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Political Analysis: Housing The Homeless In San Diego

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Aired 10/21/09

Possible locations for a permanent homeless shelter are working their way through San Diego city government. KPBS Political Correspondent Gloria Penner has a few suggestions to add to the mix.

Downtown San Diego's East Village was the site of the temporary winter homeless shelter in 2008-2009.
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Above: Downtown San Diego's East Village was the site of the temporary winter homeless shelter in 2008-2009.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The San Diego City Council has decided that the East Village will once again be the site of this year's temporary winter homeless shelter. The decision came after what has become a yearly ritual in San Diego city politics: various shelter locations are proposed and rejected, and then as winter approaches, a compromise location is quickly selected. However, there are discussions underway in San Diego that may change the usual procedure. Proposals for a permanent homeless shelter are now working their way through city government. Where such a facility might be located and when it might be built are both political hot-potato questions, so KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner is here to handle those hot potatoes and suggest a few locations for a permanent homeless shelter that haven't been considered. Welcome, Gloria.

PENNER: Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now, San Diego has a significant homeless population. We’ve had a significant population for years but has it increased because of the recession?

PENNER: Oh, absolutely. The jobless rate is going up and so the homeless population has steadily increased. Last month the regional task force on the homeless reported that 7,582 homeless persons were in the county and I think that’s low. That number’s almost a 10% increase of just two years ago. Interestingly enough, about 1200 of those were located in north county, lower numbers in the Carmel Valley area, but an increase in La Jolla, Del Mar and the surrounding beach areas. So if you’re noticing that there are more homeless around, you have reason to.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve seen some articles about the new homeless. Who is designated new homeless?

PENNER: Well, this gives you an idea. They had something called Stand Down at a high school athletic field for homeless military and the number of homeless veterans gathered there in July reached a record high, almost a thousand compared with last year’s record of about 800. In addition to that, the most interesting thing is the increase in the number of female veterans who came in and, you know, lots of them had traumatic brain injuries, psychological stresses, and it’s a real problem. In addition to that, you see more families on the street, plus more seniors who no longer can afford those SROs, those single residence in downtown. And those practically are all gone anyway because they were taken over by gentrification in East Village. So you’re seeing, across the board, that kind of a population increase.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of shelter and services does San Diego provide now for the homeless population? In other words, if you found yourself homeless today, what would be your options?

PENNER: I went into a website and it’s called Homeless Services-Shelter Availability, and this is for yesterday. If I was homeless yesterday, what were my options. And there is a list of, I’d say, about 20 different shelters. Most of them are transition shelters, you can stop here, or emergency shelters, and practically every one of them was full. For example, in the Alpha Project in Casa Raphael, it said there’s a four to six month wait list. At Catholic Charities at La Posada de Guadalupe, a two week wait list. Interfaith Community Services, it says long wait time. The San Diego Inland branch of ISN, which is the Catholic shelter, it says the shelter is full. So I’m telling you that there may be a lot of shelters around but it doesn’t look to me as though there’s much opportunity to get into them, which is kind of sad. For – There is that temporary winter shelter that’s probably going to come in in December, I believe, and so that will make some beds available during the winter for downtown.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, and as I said, there’s always this fuss about where to locate the temporary winter shelter. That’s a ritual that San Diego City Council goes through each year. Why is that?

PENNER: Well, it is dismaying because the council has been grappling with this question for a decade and then some. I remember back in the ‘90s when Susan Golding was mayor, the San Diego County’s homeless numbered about 5000, now it’s about double that, and Golding was instrumental in establishing a shelter at that time. But in her last State of the City address, for the first time, she didn’t mention the homeless. And since then, the issue’s been punted between the mayor’s office and council chambers with no clear line of responsibility. And so according to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless in San Diego, while the population has doubled the council simply doesn’t take action. It’s sort of like, well, not in my district. So for ten years there’s been in-fighting at the council. Whose district should the homeless shelter go into? And it’s always ended up with a temporary shelter downtown, and this time the decision was forced on the council by the mayor. When the council didn’t respond to his request for recommendations in the district, they punted again, didn’t come in with any recommendations, and so eventually ended up back in downtown area.

CAVANAUGH: Well, the representatives for the downtown area of San Diego are complaining, have been complaining, that they’re shouldering too much of a shelter burden in downtown San Diego. They have the winter shelter. There’s the idea of locating a permanent shelter downtown. Do they have too much of a shelter burden? Aren’t most of the homeless located downtown?

PENNER: They are. The numbers are elusive, depending on who’s doing the counting. So, yes, downtown, say District 2, that’s Kevin Faulconer’s district, the one that now is going to have the temporary winter shelter. The number of homeless that was counted there was about 1100. And I think these numbers are low. And then you go to, let’s say, District 1, the La Jolla area, that’s only 48. District 3, which is not downtown but not too far from downtown, 455. District 4 has only 3. District 5: 66. I’m giving you the numbers just to give you a sense that, yes, most of them are downtown but there are shelters throughout the area. The Alpha Project, several religious organizations like the Catholic Charities, but they’re mostly, as I said, transition emergency shelters, probably not where a homeless person could spend four or five months sheltered from the elements.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, Gloria will give us some suggestions about homeless shelters that perhaps haven’t been thought about. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner, and we’re continuing our conversation about shelters and services for the homeless in San Diego. Now San Diego City Council may soon review recommendations for the location of a permanent homeless shelter. First of all, Gloria, where would the money come from to build such a facility?

