SAN DIEGO — A spring breeze rustles the trees and carries the voices of two homeless men who live and sleep near 10th and Ash avenues, just off California 163. The breeze also carries a foul smell, the song of birds and the whoosh of traffic.
In the shrubbery are pieces of people's lives: a black-and-white picture of a child with a pacifier in his mouth. The writing on the back reads: "Linton, January 1975, 7 months old."
Another picture, this one of a young woman, was dedicated on Jan. 5 to "Candice. . . . You've been a great friend." A water-soaked mattress, a brown leather shoe and yellow and blue blankets lie at the bottom of a drainage ditch.
The area also holds ample evidence of drug activity. Amid the dry leaves and dead branches are hundreds of red, yellow, green, orange and blue balloons in which heroin is sold. There also are bottles and cups filled with water to liquefy the substance, soda bottle caps and spoons to heat it up, and syringes for injecting it.
For people intent on shooting heroin, the California 163 right of way at 10th and Ash provides the perfect cover. Users can usually see the police before the officers can see them.
"It's safe here," said Carlos Lopez, who often goes to the area to shoot up. "If I see (police), I throw the stuff away. I don't run," he said. "Even if I run, they are going to catch me."
Lopez arrived in San Diego about 18 months ago and began using the deadly drug about six months later. A slow-talking, lanky 21-year-old, Lopez said he has been trying to kick the habit and has managed to reduce his heroin intake by about half. The area is one of many that he frequents downtown. During his year of drug use, Lopez said, he has been arrested only once.
He is just one of many who can be found at 10th and Ash.
The illegal activity goes on day and night, including areas behind the downtown Travelodge at 10th and Ash, and Denny's at 9th and Ash. Managers of both businesses said they have worked with police and Caltrans to minimize the traffic of users who trudge through the greenery.
Both said that the drug traffic seems to have diminished recently.
But, within minutes of entering the area one recent day, two officers walking the downtown beat caught a man just as he finished injecting himself with the drug. The officers' tan uniforms and quiet steps camouflaged them.
The officers, Tom Boerum and Elliott Stiasny, were standing across a drainage ditch when the man looked up. He tried to run but sat down after Stiasny ordered him to stop. When Stiasny reached him, a needle, spoon and water-filled beer bottle were at his feet.
"It seems like a safe place," sighed the 39-year-old man, as he waited in a police car for his arrest to be processed.
Before Stiasny joined the foot patrol, the area was part of his rounds in a squad car. Because the right of way is part of a busy beat, including the southern portion of Balboa Park and downtown, police officers can't concentrate manpower on just that area, said Lt. Jim Barker of the Central Division.
"That's just one of many locations throughout the city" where people shoot drugs, Barker said. "Officers go through the area as often as they can." But the frequency of forays is reduced by other, higher priority calls.
Lt. Ron Seeden said, "Someone shooting up under a tree is a lower priority than someone calling up and saying, 'A guy just put a gun to my head and stole money out of the cash register.' "
In July, 1987, a fire along the right of way prompted Caltrans to trim brush and remove dead fronds from palm trees. But there are still many places to hide, said Jim Larson, a spokesman for Caltrans. "It's not a pretty thing . . . (and) not very safe to have people so near the freeway."
Maintenance crews, he said, clean the area every two or three weeks and always find the remains of drug use.
Ruth Gasca, who became manager of the downtown Travelodge in September, 1988, said that when she started, drug users and homeless people often camped behind the motel or hung out in the parking lot.
"It's embarrassing to tell guests, 'Don't leave anything in your car that you don't want to lose,' " she said.
Some motel guests were drug users themselves, she said, leaving bloody towels and syringes behind in the rooms.
Gasca has tried to get at the problem, including complaining to the police and installing floodlights around the motel. She also discreetly checks would-be guests for tell-tale signs of heroin use, including lethargy and sores on the hands and arms.
Police have responded by coming around more often, and the floodlights discourage people from hanging around for too long, she said. But deciding whom to admit is not easy. "It could be just someone who needs a room," she said.
The measures have helped, Gasca said. On a recent weekend all the rooms were full.
Even so, the drug activity persists. The whitewashed rear walls of the motel were recently spray-painted with the words "Evil Tweak," a slang term for heroin users.
In 1989, according to the San Diego County coroner's office, 100 people died of heroin-related overdoses in the county, more than twice the number that died of cocaine and methamphetamine overdoses combined.