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Homelessness is surging in Oceanside.

Oceanside now has the county’s second-largest homeless population. At the same time, downtown Oceanside is undergoing a rapid revitalization and the city’s facing an acute rise in housing prices and rents and a major deficit in affordable housing. The city also doesn’t have a year-round homeless shelter.

In this year’s annual homeless census, Oceanside’s unsheltered population more than doubled – from  158 people in 2015 to 392 in 2016.

Oceanside police have likewise seen a 150 percent increase in calls that included the words “homeless” or “transient” in the past few years – from 1,508 calls in 2011 to 3,771 in 2015. The spike in calls led the police department to form a two-person Homeless Outreach Team to help find homeless people housing.

The number of homelessness-related code enforcement violations for illegally living in cars and illegal camping have also been on the rise.

Bread of Life Rescue Mission, a winter shelter in Oceanside, estimates it had to turn away about 25 percent more potential clients this winter than a year earlier. Bread of Life is working to try to keep its doors open year-round but needs cash and a permit to make that happen.

Organizations that work to combat homelessness in Oceanside laud city officials for their efforts to address the issue, but the city faces big challenges.

Renters in traditionally lower-income neighborhoods are struggling to hold onto their homes and when they lose them, the odds are against them successfully finding a new place to live.

“We’re not going to solve homelessness without solving housing,” said Margery Pierce, director of the city’s Neighborhood Services Department, which deals with housing and homelessness issues.

The availability of vacant apartments in Oceanside dropped significantly in the past year – and is considerably lower than both the county average and even the North County average.

Just 1.6 percent of all rental units in Oceanside were vacant this spring. One year ago, it was 4.3 percent. Throughout San Diego County, 4.5 percent of units were available at any given time.

In such a competitive market, landlords are less likely to take housing vouchers or difficult tenants, like the chronically homeless, who sometimes struggle with mental illness, substance abuse or disabilities. Some vouchers require special inspections and other added bureaucracy, which can leave units vacant for some time, costing the landlord money.

Even the lucky families who make it off the several thousand-person waiting list to receive a housing voucher or the individuals on the street who get vouchers through the new HOT team have trouble finding a place.

Of the people in Oceanside who receive new vouchers, 35 to 40 percent can’t find an apartment within the 120-day window, said Angie Hanifin, Oceanside’s housing program manager. When they can’t find an apartment, they lose their vouchers and the aid goes to the next person on the list.

Steve Bassett, Bread of Life’s executive director, said he often encourages clients to seek housing in Fallbrook or unincorporated areas rather than Oceanside, where it’s more challenging to find an open door.

“We need more low-income housing or some alternatives,” said Bassett.

In 2011, hoping to spur development, the city slashed the fee it charges developers if they don’t include low-income units in their residential projects. That set the city back in providing low-income housing.

In May 2015, the City Council reversed course and increased the developer fee. A proposed 328-home development, Villa Storia, opted to include 38 low-income units rather than pay the fee, but it will be years before those additional apartments materialize.

Right now, all the city’s affordable housing funds are going toward a 288-unit, low-income complex east of I-5 called Mission Cove. The city purchased the land for low-income housing, intending to use the state’s redevelopment program, which helped cities rebuild rundown areas. But that program ended before the project broke ground, leaving the city to scrounge money together for the project.

Oceanside officials acknowledge that the city’s homeless population is growing. Plenty of data shows it and they’ve taken steps – including the creation of the HOT team – in the past couple of years to address it.

But officials say a mistake in the annual homeless census and an increased focus on the problem exaggerated the size of the spike shown in the past year.

The city increasingly knows where to look to find its homeless residents, and during this year’s point-in-time count, had more folks willing to help find them.

Pierce said that this year volunteers went into places like the San Luis Rey riverbed during the count, where volunteers previously hadn’t gone, counting people who’d long been living in those areas but who hadn’t been captured by the census.

Pierce also points to one census tract as a reason for the sharp increase – where many homeless and low-income Oceanside residents go to nonprofit Brother Benno’s for food and other resources. Last year, volunteers counted only 24 individuals in the area. This year, they counted 174 people.

She says it’s likely that people who weren’t actually homeless were mistakenly included in the count.

But even if you take that one region entirely out of this year and last year’s count, street homelessness would be up 38 percent – twice the county’s average increase.

Officer Lonny Harper has been working on the city’s new HOT team for a little more than a year.

Harper’s job has essentially been that of a social worker, he said – helping homeless people make it to appointments, taking them to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get IDs, helping connect them with landlords and, in some cases, even acting as their case manager to ensure a landlord will accept them.

Harper said he thinks homelessness in Oceanside is likely on the rise largely because of newly homeless families and seniors, who have recently been tossed from their apartments as rents have spiked. Many of them, he said, won’t be counted through methods like the point-in-time count because they’re couch-surfing or living in their cars.

The increase in calls about the chronically homeless – who often suffer from mental illness, substance abuse or disabilities – is more a result of the increase in businesses downtown, he said.

“I’ve lived in Oceanside for 20 years,” Harper said. “I believe if we had a perfect number and a perfect picture of homelessness between today and 20 years ago, the homeless problem has probably grown – and ebbed and flowed – with the city.”

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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