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Roundtable: The current state of homelessness in San Diego

 September 23, 2022 at 10:53 AM PDT

S1: San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria has made homelessness his top priority. How have the city efforts to combat the issue gone so far , and what more needs to be done ? I met Hoffman and that's our focus This Week on KPBS Roundtable. Homelessness has been a major focus of Mayor Todd Gloria's administration throughout his time in office. Here he is speaking at his State of the City address back in January.

S2: No one will be surprised. What's highest on San Diego's list of worries is our homelessness crisis. It's what residents across our city talk to me about more than any other issue by far , and it remains my highest priority.

S1: Some eight months later , millions more are being invested. New shelters are opening , and officials are hoping that recent changes to state law will help change the approach to the homelessness crisis. But questions still remain about the viability of some of the city's efforts. With a local basketball legend , Bill Walton , even offering his own critique here. Joining us this week are Lisa Halberstadt. She's a senior investigative reporter with Voice of San Diego. Cody Delaney is here. He's an investigative reporter with a news source. And Gary Warth from the San Diego Union-Tribune joins us. I want to thank you all so much for being here. You all cover homelessness the most in San Diego. Lisa , there's a lot of news surrounding homelessness in San Diego this last week or so. We'll get to some of that in just a minute.

S3: I would say generally that people living on the street are more dejected and housed , people who are walking by them , seeing them on the sidewalks , in canyons. They're disappointed with the state of affairs. Two deaths of people on the street are rising. We're seeing more people that seem to have serious health conditions on the street , more seniors , more young people that seem to have substance abuse challenges. It's really a tough state of affairs right now.


S4: And we have different types of shelter beds. So they are expanding outreach. They are expanding shelter beds. They recently even opened the first shelter just for seniors. But at the same time , there's also the same enforcement that their doctor was criticized for. You know , there are crackdowns on the many encampments that are downtown and people are they get displaced and they just move on to another place. So there's a lot of criticism of what people refer to as the criminalization of homelessness. And at the other hand , there are people like Bill Walton who are criticizing the mayor for not doing enough , saying that this is out of control. We have to reclaim our parks and our sidewalks. So it's a tough position for any city leader to be on that has to deal with this because they are going to get it from from both sides. But , you know , I don't hear anything different from Mayor Gloria than I heard from Mayor Faulkner as far as what they say their commitment to homelessness is. Mayor Faulconer often said it was the number one thing that he's focused on and Gloria says the same thing.

S1: And you mentioned some of the things that the mayor is doing , and we're going to get to that in just a minute. But you also talked about downtown. And according to the Downtown San Diego Partnership , the downtown area reached a new high last month in terms of its homeless population.

S4: I don't really know why. So but there's more people throughout San Diego County that are homeless. Then there's a large encampment on Commercial Street. National doesn't look quite as bad as as it was , so they've had some aggressive enforcement there. So seeing them clean out some areas and then people , I think pop up and in other areas. Why are there a lot downtown ? Well , you know , there's always been a lot downtown. But , you know , this year's count showed lakeside population doubled since 2020 and alcohol rose by 69%. And they just opened up parking safe parking lot there on Caltrans property. Chula Vista shut down a park because it was a large homeless encampment there. Pacific Beach recently opened a nonprofit to help homeless oceanside's , opening up a new shelter this year as plans to open up their first safe parking lot. Escondido has always been serving homeless people. So , you know , I don't hear any cities saying they solved homelessness. It's it's all over the county.


S3: But that's really an undercount. And I think we're seeing lots of evidence that we don't necessarily have all the. Data four that more people are becoming homeless during this economic crisis that we're facing as we're coming out of COVID. On September 30th , there's a no fault eviction moratorium in the city that I know a lot of folks are concerned could lead to increased homelessness. So we have evidence that there are more people on the street. I was talking to an outreach worker the other week who works downtown , and he told me that he's noticing a lot of new people downtown. So even after this increased enforcement is Gary was talking about there are new people that are coming in and replacing the others who've left. And so , you know , I think it's really important for us as a community to study this more , understand who's becoming homeless.

S1: And Cody , we know that you've covered this quite a bit. Can you tell us about what your reporting found out about the city's efforts around what they call progressive enforcement ? Yeah.

