Ending Chronic Homelessness In San Diego
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April 2, 2010 – What's the latest on plans to build a permanent shelter for the homeless in downtown San Diego? And, what are the economic arguments for building a permanent shelter? We speak to Brian Maienschein, with the United Way of San Diego County.
Related story: Ending Chronic Homelessness In San Diego
GLORIA PENNER (Host): On Wednesday, the City of San Diego closed its temporary winter shelter despite the predicted rainstorm. It will stay shuttered at least through next winter. What's next for San Diego's homeless population? Bob McElroy is with the Alpha Project, which operates the shelter. BOB McELROY (Alpha Project): I keep hearing over and over again through some of the debate that I hear back and forth about this year-round facility. The year-round facility, as I see it, is only looking at about 300, 350 people. And you know, being in this year-round facility, we have 220 here and the vets have another 150, so there's 370. And you can see the streets are still lined with homeless people. So if people think that's the panacea that's going to solve the problem, they are sorely mistaken. PENNER: A year-round facility certainly won't be enough to house and service the growing number of people now homeless in San Diego. KPBS reporter Alison St John gives us more of the details about the population tagged as homeless. Alright, Alison, how many people in San Diego are homeless and where do they live now? ALISON ST JOHN (Reporter): Well according to the latest count in January by the regional task force for the homeless, the count is well over 8,000. It could be 8,500. That's up from, like, 7,900 at the count last year. And the thing about that is about three out of five of them are men, which means two out of five are women. So there's a lot more women out there, some of them with children. They're living all over the place. A lot of the chronically homeless – and we should make the distinction between the chronically homeless, which is only about 2,000 of that 8,000. A lot of them live downtown where the services are. But they're living all over. They're living under bridges; a lot of them are living in their cars. One of the main reasons for homelessness among families is domestic violence, so there's a number living in domestic violence shelters. However, the funding for those has been cut recently so that's another problem. PENNER: When you double up with another family, for example, are you considered homeless? ST JOHN: Well, the people that are doubling up are sort of flying under the radar because the regional task force does not measure them as homeless. But the school district does say if you are living with somebody else, doubling up in other words, you are classified as homeless. So that's a whole other area that isn't being counted in those figures. PENNER: Alright, so now we know generally where they live and who they are. What kinds of services does the City of San Diego provide for the homeless? ST JOHN: Well the city in the past has come up with some money to provide shelter for women and children, but even that now it's pulled back and it's really shrinking its resources. In the winter emergency shelter program they just have this one tent we saw Bob McElroy talking about, the 220 beds that that provides. And then there's the veterans' shelter tent, which is in the Midway, which houses about another 150. And then in the North County there's a network of shelters run by various different social service agencies. And they're more for the transitionally homeless – not so much the chronically homeless people – who have sworn off drugs and whom they hope can eventually get back on their feet. PENNER: So from those people you've spoken to, what's missing from the services that San Diego provides? ST JOHN: Well, I think what the feeling is, is what is needed is like a central intake – a place where people who are on the streets can go and be sort of triaged. Not necessarily housed because that's not the only thing they need. There's also food, even legal services. There are a lot of other things that people who are on the streets need, so there's a need I think for a center where people can go and get access to services. At the moment that's all very disparate. A lot of disparate organizations are all trying to keep up with the growing number of people who need these services. PENNER: Obviously cost is a huge factor, but what other barriers are there to providing these services? ST JOHN: Well cost is what's keeping the city from really sort of taking a step forward. But the other big one of course is location. Right now there's a little bit of negotiation – there's been a lot of negotiation about where to put this place for actually years it's true to say. And even now, the deadline that was supposed to be just this month has been missed. We still don't know which of a couple of different projects that are under consideration are going to be chosen. And it's partly because of the politics of where are you going to put these things. PENNER: Well you talked about the North County network, and we've sort of been focusing on the City of San Diego. But what's the role of the county government in providing help for the homeless? ST JOHN: The county is responsible for providing health and human services for the indigents. That's one of its mandates. But it always argues that it is not responsible for providing the bricks and mortar – the actual shelter for people who are homeless. So their argument is we will provide services, but we won't contribute to the emergency shelter or the permanent shelter programs. And I think many of the city politicians feel like that is them reneging on their responsibility and passing it off to cities. PENNER: Well thank you very much, Alison St John. ST JOHN: My pleasure. PENNER: To get a fuller picture of what the homeless need, we spoke with Neil Raymond Rico, one of San Diego's residents without a home. NEIL RAYMOND RICO (Homeless San Diegan): A permanent shelter should serve as a springboard – a transitional house where people can transition out to permanent housing. Homeless people in this city need affordable, permanent housing. They don't need tents, they don't need sleeping bags, they don't need peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, water and bananas. We're grateful those things come and we're