Friday, April 2, 2010
The winter homeless shelter in downtown San Diego shut its doors Wednesday afternoon, temperatures dropped and as much as half an inch of rain fell in the region overnight. Homeless advocates says the shelter saves the city money by lessening the burden on emergency services. What will it take to build political will for a permanent shelter?
GLORIA PENNER (Host): This week, Wednesday was notable for at least three events. It was Cesar Chavez Day, it rained hard at night so the streets were wet and cold, and the temporary winter shelter for people without homes was closed so many of those folks ended up on those streets. JW, why wasn’t the temporary shelter kept open at least until the weather cooperated? The forecast was for heavy rain.
JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): Because that was the agreement that was set up with the city and the advocates said they had to move out. There’s nothing they could do. And they couldn’t get ahold of anybody because it was a holiday and so they had to move. They had to get out. They had to go out on the streets and the rain’s coming down.
PENNER: Why is the shelter, winter shelter, temporary in the first place?
AUGUST: Ah, I think it’s all the things that’s wrong with our city, this is a good example of it. This – The NIMBY syndrome, the lack of will by the political leadership, the lack of vision. There’s money, $10 million, sitting in a pot to build a shelter but where is it going to be? We may be moving towards a permanent shelter, a 250 bed permanent shelter but who – because there is that $10 million the CCDC has set aside but will we have the will to do this? Or will each of the politicians stake out, try to protect their turf and no in my neighborhood and we go around and round again.
PENNER: You raise a really interesting question that keeps coming up: political will. What will it take to get political will behind creating a permanent shelter, Barbara?
BARBARA BRY (Assistant Publisher/Opinions Editor, SDNN.com): Well, I’d like to take a step back, Gloria.
BRY: First of all, I think there’s two types of homelessness. There’s chronic homelessness which is people who are mentally ill or have an alcohol problem or, you know, something that’s – some sort of mental instability. Second, there’s episodic homelessness, you know, someone who lost their job, they can’t afford their mortgage, they lose their home. And I think there’s two different ways we have to deal with it. I think a shelter works for the chronic homelessness and for the episodic homelessness, a temporary shelter is probably the most expensive way to go. We’re better off having them move to a cheaper apartment, even helping them a little bit with their rent. And this, the episodic homelessness issue, has gotten worse because of the poor economy and, you know, people, you know, higher unemployment rate coupled with the decline, you know, in housing values. So I think there’s two ways we have – We have to look at it as two different problems.
PENNER: All right. Let me turn to our listeners on this. If you’ve walked the streets of San Diego, downtown, you can’t help but notice that the numbers of homeless have increased substantially. In fact, some people say there are as many as 8,000 homeless in the county now and maybe half of those are in the city of San Diego. It obviously is a problem. Do you have a feeling about the best way for, let’s say, the City of San Diego to solve this problem? Or the county to solve this problem, because it is with us, and it is growing. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Ricky, supporters claim that the services provided for the homeless actually save the city some money and so we get back to this business of why are our elected officials unable or unwilling to find a permanent shelter?
RICKY YOUNG (Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Well, Gloria, in our – we run coupons in our newspaper every – well, every day but a whole bunch of them on Sunday. And you can save a dollar, you know, on a product but you probably have to spend three or four dollars to save that dollar. And it goes the same way with this argument by the homeless advocates, that if you just spend money on our shelter, well, that’ll keep crimes from happening and it’ll keep people out of the emergency rooms and all this, you know, but that doesn’t mean the city has the money to spend on, you know, a shelter. I think the argument that Bob McElroy from the Alpha Project made this week was…
PENNER: And the Alpha Project runs the temporary winter shelter.
YOUNG: Right, with 220 beds. And I think he was saying he could do it with 1000 beds and if you spent that much more money, you would save that much more money in police or medical services or whatever. And, you know, I don’t know what the answers are but I’m just saying the City does not necessarily have the money to do that just because it would save money on the other end.