S2: Mayor Gloria has pushed San Diego police to use laws that target unhoused people , such as blocking a sidewalk or sleeping where it's not allowed , but to enforce these kinds of laws. Courts have ruled that police officers must first offer a shelter bed. And that's the progressive enforcement model allows police to ticket and arrest people who are violating these laws and refusing to go to a homeless shelter. And in San Diego , someone has to refuse shelter during four separate police encounters before they can be arrested. And we've seen a dramatic increase in arrests since the start of the pandemic.

S1: And , you know , some of your reporting suggests that while this system may be in place , that there seems to be like a disconnect between the police and the city attorney's office.

S2: The San Diego City Attorney's Office is responsible for handling misdemeanors committed in the city limits. And that's what many of these laws are that generally target unhoused people. My colleagues and I found that ever since the start of the pandemic , the city attorney's office has rejected two out of every three of these cases of those that the office has pursued. Every single one has ended in dismissal. And that's often because we found through our reporting that the city attorney handling the cases asked for it to be dismissed or agreed with the motion to dismiss. But what I find really interesting is that no one is really willing to talk about this disconnect. The mayor and the city attorney both declined an interview and their spokespeople didn't really answer questions about it.

S1: Well , it sounds like there definitely is something going on there. And we know that immediate shelter is a priority for city officials and they've been expanding their bed space this month. Gary , you touched on this a little bit earlier , but another sprung tent shelter has opened and this one's in the Midway District.

S4: This shelter is has 150 beds. In December , they opened up another one. They're both run by the Alpha Project. And and that one centered on Pier one imports building. That's next to the sports arena. I think it has 50 beds. That's called a harm reduction shelter. And they both have a similar focus. The new 150 bed shelter is on county property , and that's right next to the county psychiatric hospital. And they're going to have onsite psychiatric care or mental health care and addiction care. Another new thing about that is that it's going to be open for intakes 24 hours. So that's different and probably a very needed approach , considering that some people get discharged from hospitals who are homeless and they're have no place to go. So it could be a first step of trying to get people who need a place to be in the middle of the night into some kind of shelter. So , you know , that's that's part of the expansion outside the core. Also , when the county offered a $2 million grant for any city that wanted to open up a type of shelter , the city of San Diego got $1,000,000 for a new safe parking lot that is going to be in the Rose Canyon area. So that's another example of it being expanded beyond the downtown core. And of course , other cities are responding like National City and Oceanside. Both have shelters that they're sending. A rescue mission is going to run. I was with Danny yesterday , the head of rescue mission , and he mentioned plans to open one in East County also , which he hasn't announced yet. But on the other hand , you know , this county had offered $10 million for any city that wanted to have some help , opening up some kind of new shelter. It could be any type of shelter. I don't know about how long that Rose Canyon parking lot was in the works , but this day in Oceanside , they were already planning on opening that. So it didn't spark any new shelter. It just gave them assistance for their own city budgets to be able to get some financial help opening something that they were going to do anyway. And Nathan Fletcher said he's pretty disappointed because he was hoping that , you know , they would get requests for $30 million that they couldn't even meet. And instead they got requests for 5 million and they still have $5 million left. So they're going to have to open up another round to see if anyone will come forward and open up the shelter. So , you know , it's encouraging that there is more cities that are looking at providing some kind of help for people on the street. And at the same time , that was discouraging to see that you pulled out $10 million for help and few people came forward.

S1: You're listening to KPBS Roundtable. I'm your host , Matt Hoffman. And our guests this week are Lisa Halberstadt from Voice of San Diego. I knew sources Cody Delaney and Gary Warth from the San Diego Union-Tribune. You know , when we talk about shelter beds in the city of San Diego , many of those are congregate spaces where residents live in like bunk beds with others. But a 34 bed hotel has now been purchased , and it's going to be the city's newest shelter , and it's going to be aimed toward seniors. Cody , you've covered the county shelter program that involves hotels.

S2: The county's hotel shelter program began in the early days of COVID 19 , when officials were focused on stopping the spread. The county used some hotels to isolate people with COVID and other hotels to temporarily house folks with underlying medical conditions. That program has since come to an end. But these two approaches by the city and county are similar in that they both temporarily offer private rooms in case management to some of the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness in San Diego.

S1: And with these additions , the city now has more than 1500 shelter beds. But officials , including the mayor , acknowledged that it's not enough to meet the need. And , Lisa , we know that this week the mayor's office , they updated the city council on their homelessness response. And it sounds like more shelter beds are coming along. Yes.

