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As street homelessness spikes countywide, Chula Vista seems to be experiencing a different trend – likely fueled by policy changes.
The annual point-in-time count results announced late last month revealed the South Bay city saw a 31 percent year-over-year decrease in the number of folks living on the street or in cars and tents.
The decrease follows a change in how Chula Vista polices oversized vehicles parked in the city, and the creation of a new police team focused on homelessness.
Both Chula Vista and neighboring National City implemented oversized vehicle ordinances last year requiring permits to park RVs, trailers or other large vehicles on city streets. Both saw decreases in vehicle homelessness while the rest of the region saw a slight increase.
Other cities, including San Diego, already had measures on the books.
“One of the reasons that the number of homelessness in Chula Vista may have dropped is we passed an ordinance prohibiting the parking of recreational vehicles on city streets last year,” Chula Vista Mayor Salas said at a press conference last month. “We try to do things differently.”
Indeed, this year’s homeless census revealed the number of folks counted living in vehicles in Chula Vista fell by a third from 2016 to 2017. National City, which passed a similar ordinance, saw an even more dramatic 66 percent decrease.
Salas and Chula Vista housing manager Leilani Hines both said they’ve noticed a drastic reduction in large RVs parked on city streets since their city’s new rules went into effect last May.
Since then, police report they’ve written more than 460 citations for violations of the parking ordinance.
This year, volunteers with the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, the group that conducts the census, counted 30 fewer vehicles housing homeless people.
A larger figure was included in public reports. Each year, the task force interviews dozens of homeless people and uses information from those who live in cars to calculate a multiplier to estimate the average number of those staying in cars.
This year’s multiplier was 1.66, slightly lower than last year’s.
Using that math, the task force calculated 174 homeless Chula Vistans were sleeping in cars the night of the count, compared with 251 last year.
Yet advocates warn that decrease doesn’t necessarily represent a smaller homelessness problem.
What it could show, activist Michael McConnell said, is that homeless people felt forced to move elsewhere.
“I think the most important thing to remember is homeless people don’t disappear. They don’t just, ‘Poof, I’m gone,’” McConnell said. “They move on.”
He argued cities should take a unified, regional approach to addressing homelessness rather than introducing sometimes contradictory rules and policies that can complicate homeless residents’ efforts to get off the street.
Salas stood by the ordinance in an interview last week. She said it wasn’t aimed at pushing out the homeless but rather at addressing safety and blight.
“We have to weigh the impact to the neighborhoods that these vehicles park in and what that means to the quality of life to the neighbors that live there,” Salas said. “That’s the tension that we’re always dealing with.”
There’s reason to believe Chula Vista’s reduction in vehicle homelessness might have been even more dramatic than the numbers show. Until last fall, nonprofit Dreams for Change operated a Chula Vista safe haven for folks who live in their cars. Dozens parked there each night to avoid potential tickets or safety risks elsewhere. The Dreams for Change lot shut down last year.
Kelsey Kaline, who coordinated this year’s point-in-time count for the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, said the Dreams for Change lot’s occupancy wasn’t recorded in the 2016 homeless census. It’s not clear why. In 2015, volunteers counted 47 cars in the census tract that included the Dreams for Change lot.
Vehicle homelessness wasn’t the only driver of Chula Vista’s decrease in homelessness.
Task force data showed a 44 percent drop in people counted on the street this year.
At the same time, census-takers noted the number of people on the street more than tripled in neighboring National City.
That could speak to homeless people moving across city lines.
Armando Vergara, National City’s director of neighborhood services, believes an influx of people from other areas, particularly downtown San Diego, helped drive up National City’s numbers this year.
“You see that they’re getting pushed a little from other parts of San Diego,” Vergara said. “They’re trying to survive. They’re trying to find a place.”
Chula Vista officials prefer to focus on what happened within their boundaries. They emphasize the creation of a new police team to help homeless people in the city.
Since last year, the team has regularly conducted outreach with the hope of moving people off the street.
Chula Vista Police Lt. Henry Martin, who supervises the homeless outreach team, said they’ve worked with a county mental health clinician and others in the community to connect nearly two dozen homeless people with help since the team officially began work last August.
Martin stressed the team’s goal has been getting folks off the street rather than on enforcement.
“That’s going to be our last resort so we can hopefully provide them with any other opportunity to help themselves,” Martin said.
National City, meanwhile, has hired nonprofit Alpha Project to offer help too.