PENNER: But the interesting thing is that United Way actually hired a former city councilman, Brian Maienschein, and he was from District 5 I think, which really doesn’t seem to have much of a homeless problem out there. It’s out running down Highway 15. But he was hired to formulate a plan to end chronic homelessness. What headway has he made, do you know, JW?
AUGUST: Well, I – You know, I’m not even sure he’s with this group that’s looking at the possible options for the downtown shelter. I know there’s interested, you know, different investment groups that have an interest in it, involving – including citizens and politicians where they’re coming up with, I think, three choices for the downtown shelter. His involvement in that, I don’t know because all that stuff is being kept confidential. They all signed confidentiality agreements when they’re looking at this issue.
AUGUST: Because they’re afraid of the political backlash before they get it out the front door.
PENNER: Political backlash from whom?
AUGUST: Well, people – not in my neighborhood, the NIMBYs. The NIMBY so, you know, they’ll get – they’ve got to – In about three weeks, they’re going to be meeting, the Planning and Land Use Committee’s going to meet and we’re going to see what the plans are. We’re going to see these three ideas, three different contractors with their ideas to build the shelter.
PENNER: So it’ll be out in the open…
PENNER: … it’ll be transparent.
PENNER: Well, that’ll be refreshing.
AUGUST: Supposed to be, yes.
PENNER: Let’s hear from Mel in Hillcrest. Mel, you’re on with the editors. Welcome.
MEL (Caller, Hillcrest): Oh, thank you. I’d like to tell you my suggestion.
MEL: A solution for a permanent shelter. Namely, it is the retired Navy ships which are anchored north of here on the California coast and there are a great many of them. They do have beds that could sleep – have been used for sleeping sailors but they can just as well sleep the homeless. This eliminates the NIMBY problem, it eliminates the annual winter shelter problem. The ships would not cost us anything. The Navy would just give it to us. Now I think it would probably take an act of Congress to do this but I don’t see why we don’t try to have an act of Congress do this.
PENNER: Well, thank you, Mel. Barbara, well, what an…
PENNER: …what an issue for our Congress people.
BRY: …Mel, I love out of the box solutions. I’d also like to pose something – a contrarian view and I would appreciate – want to see if any of the listeners have a thought. There is a point of view that if you build a permanent shelter, you’re going to attract more homeless people to San Diego. Now Laguna Beach in Orange County is seeing this. You know, it’s a beach – a coastal community and they actually built a temporary shelter away from the – the homeless are on the beach during the day and then at night they are actually bused to a shelter that Laguna Beach has built. And they have attracted – they believe they’ve attracted more homeless because of this.
PENNER: So what are they doing about it?
BRY: They’re just dealing with it.
YOUNG: Well, they were recently sued, I think, over their treatment of the homeless.
BRY: And that’s why they had to build the shelter.
PENNER: Well, let’s not just dismiss what Mel said out of hand. What about bringing the Navy into all this and enlisting the aid of our Congressmen? Ricky.
YOUNG: It’s an interesting idea. It came up about six months ago that CCDC had actually had some preliminary discussions on this. I don’t know where they went. It’s certainly an interesting idea.
PENNER: Would it be isolating though? Would it really isolate these people on the Navy ships? I mean…
YOUNG: Well, maybe they could sail them around and make ports of call. I don’t – you know, I don’t know. I…
PENNER: We’re not going to deal with this with too much humor. Okay, let’s – let’s hear…
YOUNG: Well, I mean, it’s – it is somewhat – it seems like an absurd idea on its face.
YOUNG: I mean, and isolation is one of many issues you can see with it. I don’t mean to make light of it. I think we have a real problem that requires…
YOUNG: …a real solution.
AUGUST: And it does – I – Mr. Shapiro, I think it’s a pretty good idea but…
PENNER: You’ve identified Mel.
AUGUST: Oh, yes, I think that’s Mel Shapiro.
YOUNG: We all know that voice.
