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More attention inevitably gets paid to homelessness in San Diego when the nights start getting colder. The city’s perennial winter tent shelter went up at 16th Street and Newton Avenue a few days before Thanksgiving. More than 200 people are now sleeping inside the tent every night.

But there’s something different in the air this winter.

That shelter, for one. A private company, UnitedHealthcare, wrote a $250,000 check toward operating the shelter this year. The city had already earmarked the money it usually spends on the tent toward building a long-awaited permanent, year-round shelter.

That shelter’s due to open downtown next month, with a mix of short-term and longer-term beds.

Consider other momentum: The new mayor, Bob Filner, put ending homelessness on his agenda for the city. Look what he said last month:

We’re going to look at the homeless literally directly in the face when I’m mayor. And say, this should not happen in the richest country in the history of the world. We’re going to look at it and deal with it. Frankly, I want to be the first city in the country that eliminates homelessness in our major cities. I think we can do it.

Todd Gloria, the city councilman whose district now includes downtown, thinks the problem can at least be eliminated downtown.

“I can now see a day when we have ended homelessness in downtown,” Gloria said last week. “I am committed to achieving this goal in the next four years.”

The push isn’t just Democrat-fueled. Business groups like the Downtown San Diego Partnership have been paying more attention to the number of people who live on San Diego streets. The Housing Commission, an agency that runs homelessness services at the city’s behest, has been issuing vouchers to house dozens of the most at-risk homeless people.

But amid the buzz, it can be hard to get your bearings. How many people in the county live on the streets? Is it really possible to end homelessness in downtown? Will that just make bigger problems elsewhere? What role does the county play? Does the city’s new shelter opening really eradicate the need for a winter tent, as it’s been politically postured? How well do the myriad homeless services nonprofits get along?

Homelessness in San Diego — and the increased attention it’s garnering — is an important part of San Diego culture and has a significant impact on quality of life here. It affects the San Diegans who don’t have homes and the businesses and residents who live alongside them.

One of the first stories I wrote for Voice of San Diego in 2006 covered the region’s new, robust plan to end chronic homelessness by 2012. We weren’t moving very quickly by 2009, and, obviously, we’re not there yet.

But this new wave of awareness is intriguing.

I’ll be your guide over the next several weeks as we catch up and discern what’s happening together, to better understand the scope of homelessness here and to evaluate where we’re going.

In some cases, we’ll be revisiting issues that have been reported before, by us and others. Voice of San Diego has written dozens of stories about people who are homeless here and the region’s and individual neighborhoods’ shifts in approach. Other media — San Diego CityBeat, notably, and others including KPBS and the U-T — report frequently on homelessness.

But it can be easy to get lost in the daily cycle, even for people who follow local news. And if you’ve never paid much attention, this will be a great place to start.

This is part of my hope to continue to broaden my work at Voice of San Diego, pursuing in-depth and explanatory reporting about how things work here, and what makes up San Diego’s culture, not just strictly its Arts with a capital A.

We found a sweet spot earlier this year with our popular Balboa Park series. I was trying to unravel stories to help us understand how the park became the way it is, and what that revealed about San Diego’s identity. Throughout that expedition — as with this one — we kept up our weekly arts and culture roundup, the Culture Report. And we will continue to host our arts and culture illumination events, Meeting of the Minds.

Now, let’s explore this facet of San Diego’s culture together. Join me on this quest. What do you want to know about homelessness here?

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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