S3: Yes. And one thing I definitely want to say at the top is that , yes , the city has added new beds and I think currently were at about 1700 , but there's often not much room at the end. And there actually are , contrary to popular belief , a lot of people who do want to get into a shelter , though they may have specifications about what type of shelter they'd like to be in. So this week there was a big city council meeting where they discussed their homelessness response in the city and there was discussion about adding almost 250 more shelter beds this fall , including the hotel shelter that you were discussing before. The city's 2019 homelessness plan , though , called for about 2200 total shelter beds. That was before COVID. And so the city's really targeting to try to get to that number , to put all of that into context. I think it's important to understand. So earlier I was talking about the point in time count and the unsheltered point in time count from the beginning of the year , which again is a minimum count. So the numbers have probably gone up , was nearly 2500 people living on our streets throughout the city. So the city is now working to update this homelessness plan to try to be able to better serve the number of folks on the street. But even with 2200 shelter beds , which seems like a lot. Right , that is not going to be enough to fully shelter everyone that's on our street. Even if everybody said today , I raised my hand and I want to go into a shelter bed. So there's a lot of work underway to try to add more shelter beds , but there is a lot of work to do.

S1: And , you know , when we talk about these new shelters , there are questions about their long term sustainability. Here's what James Carter , the city's deputy director for homelessness strategies and Solutions , had to say during that special city council meeting earlier this week.

S2: The city's homelessness efforts are largely dependent on one time block grants , namely state funds , which have been the main source of funding for the past three years.

S1: Now , Gary , this goes to you. And Lisa , feel free to jump in here , too.

S4: But. When you're saying that this is a priority and that this has to be done , I'm kind of confident they're going to find the money and they're not going to just pull the plug. And also , the state and federal government are both making a lot of money available for communities and encouraging them to apply for them. So I don't think that we have to rely just on what's in the general fund right now , although it could be one time funding , but it could be one time funding over and over again. So I just I just can't see them just pulling the plug on on their shelter program because they've run out of money.

S3: Well , and I would note Mayor Gloria has really been rallying and Mayor Faulconer before him to , you know , have the state continue to provide these block grants that James Carter was talking about. So there's a lot of pressure on state legislature legislators and Governor Newsom , too , to keep that funding going. But I think what this exposes is the fact that the city does not have an ongoing permanent source of funding for homelessness. And this has come up many times over the years. There's been discussion about how other communities with some , you know , level of success or not , have passed bond measures to fund housing for for homeless individuals or measures that fund services. Interestingly , the other day , Measure C came up , which is something that I think a lot of us haven't thought about in a while. So to kind of refresh everybody's memory , back in 2020 , right before COVID , there was a vote on a hotel tax measure that would increase hotel taxes to pay for a convention center expansion , road repairs and homeless services. But it didn't get the required generally required two thirds vote. And so there's been a court battle playing out because it was a very close vote. It was just under two thirds. And so a lot of city boosters and other supporters have been and the city council has supported a continued fight for these funds. So the other day at this council discussion where they're talking about , you know , funding options and , you know , the sort of cliff that's coming up there were starting to be discussions about Measure C again. And that's so that's still to be determined. San Diego could potentially , with a favorable court ruling , have a permanent source of funding for homelessness. But that's still very much to be determined. And certainly I would expect Mayor Gloria and others to continue to try to push the state very hard to keep this state money flowing.

S1: And we know that hotel rooms and shelters , they solve an immediate need. But what about long term ? Here's what San Diego City Council president Shawn Ella Rivera had to say during that special city council meeting this week.

S2: What I would hope to see over the next several years is a transition away from shelter. Both congregate and on congregate toward permanent housing. That , I think , is the goal that we should be shooting for. There is an uncomfortable reality that we have to wrestle with when it comes to homelessness , and that is that we could eliminate all homelessness on the street , have everyone sheltered and not have solved a single person's homelessness.


S4: In fact , the city's shuttle program is called Bridge Shelter Program , and that means it is intended to be a bridge between the street and housing , and we just need more housing. I think what he's getting at is that shelters are not a solution , a long term solution to end homelessness. They're a temporary solution. They're they're a way to get people off the street. But nobody wants to think that that's that's the end point. That's that's a way to get people in a safer environment , to talk to housing navigators , to talk to people about the issues that they're facing , to maybe get into a a longer term program. I recently did a story on some researchers who did a book titled Homelessness Is a Housing Problem. I think that was that was the name of it. And they looked at housing prices around the nation and per capita homelessness and found out that some cities that had very low incomes , you know , constant living kind of in impoverished cities like Detroit , they actually had a smaller per capita homeless population. And other cities that have higher cost of living have a higher per capita homeless population. And what they're pointing out is like , well , yes , people on the streets that have mental illness problems , definitely people on the street that have substance abuse problems. If you solved all those problems , they would still be homeless. Because there's no place for them to live.