AUGUST: Yes, we do. But, you know what, you’re going to have NIMBYs on the bay, too. You’re not parking those boats down in South Bay, baby. So that’s – That doesn’t solve the problem.
PENNER: Okay, well, thank you for your comments on Mel’s idea and we have lots of other ideas, too, and we’ll get to them as soon as we return from our break. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.
PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. And at the roundtable today, we have JW August from 10News, from the San Diego Union-Tribune, Ricky Young, and Barbara Bry from SDNN.com. We’re talking about homelessness in San Diego, the fact that the temporary winter shelter is now closed. Let’s hope the weather stays milder than it now is, and whether there’s a push to get some kind of permanent shelter. But, of course, that will only shelter a few hundred at the most and we’re talking about thousands. So, Barbara, you mentioned earlier that there are two kinds of homelessness, that there’s the chronic homeless people who are impaired in some way, and then there’s the homelessness that comes from people who are down on their luck, especially with the recession and joblessness. When the economy recovers and jobs open up, do you expect that we’re going to see the homeless problem diminish…
PENNER: …and maybe become less visible.
BRY: Well, I think it’ll diminish but it’s still going to be an issue in San Diego, which, I think, attracts homeless people because of our climate. I mean, homeless people will migrate to a warmer climate, particularly during the winter. It was actually interesting to see a photo in the Union-Tribune of a man, I think his name was Hans Steinmetz, and he was going back to Germany.
PENNER: Yeah, I saw – that’s right.
BRY: So, you know, maybe he’d come here for the winter because it’s warmer than in Germany and, you know, lived in a homeless shelter.
PENNER: Okay, let’s go back to the phones. A lot of people want to talk to us. We’ll start with Mary in Coronado. Hi, Mary. You’re on with the editors.
MARY (Caller, Coronado): Hello, Gloria. Good morning, everybody.
PENNER: Good morning.
MARY: I wanted to endorse the conversation. Appreciate it very much. We, at San Diego Grantmakers, have an organization called Homelessness Working Group and it’s made up of philanthropic funders. We have supported the Corporation for Supportive Housing, endeavoring to create permanent supportive housing for the chronic homeless population, and also we’re working on a prevention program for episodic homeless to try to keep families, specifically, in their homes rather than have them get out on the streets and then have a more expensive treatment program. We also endorse the central receiving idea but we all – and we would add that the plan to end chronic homelessness contemplates central receiving in various regions in the county. This is a regional issue and citizens, businesses, government and service providers all need to join the conversation and…
PENNER: I’m going to jump in on that only because you’ve struck kind of a chord with something that I really wanted to get to and we’re running out of time. So thank you so much, Mary, for your call. And it’s true that the critics of the plan of putting up a permanent shelter in the city of San Diego say this is a regional or countywide problem and that the City of San Diego shouldn’t be shouldering the cost of providing social services and shelter which attracts homeless to downtown. So how does this argument hold up?
AUGUST: Well, Kevin Faulconer said—and it’s his district downtown—we’ve done our part, when are you going to do your part? And there – As you said earlier, there are 8,000 and they’re countywide, 4,000 in the core. And everything I’ve read or seen seems to say that what Mary mentioned, that you have a core building, a core center, for the servicing of this – or taking care of the issue and then you have outlying branches out into the community and put them in areas that are – that make sense strategically from where the population seems to gather or where you see more homeless, a higher homeless count. So you – it’s like a, you know, the main bank and the branches. That – And that seems to make sense, and then we all can share part of – all share part of the load and nobody can complain, oh, it’s just neighborhood that’s getting hit.
PENNER: Well, I think that that’s something that maybe Brian Maienschein should hear about since that’s what he is tasked to do, to end chronic homelessness by United Way. All right, at this point, we really need to wrap up this subject. I’m going to ask our listeners who’ve been waiting on the line to please go to KPBS.org on our website – slash – It’s KPBS.org/editors, and register your comment. We’d really like to hear it and read about it.