PENNER: Well, there are all kinds of suggestions. The Union-Tribune wrote an editorial suggesting that council members tap their infrastructure improvement funds, that’s basically a slush fund that each council member gets, but there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in the community in revenues for the homeless. The problem is that the administrative expenses of all the different groups and the agencies consume a great deal of that money. Let me give you an example. The San Diego Rescue Mission, for example, the Rescue Mission has net assets of almost $8 million. Their total revenue is almost $15 million. They do spend a good part of that on something called program expenses, which I would assume would be expenses for the homeless. But their administrative expenses and their fundraising expenses amount to somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million. So if you were to combine, let’s say, the San Diego Rescue Mission with some of the other organizations and charities that deal with the homeless, did you know, for example, at the City of San Diego, their allocations for social services program is over three and a half million dollars. Three and a half million dollars, so there we have three and a half million there, another $3 million from the Rescue Mission, and if you would throw in all the pots, you would have millions and millions of dollars that could go to the homeless assuming that you curb the administrative expenses.

CAVANAUGH: Well, as I said, the San Diego City Council is – may soon begin to review locations for a permanent homeless shelter downtown. Now, Gloria, I know that you have a few ideas…

PENNER: I do.

CAVANAUGH: …on some locations. Maybe some are tongue-in-cheek but they correspond with some of the other building projects that are being considered for the downtown area. Where do you think we might build a permanent homeless shelter?

PENNER: Well, I have three ideas in mind, and let’s start with the expanded convention center. The architects working on this new expansion wing say it wouldn’t just be for tourists but would offer something for locals. Well, the first thing that occurs to me is that somewhere in that 1.2 million square feet should be a room or several rooms for a permanent homeless shelter. Money seems to be no object in building that expansion of the convention center. For example, right now the city’s Center City Development Corporation is overseeing construction of a publicly financed $26.8 million pedestrian bridge just down Harbor Drive at Park Boulevard. And the mayor says revenues from the convention center generate tax revenues for critical city services and jobs for San Diegans. So what a perfect full circle. The convention center earns and it plows it back into critical needs and one of our critical needs is the homeless service. The cost, by the way, to the taxpayers for the expanded convention center: fifty-two and a half million dollars a year in new taxes or fees over 30 years.

CAVANAUGH: Well, there’s a probability that the expanded convention center will not want a homeless shelter as part of the complex, so where else?

PENNER: Let me just say, we’re paying for it. We’re the taxpayers. We should have a say. Well, then there’s the new city hall that everybody’s talking about. One developer says the complex will not only save money but it’s going to generate money so why not use some of that money for the homeless and make space for them there as well? Councilman Tony Young says this is a great time to show vision, so how about a vision for the homeless? They’re spending more than $700,000 right now just in negotiations with the developer. I think they probably could squeeze out some bucks for the homeless. You know what the problem is? Inertia. And the developer says that. He says that inertia’s the problem. Well, isn’t that the same problem with a permanent homeless housing shelter? A do-nothing alternative. It’s risky for the city hall. Isn’t that the same with the homeless as that population grows? The developer says the new civic center will free up money for needed city projects. He talked about the familiar potholes. We’re always hearing about the potholes. Well, maybe it should be the unfamiliar homeless. And we’ll see where we go from there.

CAVANAUGH: Now there’s recently been a new push to construct a downtown library. Could you see a homeless shelter there as well?

PENNER: Well, libraries are the only place providing free, equal and comprehensive access to information and resources, giving all citizens the opportunity and resources to succeed. That’s right out of a mission statement. So, I mean, it sounds like a good fit to me because we certainly need to provide resources free and equal to everyone, including the homeless. I just read on a – in a Wall Street Journal article that explained that homeless people who live without shelter or without reliable sources of food know that if they lost connection to the internet and social networking websites, they would really lose connection to the world. Now this library was designed to have the best internet capability. I’m sure that they could find a place there. Besides, the location sounds perfect to me. Location is downtown between Park Boulevard, 11th Avenue and J and K Street. Let’s talk about cost. Originally, the cost of a new library was supposed to be $185 million. Most likely, it’s going to be well over $200 million. So a couple million here, a couple million there, ten million here, ten million there, why not tack on another million or so and outfit one floor for the homeless? They’re thinking about putting in at least one floor for a high school and whether that high school is needed or not is a big question. But, certainly, we need a space for a permanent shelter for the homeless.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, Gloria, many people listening to you now would say, you know, she’s got to be crazy if she seriously thinks the city would put a homeless shelter in any of these complexes. But isn’t part of your point that perhaps San Diego is still in denial about its homeless problem?

PENNER: Well, you know, it’s really easy to hide your head in the sand but let me advise you. Some evening, Maureen and friends, just go downtown San Diego after nightfall, go around the Civic Center and see if you can ignore the problem as you see people lining the sidewalks trying to sleep safely, you know, wrapped in newspapers and rags. Or go into La Jolla Village during the day with all the upscale shops and see who is mingling with the tourists and the upscale shoppers. You know, as this population grows, it won’t be ignored.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today, Gloria.

PENNER: Well, we – you can read more about it. I’m going to write a blog today on Political Fix on KPBS.org, and I will expand a little bit on what we’ve just discussed this morning.

CAVANAUGH: Gloria Penner is KPBS political correspondent and host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. You can read her weekly blog, Political Fix, on the website, KPBS.org. And if you’d like to comment on this segment of These Days, please go to KPBS.org/TheseDays. You have been listening to These Days. Stay with us for hour two coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.

Comments

Avatar for user 'frodoblk'

frodoblk | October 21, 2009 at 10:24 a.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

San Diego dances around between sending more or less homeless to jail. They act like a tent for 200 for 4 months is such a wonderful accomplishment. Millions to study the problem. Nothing for the homeless. The cause of homelessness is not having a home. End of study. Now what?

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Avatar for user 'The0ne'

The0ne | October 21, 2009 at 3:21 p.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

Indeed, year after year the same thing repeats over and over. Truly one of the things I hate about this city, rather the inept and overpaid officials not doing their job.

( | suggest removal )