San Diego City Council Declares Emergency Over Lack Of Homeless Shelter Space

Monday, October 2, 2017
By City News Service
Photo by Susan Murphy / KPBS
Above: The San Diego City Council meets, Dec. 5, 2016.

An emergency declaration over a lack of shelter space, which has exacerbated a deadly outbreak of hepatitis A among San Diego's homeless population, was approved Monday by the City Council.

The council action was taken on an 8-0 vote even though Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who supported the declaration, said all of the affordable shelter beds haven't been filled. Councilman Chris Cate was absent.

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The declaration strengthens an earlier version that was already in place.

"This is a really important policy tool that will allow us to be able to look at the reasonable suspension of regulatory statutes, regulations and ordinances that otherwise are providing a barrier for us to get services, programs and facilities up and running faster, said Councilman Chris Ward, who chairs the council's Select Committee on Homelessness.

The City Attorney's office said an updated declaration will also provide legal protections to certain projects meant to alleviate homelessness.

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The declaration comes amid an outbreak of hepatitis A, which has had a heavy impact on the homeless. County health officials said 461 people have become ill and 17 have died in the second-largest outbreak in the U.S. since a vaccine became available 22 years ago.

Councilman David Alvarez proposed the declaration last month, calling for immediate action because of the fatalities. Since then, city officials have been washing and disinfecting streets and began a pilot program to keep 14 public restrooms in Balboa Park open 24 hours a day. Additionally, the county has set up around 40 hand-washing stations — concentrated in areas where the homeless congregate.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer told the council members that homelessness was the No. 1 social service issue in the city.

"It's up to us throughout the county — particularly here in the city — to step up our efforts, which we have in cleaning sidewalks, offering shelter to individuals as an alternative to sleeping on our streets," Faulconer said. "I would also note that our existing shelters are still not at full capacity."

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He said safe camping zones, where the homeless can set up tents, should be open in a matter of days.

"We are all in this together, and the eyes of the nation are upon us," Faulconer said. "We are the last line of defense for many of our most vulnerable men and women."

In January's annual tally of the area's transient population, 5,619 homeless individuals were counted in the city of San Diego, a 10.3 percent increase from last year. Of those, 3,231 were living on the streets.