate homelessness.
Coronado has partnerships with homeless shelters that include St. Vincent de Paul Village, which is located just south of East Village in downtown San Diego and the Joan Kroc Center, according to Bailey.
There are laws against camping on city streets and the city of Coronado will not allow it, says Walton, and that’s why Walton says there are no homeless people on the island.
If homeless people come to Coronado, the city’s police pick them up and take them to the shelters across the bridge in downtown San Diego.
“Coronado does enforce the rule of law, and that’s the difference. And there’s no enforcement of rule or law here,” Mullen says, referencing San Diego. “It’s not the policemen’s fault that their hands are tied.”
Walton and Mullen instead put blame on the local politicians instead of law enforcement.
But they are not just voicing their dissatisfaction with how the local government has handled this.
They have come up with a possible answer.
They are the co-founders of Sunbreak Ranch, a vision that Walton, Mullen, Bailey and many others share.
“We want to get them to a place that can truly help them get back.”George Mullen
“We want to get them to a place that can truly help them get back,” Mullen says.
Walton and Mullen believe that this will be the solution to ending homelessness in San Diego.
They said the Sunbreak Ranch team is actively working towards getting the support of local politicians in order to go as a team to approach the federal government for the land they need on the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar property to make this a reality.
The group’s website lays out its four goals to end homelessness, return to the “rule of law,” make San Diego the cleanest big city in America and return streets, canyons and public parks to a place “for everyone to enjoy.”
The website also has ways others in the community can help, a petition, information about the leadership team and a myriad of photos of homeless people living in tents in San Diego.
Similar sites in other cities
The idea, however, is not new.
In Los Angeles, Branford Village Tiny Homes in the Sun Valley area opened in February to house 160 homeless people on the site of a former encampment. And Mobile Loaves & Fishes has created the Community First! Village in Austin, Texas, where a 51-acre master planned community is slated to provide affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for men and women coming out of chronic homelessness.
Meanwhile, Walton’s frustration with the local crisis is apparent.
He sits calmly, with his hands in his lap and the occasional gesture for emphasis, but his deep voice agonizes and pleads for change.
“We live in one of the richest counties in the history of the world. And yet, we will not, we do not, and we won’t provide the necessary help to the homeless population,” Walton says. “And that is the stain on our soul.”