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The latest annual homeless census revealed two seemingly contradictory trends: Street homelessness is up countywide and surging downtown, yet fewer people are sleeping in shelters.
Those data points shed light on a major problem for San Diego’s homeless-serving system to address: Many folks living on the street – particularly those who have been there for years – are choosing to stay in tents and makeshift structures instead of shelters.
The numbers released by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless on Thursday showed a 14 percent year-over-year increase in street homelessness countywide and an even more acute 27 percent spike in downtown San Diego. At the same time, the group reported a 6 percent decrease in those who slept in shelters the night of the January census.
Many of San Diego’s most vulnerable homeless people either have concerns with shelters or have another reason keeping them from moving in.
This isn’t a new problem.
Here’s a five-year look at unsheltered homelessness in San Diego County.
The number of folks staying in shelter has gone down the past couple years while street homelessness has gone up.
More of those on the streets are staying in tents. This year alone, the task force reported a 58 percent countywide spike in tents and other hand-built structures.
The task force decided this January to ask the more than 1,300 unsheltered San Diegans they surveyed what services they were using.
Here’s what they shared.
Note the large shares of people seeking free meals or health care.
And then note the much smaller percentage checking into emergency shelter – and the 16 percent who told surveyors they weren’t using any services.
Task force volunteers asked those living on the street this question: What is preventing you from staying in a shelter?
Here’s an overall breakdown of their answers.
Many of these responses are familiar to homeless outreach workers. I’ve heard them, too.
Many homeless folks develop bonds with pets or friends they make living on the streets and don’t want to abandon them. Many imagine packed shelters and fear they could be molested or robbed. Many also detest the curfews, smoking bans and other rules they might encounter in a shelter. Then there are the wait lists.
Last year, two of the region’s largest shelter operators told me clients could wait weeks to get in.
Dolores Diaz, executive director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, said some people described overcrowding, the inability to bring all their belongings into the shelter and confusion about how to check in, among other barriers.
National experts urge communities like San Diego to do whatever they can to address those fears. They emphasize the need to cater services to those who need them to ensure the most people are actually served even as some local power players push for more legal authority to compel folks to get help.
Matthew Doherty, who leads the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told me last year that San Diego and other regions with large unsheltered populations should focus on easing the burden on those who need help.
Doherty and others advocate that folks most resistant to shelter should be moved quickly into permanent housing, something San Diego’s struggled to do.
Rules and requirements can be especially overwhelming to folks who’ve been on the streets for years.
“We should be trying to help people exactly as they are,” said Doherty, whose agency coordinates the federal response to homelessness.
San Diego’s chronically homeless population – which includes folks who are disabled and have been homeless for at least a year or experienced multiple stints of homelessness in a single year – rose 61 percent this year.
Lowering the barriers to entry into services has been a hallmark of dramatic success stories in other communities, including Houston, which saw a 75 percent drop in street homelessness over five years.
That city has focused resources on serving those labeled most resistant to help and catered their programs to their needs.
San Diego nonprofits including Father Joe’s Villages, the region’s largest shelter provider, have taken steps to make their programs more accessible.
But Thursday’s data dump showed there’s more to be done.
Stacie Spector, Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s special adviser for housing solutions, appealed for change at a Thursday task force meeting.
The group needs to push for more low-barrier shelter options or to lessen the strings attached to those that already exist, she said.
“The truth of the matter is we need to make it easier,” Spector said.