Most policy conversations about homelessness in San Diego focus on long-term solutions. Yet, the challenge is pressing right now.
After all, one count of street homelessness downtown last month showed a 36 percent spike from April to May alone.
Voice of San Diego and Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, a nonprofit focused on civic and planning issues, teamed on Thursday to press leaders focused on reducing homelessness to talk about solutions that could be tried sooner rather than later.
The ideas and reactions offered by City Councilman Todd Gloria, Piedad Garcia of the County’s Health and Human Services Agency, Alpha Project COO Amy Gonyeau and advocate Michael McConnell were revealing.
Even in the debate over short-term solutions, concerns about whether those might pull resources away from long-term efforts played out repeatedly.
Here’s a look at four potential solutions discussed – and some of the complexities and disagreements that come with them.
A New Shelter
Gonyeau of the Alpha Project believes more shelter beds are necessary to aid the booming homeless population downtown.
She pitched the idea of a 500-bed central intake facility, where those now living on the streets could get connected with case managers and get ready for permanent housing.
Gonyeau is a big proponent of the housing first model, which aims to quickly place the homeless in permanent housing. But San Diego’s still working to build its stock of affordable and permanent supportive housing, and relationships with landlords who will rent to them.
“Until we get the inventory, until we get all this figured out, we need somewhere for them to go,” Gonyeau said. “We need somewhere for them to go to start working on the issues of why they’re homeless.”
Gloria and McConnell were skeptical.
Gloria doubled down on the idea that the region must focus its resources on permanent housing instead of more temporary solutions.
“(Shelters are) the emergency room of our system and we have to get them into more permanent, stable situations,” said Gloria, who chairs a regional group charged with overseeing local efforts to end homelessness.
McConnell argued San Diego could get a bigger bang for its buck by lowering barriers to its current shelter beds, repurposing its roughly 3,000 temporary beds and investing in more permanent housing.
Gonyeau said she agrees permanent housing is ideal but said the changes McConnell advocated won’t happen overnight.
“When you’re on the street, and you’re homeless, how are we going to address the housing first model right now because the inventory’s not there,” Gonyeau said.
Self-Governing Tent Cities
Garcia, deputy director for the county’s Behavioral Health Services division, had a bold idea: Large camps run by the homeless that can serve as hubs for homeless outreach workers to regularly visit.
Garcia said she learned of the concept during a recent housing conference in Sacramento. Homeless folks from Santa Rosa County created camps of 25 to 30 people and pets on vacant lots. Garcia said they paid $1,800 a month for a security person and garbage pickup. They also had a portable bathroom.
“(This would) that require a lot of will, a lot of political will and a lot of soul and a lot of heart to do something that’s maybe really different and maybe challenging, but do you have them on 16th Street or on 17th Street or do you have people in a place where they can get the resources they need to be able to move on?” she said.
Only McConnell directly addressed the idea.
“Tent cities are a failure of our system, so I’m not for legalizing encampments or tent cities,” McConnell said. “I think that’s an admission of defeat, but what I am for is making sure that people who are having to try to survive on our streets have some basic needs met.”
Activist Martha Sullivan said she supported the concept, which dovetails with a recent push Sullivan and others have made to supply tiny homes for the homeless. She disagreed that the focus should only be on permanent housing options.
“Having somewhat supported small camps for people, (with) communal bonds that they develop on the street, let them have those and let them be in a sort of supported camp with portable bathroom and maybe a shower and a place where they can lock a door,” she said.
Turn Old Motels Into Housing
Building permanent housing for the homeless takes years.
Garcia suggested another approach other cities are trying to more quickly build up supply: “Turning dilapidated motels and dilapidated homes and incentivizing the owners and the landlords to sell and therefore, create studios or shared housing.”
Los Angeles recently got major kudos for its plan to rehab 500 motel and hospital units and offer them to homeless veterans.
The San Diego Housing Commission’s already taken at least one step in this direction. The commission recently used federal money to restore downtown’s Hotel Churchill. The commission expects to welcome 72 homeless San Diegans this summer.
Later, Stephen Russell of the San Diego Housing Federation noted the dramatic loss of single-room occupancy hotels downtown has likely worsened San Diego’s homeless problem.
More Incentives for Landlords and Subsidies for Renters
Nonprofits and government agencies can’t end homelessness on their own. They’ll need many assists from landlords countywide willing to take a chance and rent to homeless folks who may have past evictions, criminal histories or other challenges.
Garcia, deputy director for the county’s Behavioral Health Services division, believes more incentives for them could be a game changer. She’s now at the front lines of this challenge as the county ramps up its Project One for All initiative, which aims to aid and house about 1,250 homeless folks countywide who have serious mental illnesses.
“There’s still a lot of stigma and discrimination associated with people who have a serious mental illness,” she said.
The county’s plan includes deal-sweeteners for landlords. So does the city’s quest to house 1,000 veterans by next March.
Garcia believes more rental assistance for the homeless could also make a big difference. For example, Garcia said, homeless folks with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder often receive only paltry Social Security income.
“It is very small compared to what we probably all make here, about $900 or so a month, and so if you look at the cost of a studio or a one-bedroom apartment you need between $1,000 and $1,300 a month,” Garcia said. “So somebody has to supplement that difference so the individual person continues to be housed.”