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Roundtable Special Edition: San Diego's Homeless Crisis

Roundtable: How To Fix San Diego's Homeless Problem

How many homeless?

The annual point-in-time homeless count takes place Friday, and the results may be quite uncomfortable to hear.

The count, taken by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, aims to tally adults and youth who live on the streets as well as those in shelters, which include transitional housing, emergency shelters and safe havens.


In January, 2016, 8,692 persons were counted as homeless countywide, down slightly from 2015, according to the Regional Task Force.

Sounds like good news.

But there was a large increase in the number of homeless living on the streets and not in shelters. Countywide, the number in shelters decreased by 18 percent from 2015, while there was a 69 percent increase in those sleeping in tents or hand-built structures.

The City of San Diego experienced a 21 percent increase in street homelessness from 2015 to 2016, but an 8 percent drop in overall homelessness. No one will be surprised if this year’s numbers for those living on the streets of the City of San Diego are higher. The question is why.

Why the increase in 2016?


There are lots of theories.

Proposition 47 -- Some say 2014's Prop 47, which made some drug felonies misdemeanors, led to the release of tens of thousands of prisoners and gave authorities less power to press repeat offenders into treatment programs, is the culprit. The homeless population downtown has, indeed, doubled since its passage, but real evidence is lacking.

San Diego's weather -- This is a myth. Two-thirds of the county's homeless became so while living here. They did not move to San Diego because they became homeless, according to data from the Regional Task Force. But some agencies do see an increase in those moving here from elsewhere.

Lack of housing -– Rising rents and very low vacancy rates mean there is pretty much zero chance someone with a housing voucher will be able to use it, whether the voucher is for Section 8, rapid-rehousing or veteran's housing. And single-room occupancy units downtown have simply disappeared as the real estate market has heated up.

Mental illness/substance abuse -– Alcoholism, drugs, schizophrenia and multiple other intractable conditions keep people on the streets.

Who are the homeless?

The 2016 homeless count by the Regional Task Force tells the story.

Unsheltered (on the streets) countywide, in 2016:

Men 72%

Women 28%

White 60%

Black 19%

Hispanic 24%

25-54 59%

55-74 26%

Became homeless in 2016 50%

Chronically homeless 22%

Veterans 12%

Probation/parole 14%

Severe mental illness 14%

Substance abuse 8%

What can we do?

Federal statistics show street homelessness falling 32 percent nationwide from 2007 to 2015, but the number of homeless increased in San Diego County by 24 percent over the same period. Chronic homelessness nationally fell 30 percent and rose a whopping 77 percent here.

Non-profits like the Alpha Project, St. Vincent de Paul and the San Diego Rescue Mission do what they can. But the bulk of the $400 million the city and county have to spend on the problem goes toward prevention -- subsidies for low-income housing and mental health services.

Only, there isn’t much low-income housing.

San Diego has reluctantly adopted Housing First, a policy that puts the chronic homeless into subsidized housing with no strings attached. It is a necessary policy if a city is to get federal grants. Housing First saves municipal governments money overall, but not, apparently San Diego, with its patchwork of agencies and projects.

And our housing scarcity means that most available units are taken by the chronic homeless with little room for those who can't keep up with rising rents.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer addressed the issue again in his January State of the City speech. He said he will make homelessness a priority in 2017 by doing the following:

-Proposing a ballot measure to increase hotel taxes for expanding the convention center, street repairs and homeless services

-Creating a central intake center for the homeless

-Adding 300 more emergency beds in the city.


KPBS News: As San Diego Leaders Vow Action On Homelessness, Child Lives In Peril On The Streets

VOSD: Homelessness Is Exploding Downtown: What We Know (and Don't) About Why

SDUT: In failing the homeless, San Diego Stands apart

SDUT: In Response: Housing First

SDUT:: The Short Sightedness of 'Housing First' Solutions to Homelessness

Roundtable Special Edition: How To Fix San Diego's Homeless Crisis
Homelessness: On The Streets In San Diego GUESTS:Lisa Halverstadt, reporter, Voice of San Diego Susan Murphy, reporter, KPBS News Dan McSwain, business columnist, The San Diego Union-Tribune Alison St John, North County bureau, KPBS News

