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Roundtable Special Edition: San Diego’s Homeless Crisis

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

We're sorry. This audio clip is no longer available. A transcript has been made available.


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Roundtable is a lively discussion of the week's top stories. Local journalists join host Mark Sauer to provide insight into how these stories affect residents of the San Diego region.

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