grateful for the Christian groups that come and help us, but what we need is permanent housing. And it's good business sense. You get people off the street. PENNER: Joining me now to talk about the costs of caring for the homeless, and the idea of building a permanent shelter downtown is Brian Maienschein, the United Way of San Diego County's Commissioner of the Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, and a former San Diego City Councilmember. Welcome back to the studio, Brian. BRIAN MAIENSCHEIN (United Way of San Diego): It's great to be back, Gloria. PENNER: So what is this role as Commissioner of the Plan to End Chronic Homelessness? MAIENSCHEIN: Well what we want to do is we want to put a permanent end to chronic homelessness. Not temporary solutions, but permanent solutions that reduce the amount of homelessness in our city and our county. PENNER: What would it take to do that? What kinds of services is San Diego missing? MAIENSCHEIN: The most important piece of the puzzle is permanent supportive housing. I mean, ultimately that's what it takes. It takes housing. And actually, believe it or not, it's more expensive to do nothing than to come in and provide housing and services. PENNER: Because? MAIENSCHEIN: Because to do nothing it is actually very expensive. The chronic homeless person – who you may see out on the corner as you're driving in to work or going back home – is somebody who very likely has been to the emergency room 50 or 60 times during the year, may have interactions with law enforcement, may use or very likely use ambulances frequently. That adds up really quickly to be very expensive. PENNER: And the taxpayer pays for it. MAIENSCHEIN: And the taxpayer pays for it. PENNER: Ok, so where are we in this conversation about building supportive shelter for the homeless? MAIENSCHEIN: Well there's a lot that's going on. Obviously, we all are aware of the controversy that goes with the temporary shelter every year. PENNER: Yes. MAIENSCHEIN: Which I think is one more reason why we need to make sure we get a permanent shelter so we're not talking about a temporary shelter every year. And steps are being taken to make sure – as you've done a great job of covering – to make sure that the permanent shelter, that process proceeds. At the same time, there needs to be permanent supportive housing throughout the rest of the community to provide enough… what are essentially studio apartment types for the homeless population. Not just within the City of San Diego, but within the county too. PENNER: Well it sounds like there's a cost to this. I mean you talked about the cost of not providing something. What's the cost of providing these kinds of shelters and where would the money come from? MAIENSCHEIN: Well that's a great question. At the end of the day it all comes down to money, right? But typically, the cost of a unit per year is typically around $30,000. And if you look at how much some of these individuals are costing us the taxpayer during the year – maybe $300,000 or $400,000. So from a cost standpoint, it's actually cheaper to get involved, to provide the housing, to provide the services. There are some great organizations in the community that are doing it, but there really needs to be more. PENNER: Not the city council? The city council should not be involved at all? Because you sat on the city council for years and there was really no movement there. MAIENSCHEIN: Well the city has done some things well, probably some things they could have done more of. Obviously the county needs to get involved, and frankly too, Gloria, the state and the federal government need to get involved. The amount of money it's going to cost for some of the housing really is going to take the federal government to step in and provide some money. So one reason why it takes a long time to solve it is it is so complicated, it does take the city, the county, the state, and the federal government working together and cooperating. PENNER: There's been a great deal of criticism about the political will to really move this thing off the ground, to get it moving. Do you sense that this political will is changing, becoming stronger? MAIENSCHEIN: I do. I do think the political will is becoming stronger, and I think it's for a couple reasons. One is I think maybe in the past there was a lot of thought that homeless people are kind of just them. And now because of what we've seen with the national economy, what we've seen in the State of California with unemployment, I think there's a sense the people have that, you know what, I may not be so far away from that. I'm a lot closer to maybe that person than I thought I was. And so I think that's going to help start change the dynamic. And as you said, you know, this is something that's affecting families; it's affecting women at a growing percentage. So this is something I think that really reaches out and grabs people. PENNER: It is certainly a moral issue. But even more, I won't even say more; equally it is an economic issue. Do you want to change the issue so that people can sort of grab on to this economic discussion? MAIENSCHEIN: I do, Gloria. And that's really been what I've been pushing is. I think there is a moral and ethical component to it, but I really think the economic argument is perhaps even greater. And one of the things that I've worked on in my role is getting out there and talking about what the economics are of this. In an era where we're talking about closing down libraries and we're closing down parks, and we're seeing general services to the public decline at a pretty rapid rate, I think a good way to actually keep those parks open, to keep those libraries open, is to do something about the homeless issue. So to sit back and think that by ignoring it, it will somehow go away is just not true. PENNER: Where is the council on this permanent shelter discussion? MAIENSCHEIN: Well, an RFP went out. There was a committee that reviewed it, and apparently has made a recommendation. It's going to come to a city council committee in April, and then after that hopefully at some point soon it'll go to the full council. PENNER: Yes or no, do you think it'll get through? MAIENSCHEIN: I do. I do think it will get through at the end of the day, and I think it'd be a real positive step. PENNER: Well we'll see. Thank you very much, Brian Maienschein. MAIENSCHEIN: Thank you, Gloria. It's always good to be with you.