S3: And I think , you know , to really to really address this , the city has to take advantage of opportunities that come up. So , for example , the governor has his project , Homekey program to , you know , really give a shot in the arm to adding more permanent supportive housing in the state. I've written about this and the fact that in the most recent funding application process , San Diego had 61 million essentially set aside for it. San Diego ended up applying for 12 million of that. So really to to make a significant debt in this city has to really go for opportunities. I know the mayor certainly talks about he's got a bridge to home program. He's talking about reforms to try to make it easier to build low income and middle class housing. You know , he's talking about making the most of developments. But , you know , again , I just come back to it's just so important. And I think there's a lot of discussion about this right now going for the opportunities that present themselves and trying to make the most of them.

S1: But some , like county supervisor Nathan Fletcher , have said that this will only be for a select few , not for everyone on the streets. And this one can go for. Gary , Lisa , Cody , jump in to.

S3: I think it's really crucial to note that this program is pretty narrowly focused on people with psychotic disorders , and it doesn't cover people who who have a substance use disorder or depression or some sort of lower level mental health challenge as their main diagnosis. And I think a lot of times , while , you know , the unhoused people who are talking to themselves or seem out of touch with reality are the most seemingly visible members of our unhoused population. They're not the majority of the population. And this initiative also is not just focused on homeless individuals. I've had a lot of conversations with families who would like to see their family members get access to care , who are hoping that maybe , you know , that this could help others who've been in their situation. I think it's also really important to note that there's a lot of work to do to make care court a success. I just published a story this past week about the fact that there's a deficit of long term care options that's really clogging the behavioral health system and has been for years. And the county has a lot of work to do to add beds to ensure that there are places for people in need to go and at the right levels of care. So , you know , I would say certainly also care court is a very controversial method to try to connect people with care , but it's not clear how many people would actually qualify right now , I think. And how would the process work ? I think the devil's going to be in the details here.

S4: Well , one of the things that would do for families is families could petition to have a family member who they think should be on a conservatorship to go before a judge while right now , it takes law enforcement to do that. And Governor Newsom , during his press conference , when you propose this , he noted that only 218 people had were subjected to Lawrence Law last year. So Laura's Law is what's on the books now to try to get people into conservatorship. And it's so few people and maybe , maybe a few more people will be mandated into getting some kind of help. And I have also talked to family members who are heartbroken because their loved ones are not a threat to themselves or others , but they're delusional and living on the street. But they are not considered grossly disabled. So they can care for themselves , but they need help. And and that's heartbreaking to to talk to them. And I think the you know , the starfish analogy , where there is a million starfish on the beach and a guy is throwing a few back into the ocean , and somebody says , well , you can't save all these. And it's like , what difference does it make any ? So is another one. And it goes a it made a difference to that one , though , that , you know , maybe it could make a difference , too , to some people who are dealing with this , but we don't know what the numbers are. You know , it's like we we don't know how impactful it will be. But I definitely hear this is a heartbreaking issue with a lot of people that I talked to and they just want. Something done , you know , some kind of steps toward helping the people that they can't reach now with the way that the system works.

S1: And we're going to have to end it there. I want to thank you all so much. It was a great discussion on this week's KPBS roundtable. Lisa Halberstadt , Cody Delaney and Gary Warth. Be sure to stream our show any time as a podcast. KPBS Roundtable is produced by Andrew Bracken. Rebecca Chacon is our technical director and I'm your host , Matt Hoffman. Thanks so much for listening. We'll be back with you all next week.

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A man riding his bike through a homeless encampment in downtown San Diego, May 31, 2022.
Carlos Castillo
A man riding his bike through a homeless encampment in downtown San Diego, May 31, 2022.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria has made homelessness his top priority but despite the city’s efforts, the downtown homeless population reached a new high in August.

KPBS Roundtable host Matt Hoffman hosts a discussion on the state of homelessness in San Diego, as the city opens new shelters and continues its policy of “progressive enforcement.”
Guests include reporters Lisa Halverstadt from Voice of San Diego, Cody Dulaney from inewsource, and Gary Warth from The San Diego Union-Tribune, who cover homelessness in the region.