Voice of San Diego set out to identify the people driving the biggest civic discussions in San Diego over the past year.

Though many of the people who appear on this list do good work, inclusion is not an award or an honor. Rather, their appearance here is an acknowledgment of their role – for better or worse – in helping lead the most significant debates and discussions regarding San Diego and its future.

These folks come from different communities and backgrounds and represent different political ideologies, but most share something in common: They saw change on the horizon for their neighborhood or the city as a whole, and they stepped up to voice what they thought it should look like.

Voice of the Year: The Downtown Homeless

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

This year, the shanty towns throughout downtown San Diego became impossible to ignore.

More than 1,000 San Diegans live in tents on block after downtown block, cultivating settlements that are uncomfortably permanent and suggestive of the city’s abject failure to address a mushrooming tragedy.

The bright-colored tents are ubiquitous, especially near the nonprofits that serve the homeless in East Village. They’re increasingly prevalent under overpasses, near highway on-ramps, in riverbeds and canyons and in non-downtown neighborhoods, too.

There is but one bright spot in the crisis.

The destitution is too obvious for city’s leaders to ignore any longer. The tents may not have been meant to start a conversation but they have.

By one estimate, street homelessness downtown has spiked nearly 70 percent since the beginning of the year. Nearly 1,200 people now live on the streets downtown. In August it was nearly 1,400.

Finally people with the political sway to force a real response may be paying attention. Downtown business and tourism groups told the mayor last month the issue is hurting the tourism and the convention industry.

It’d be nice if compassion were enough, but at this point anything that causes leaders to look for money that would start getting people off the streets and into housing and treatment programs is welcome.

City leaders also learned this year that if they want to merely push the homeless out of sight, it won’t be so easy. The city tried to usher away some homeless residents by installing jagged rocks on the sidewalks underneath an overpass near downtown. Officials initially said it was a response to concerned neighbors in Sherman Heights; emails later showed it was in fact at the behest of Major League Baseball and the Padres, in preparation for the All-Star Game at Petco Park.

San Diego’s homeless aren’t driving this conversation merely by their presence. They’re raising their own voices, too, decrying the city’s encampment sweeps and increased enforcement that bars sidewalk tents.

And they voiced their fear when a serial killer preyed on them this summer, until his capture.

This was the year San Diego’s homeless forced the city to confront the nightmare they’ve learned to live with.

Perhaps next year will be the one where leaders get serious about finding, and funding, a solution.


Below is the rest of our Voice of the Year list. Think someone should have made the cut? Email Engagement Editor Kinsee Morlan to make the case. We’ll round up the most compelling cases for a follow-up post.

The Artists of Barrio Logan

Artists in Barrio Logan are leading a conversation about how their neighborhood should grow.

Cindy Barros

Cindy Barros, president of Lincoln High’s newly founded parent teacher organization, has taken a leading role rallying parents and advocating for students.

Beth Burns

The former San Diego State coach reminded us that gender discrimination is alive and well — and that challenging it can pay off.

Nicole Capretz

San Diego passed a landmark Climate Action Plan in 2015; in 2016, Nicole Capretz told the city that’s just a first step.

Chris Cate

City Councilman Chris Cate was perhaps the only local politician willing to jump full force into several contentious issues.

The El Cajon Protesters

In response to the demonstrators protesting the death of Alfred Olango, law enforcement officials did something they rarely seem to do — they changed their minds. 

Encinitas Residents Against Coastal Development

Encinitas residents are forcing their city to defy state law rather than accommodate a growing population.

Gary Gallegos and Ron Roberts

In crafting and selling Measure A, Gary Gallegos and Ron Roberts created the framework for the region’s transportation discussion.

Jacob McKean

Craft beer in San Diego is growing up, and Modern Times CEO Jacob McKean has spoken up about what that means.

Scott Peters

Regardless of whether you agree with his position on the stadium, it’s hard not to be swayed by Rep. Scott Peters’ argument that San Diego should broaden the scope of its ambitions.

Rob Quigley

Instead of asking San Diego whether it wanted a new stadium, or where, architect Rob Quigley posed a new question: What type of downtown do you want for your city?

Dean Spanos

Over the past 13 years, the names in city leadership have changed. The constant is Dean Spanos, and his desire to get a new stadium on his terms.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.