It's obvious to anyone who looks, but there are more people on the street than ever. It has grown into the sea of misery that we see in so many cities today. The chronically homeless. Senior citizens and veterans unsheltered and huddled on the streets. Today we look at how we got to this place and why it has been so hard to fix. To do enough to make a real lasting difference. The Roundtable special edition on homelessness starts now. > Welcome to our special edition on homelessness. Joining me at the Roundtable today, our reporter Susan Murphy. Telemark. Glad to be here. And Lisa, voice of Sandy -- San Diego. And, hello Dan. Thank you for having me. And Allison St. John. Hello. Good to be here. For decades leaders in San Diego and many other cities have struggled to find solutions to the tragedy of those relegated to living on the streets. Many of them are children. We are devoting our entire program today to explain the growing problem of homelessness in San Diego with reporters who covered this be how bad is the problem now? What's being done to help? What's worked and what hasn't worked here? And we are going to start our program with the extent of the problem itself. Which city and County officials admit is really growing. You have been out there. We all have. Tell us some characterizations about what you observed. Well, if you go down to the East Village you will see blocks lined with tents of people who live in those tents, they are mostly adults. Male and female, all types of demographics. They had street names. There's frescoes, Sasquatch, -- freckles, Sasquatch, and you can't pitch a tent unless you are accepted. If you go to the library will find the family room filled with mothers and children because there's not any other kind of day center so they sit there and they watch YouTube on their phones and play with the toys and read books until it's time to line up at the shelter. How do they coexist? You mentioned that there is a protocol? There has got to be crime out there, there's vulnerability. There is a lot of crime. There's drug deals, there's violence. Definitely all of the above. Now, shelters, what are those shelters like? How many do we have? How many folks are in them at a given time? Low-cost San Diego actually has fewer shelters and other communities. And, in fact our percentage of beds that are shelter beds is smaller than a lot of other communities. And, what we find in the shelters is that they tend to be pretty packed. There are long waits to get in. People wonder why they are on the side of the road in a tent where he or she may be in line for a shelter and may not be able to get in. And in North County there is a collaboration of organization that run shelters that for a few years up until recently they have been winter shelters and they had 138 beds. Now, those emergency shelters are increasingly turning into permanent year-round shelters because of the problem. And it's expanding to be permanent as opposed to something to just worry about in the winter And the police presence they are constantly engaged with folks there. There's crime ongoing. Obviously, the police have a role in that. But you can't arrest everybody. We can't put them in places and jails, we don't have the rooms in resources for that. How did the police interact. Just about every Monday, police roll up at 7 PM in the East Village and they do sweeps. All of the homeless have to pack up their tents, they vote up their carts and they push them over to the center to the patio which overflows with them. And then, the city comes in and they sweep up the streets and everything that left behind and when the police leave, they come back and they pitch their tents again. Later in the afternoon police will come back and they give out tickets for encroachment which is basically it's illegal to block a sidewalk at any time whether it is to sleep there or to pitch a tent. You can't block it with your cart. If you go down 17th and 16th, asks one of the homeless people there if they have a ticket and they will have two or three. So it's an ongoing problem. Homelessness is not a crime but one thing that I always emphasize is common elements are. So they talked about encroachment, illegal lodging, and usually police respond to those sorts of things when they have complaints. So even the sweeps, which are environmental services workers, coming and cleaning up, there's a lot of debris and other things associated with them living on the street. And some of them get frustrated with that and get frustrated if it's a business owner, somebody will temps out in front of your place. -- Caps out in front of your -- camps out in front of your place. They give them a warning but where is this person to go? That's a constant dilemma. There is not always a place for them to go. So the city does have settlements in place about how it is supposed to in horse but the bottom -- in force but the bottom line is, if there's a bed for that person to go to, they could be cited. So a lot of people are cited. And they are more lenient between 9 PM at night and 5:30 AM. But outside of those hours -- Yes. It's very visible downtown and they certainly know we are talking about. What about North County? Will people think that North County is more affluent. So they think that homelessness isn't so prevalent but at the last count which may be wildly outdated it was a year ago. And more than 200,000 people recorded. And in fact the people in coastal districts are the ones with they were increasing faster than anywhere else in San Diego. And I think that it's a little bit different because there aren't they centralized services so you don't congregate so much in one place. And also caught in some ways is worse for them because if it is what there is no word -- West -- wet there is no way -- nowhere for an emergency shelter. And we have had our share of misery this month. Yes. And I think that there's a lot more people who may be living in the fields or rural areas where people can hide out. But yes, the population is growing there and just as much as it is in downtown. In fact some of the homelessness that I've spoken to said that they have come from downtown because the lines downtown or so long they decided to try North County. I went to a neighborhood policing community meeting and South Oceanside a couple of months ago and the officer who gave the presentation and took questions from the crowd most of the questions were about homelessness about people camping out an abandoned lots, on the beach, and he said that just over the last couple of years calls to dispatch for homelessness is at least a third of the calls in Oceanside. He says it's pretty much all that he does. It's an endless game of work animals were Americans -- whack them where they can just go someplace else. They are very aware of court settlements. That says, you can't put someone in jail that she can't enforce laws that are on the books like vagrancy illegal camping even drug use. And I'm sensing a real morale problem among some of the ordinary patrol officers that I've talked to. And I've talked to 30 or 40 over the last six months. But it certainly has to have an impact Wolcott two years ago the people of California passed proposition 47. It took a lot of major felonies like Karen news, methamphetamine possession, grand theft, and under 1000 bucks. These are misdemeanors now. And, they could get a year into County jail but it's what caught -- but it is called site and release. So people who are spending time in a custodial situation, there on the streets. We had two things happen at once. Number one, if somebody is mentally ill because they are hopelessly addicted to alcohol or another serious drug an officer could get them into treatment program send them to jail and bounce them into treatment program. Prop 47 has reduce the penalty taken away that stand that drives a lot of people into publicly assisted treatment in the same time it has released tens of thousands of people from County jails in-state penitentiaries and without state lawmakers have broken their promise to increase halfway housing halfway house funding treatment transitional housing so a lot of these people end up on the streets. So it's interesting about that as well is that when you going ask, and I've done this, I've actually spent a couple of weeks at one point investigating what the heck is behind this huge increase. And, in talking to the experts, they really couldn't say for sure, I Pointing out to them of course, well you know you can see what's happened since this was approved in November 2014 versus the numbers that are downtown today. And they were just saying again and again, we need a more comprehensive study, we are really serving these specific people to know. And the data that we do have it doesn't show as many people being recently released from prison or track this specific sort of thing that we can draw direct line. And so some people are saying hey, we have to be setting the a lot more. And I feel like if we focus more and that population we forget about them having not committed any crime in those people saying that they might have these more chronic homeless who are the ones that you are describing. But right behind it, there's a huge bubble of families with kids are right on the edge. And homelessness really is just the canary in the coal mine. The whole bigger problem of the fact that housing is just not affordable. And copy will come back in a moment. And want to hear more about that. But, I wanted to talk about today, you are out there very early in the morning, give us your sense of that? This is an effort to determine how much funding they get to address homelessness. And they do it once a year. They did 4 January every year. And it's not of the scientific count by any means but it's the point and time count with the same day every year so, last are they found 8700 people they are not sure whether that number has gone up its seems that there is definitely a lot more people downtown in the East Village especially. They don't know people are migrating to that area because those resources but this morning I was out in the East Village and in some areas there 1700 volunteers scouring canyons and Riverside, and parks in neighborhoods. And in the East Village of course it's a matter of every step that you take and there's somebody stepping over people. How many people may be in this one. Because it so that Into getting an idea of how much things have increased downtown, just since January, the number of folks living on the streets downtown depending on which month you're counting, has either more than doubled or has even tripled. So there's been a significant increase but the latest point in time count that Susan was referring to is they found that countywide there was a 19% increase in Street homelessness, which is the homelessness that we see this is a lot of homelessness that we do not. -- The. -- The cash see. -- see. Other places are also experiencing this as well. The East Village has a hotbed of services so a lot of people go there. Dan, I want to turn to you. You wrote extensively very insightful stories about your own personal experience with homelessness alcoholism, you've been sober for a couple of decades you got your life back on track. But you come at this from a personal angle as a journalist? I do. Might editors asked me to look into the data because it's difficult. In one of the things I said, was you realize I was homeless and he said yes, that's right. And we really want you to do it. And, about 25 years ago I was technically homeless for a period of about three years. It was a mental health problem. And, mostly addiction but some other depression anxiety and some other things. But I went from being a successful small business owner at age 29 or 30 But I went from being a successful small business owner at age 29 or 32 spending three consecutive years either in jail, a halfway house, rehabilitation and brief periods living in abandoned buildings. And you credited certain individuals who stepped in and help you turn your life around? Yes. My recovery took years. Several years. It was extremely resource intensive. I lived with a group home. I went through there three times my last time was 13 months. There was a police officer name Sergeant. Greene who made it his mission to put me in jail if my behavior didn't change. He spent a lot of time on me. And, volunteers, courts, most people with my disease don't recover. It was extremely labor and resources. And its unusual as you say. Is, do you think of your personal experience that the policy that has changed at the national level with housing first with the idea that you give someone a home and they are more likely to recover? And, do you think that that's realistic? Well, data is overwhelming. It helps quite a bit. And, we have all talked about the different categories of homeless peers It's talk about that. And we will be able to take a look at that. And, just in the broadbrush here, all of the numbers for the radio audience. And, it can be all ages as we said earlier, tell us about some of the folks. Well, nationwide we always tell people about the 80 1010 formula. Nationwide, 80% of the homeless people at any given time, are very very briefly. And, the service, the nonprofit, it works very well. Somebody who is leaving an abusive situation. And, they are homeless for a few weeks, maybe a month or two, and you don't ever see them again. They are back on their feet. And then there are 10% that are intermittent. And they tried to do that like I did. And, then the last 10% are the last folks that I have been focused on. And, they are the chronically unsheltered homeless. Those are the people by who are definition who are physically disabled. And, they have been living on the street or outdoors for a year. And, over four years, these are the hard-core homeless people. A lot of them are never going to get better. You can't put them in a tough love rehab program. They are just going to leave. They want to bring the dog, they want to bring their girlfriend or boyfriend. And, with those folks, this housing first model has been extremely affect if it says, we have to deal with them anyway. It's enormously expensive to call the paramedic every time they get sick cycling through the emergency room put them in jail. And feed them in a feeding program. The frequent-flier syndrome. They are extremely expensive and every city who has done this successfully has seen a enormous taxpayer. And they have a small apartment and put them in there and make services available. At some -- it's interesting for those staff that we have gathered 50% of people became homeless in 2016 is what the folks are telling us in San Diego. So these stats that they are talking about nationally best Yes, one thing that I like to point out, is San Diego has really relied on this point in time count to make its policies about homelessness. So, more recently there have been some regional efforts to try to coalesce all of that together. So they have been inputting information about their clients into the regional database and using that database in more recent time so a researcher from STS you, and they have been starting to analyze this. And, what they found was the last fiscal year which I believe would've ended in October or September, about 17,000 people had full test cycle through which really speaks with what he's talking about. And, of that, about 49% of those people were new entries. And that significant and it does speak to this flow. But what we also saw in that is what about the other half of those people? What's happening to them? What services are going into them? I kind of add to what was Dan -- to what Dan was saying. We have had some results. Not as dramatic as other communities. And we really -- for a very long time, they are good at producing transitional housing which is programs where you get the services first, you are in temporary housing and then at the end copy tried to connect you with permanent housing. And there are very big plans at that. But for this chronic population the data that we have suggests that another tool works better. So in terms of looking at the issue of housing first and decreases in homeless not being any significant, a lot of people are looking at this mix of programs with San Diego and saying, we have got some changes to make. So, there's a lot of system change happening in this region. And, that is also contributing. This sets up a clip, we have from San Diego where Kevin Faulkner on his state of the city address and then also, the regional task force, let's hear that. Solving homelessness is complicated. Because, it's often a symptom of much deeper problems. Tackling homelessness means tackling mental illness. It means tackling addiction, it means tackling poverty. It means tackling some of the most vexing and deeply personal issues that a person will ever face. Finally, we are going to know in real time which beds are available each night. The city is partnering with the information system to establish a 24 seven hotline in the next few months that will make this information available to the public especially, those who need shelter. And I want to pick up on what he said there just a second. We have one other bite. This is the regional task force on homelessness. What the plan will include is very specific actionable steps for our community. And, increasing the stock a permanent support in housing for example, you know do I feel that it will get worse before it gets better? It may. I think that's the problem. Everybody tries to struggle with this. There's not enough stock of terminal affordable housing -- primitive affordable housing. So, it's a good model and that may work for folks. But if you're focusing on the chronic folks. And covers a whole backlog of people waiting behind to second-tier priority you may be easier in fact a house. But you have to get that permanent affordable housing. Yes. And I think a lot of these people have been lost in the pipeline. Nobody knows who they are. They are not taking their medications. There's a lot of disabled. They say that they had noticed this big increase. A lot of people are on disability insurance which is about $900 a month and it not enough for housing or rent. And the voucher system is out there. And, they do that. And, we are as a community putting out a lot more vouchers. Housing vouchers are about 70% of someone's rent and then they put in 30%. So we have a community with more vouchers going out especially for veterans, they will start to be more folks countywide -- there will start to be more folks countywide. But the challenge is whether it is a section A, or veterans voucher, it is hard to find a place that works. So what we are finding with multiple different initiatives underway is that people are taking a really long time to find a place to live. And I do want to also talk about -- Just like ordinary renters. And, I also want to add some context to the plans that we're talking about. And, there are a couple of different things that have been discussed. And you have a group that was once called the regional continuum of care Council. And they will say, are triple C. But this is the group that has long time to allow federal money for homelessness. And, in more recent times there has been an effort to try to beef up the group and make it more of a regional leader to address homelessness and provide oversight. That has now been merged with the regional task force on homelessness. One of the big issues that San Diego has had is that they didn't have a lot of oversight, did have a lot of leadership and there's not a lot of accountability. And we have a short time left, is that a hopeful note? Of what they are working on is a three-year plan to be released by this summer. And we also have the mayor talking about separate plans and the question is to all of these plans lineup because if they don't it just speaks to the coordinator. At the risk of reading on the parade, it is a zero sum game. Two years ago there were 15,000 rental vouchers. This year there's 15,000 vouchers and 60,000 people on the waiting list. Unfortunately we have to leave it there. This will not be the last time that we have with the great reporting going forward. Thank you all. That does wrap up our special issue. And, I'd like to think my guest Susan Murphy of KPBS news. And, then mix Lane of the union Tribune and a reminder the stories that we discussed today are all available on our website. Thank you for joining us today the Roundtable.