Nearly six months ago, Mayor Kevin Faulconer promised to take swift action to help San Diego’s growing homeless population.
“We must make reducing homelessness our region’s No. 1 social service priority,” Faulconer said during a January State of the City address where he spent significant time talking up solutions.
Months later, many of the mayor’s most high-profile promises to address the problem have stalled.
City Council Democrats rejected Faulconer’s bid for a November vote on hotel-tax hike that would have given the city more cash to address homelessness. The search for a site for hundreds of temporary shelter beds has dragged on. Advocates and even some of the mayor’s supporters have questioned both the status and the efficacy of the temporary beds and a plan to build an intake facility to link homeless people with services. Others question whether the mayor has an overarching strategy to address the problem. The abrupt departure of the staffer Faulconer hired to help coordinate the city’s response to the exploding problem only added to that concern.
Yet Faulconer argues he’s spending more time, money and political capital on homelessness than any other mayor in years. His office provided a laundry list of mostly incremental actions it’s taken this year, from this week’s city-supported expansion of a downtown business group’s program to reconnect up to 400 homeless people with their families to behind-the-scenes efforts to secure more storage space for people living on the streets and lower the barriers to entry at city shelters. A proposal with the city attorney’s office to purchase a South Bay hotel for a transitional housing program for homeless repeat offenders also got the go-ahead from a City Council committee this week, and Faulconer recently announced a slate of proposed reforms meant to urge more housing development.
Faulconer says he’s trying to be strategic. He wants to ensure the new shelter beds and additional initiatives he’s pushing come to fruition, unlike the hotel-tax hike he unsuccessfully pushed this year. Faulconer said he expects to have big announcements in July and that he’s now in the process of securing the support to make them happen.
“I wish you could snap your fingers and make things happen overnight,” Faulconer said. “It’s important to do it the right way. It’s important to get buy-in.”
Many residents, business owners and advocates are skeptical – and tired of waiting. They’re demanding a dramatic response to a problem that’s grown dramatically. They can’t ignore the city’s 18 percent spike in street homelessness and the 31 percent increase since Faulconer became mayor in 2014. They’re troubled by the suffering they see on the streets and a Hepatitis A outbreak that’s largely affected the region’s homeless population, hospitalizing dozens and killing three within city limits.
“He doesn’t seem to have a plan,” said Martha Ranson of Catholic Charities, who has for years overseen the agency’s efforts to aid homeless women. “I don’t know whether he’s got some thinking and he’s not revealing anything or he really just doesn’t have a plan.”
Faulconer is adamant he’s got a strategy that includes both long-term and short-term tacks and is talking with regional leaders to ensure his efforts are coordinated with theirs. He said he’s hoping his proposed ballot measure will move forward next November and noted that he’s already committed to allocate $12.5 million to the new intake center, sunk $4 million into a program to house homeless veterans and plans to spend even more on temporary shelter beds and storage space.
“One of the things I’ve continued to stress is let’s move forward and let’s move forward now,” Faulconer said. “That’s why the Council’s decision to put off funding for homelessness was so disappointing, but we’re not gonna stop. We’re gonna keep pushing for it.”
But he’s talked about the urgent need for solutions for months.
A group of powerful business leaders led by restaurateur Dan Shea and Padres managing partner Peter Seidler who have for months communicated with city staffers about potential temporary shelter locations grew so frustrated with the pace of that search that they’ve started floating a familiar solution again: tents filled with shelter beds.
“It is my personal opinion that the city has no desire to allow any current empty or underutilized asset to be used as a potential solution, which is why we pivoted to the sprung structures,” Shea wrote in an email.
Shea said business leaders would likely be willing to write checks to help make that concept a reality “when municipal government decides that they actually need to do something about this human tragedy.”
Shea believes tents in strategic locations throughout the city could quickly get 2,250 off San Diego streets. Shea and Seidler met with Faulconer on Wednesday. Seidler came away cautiously hopeful. Shea remained skeptical.
A spokesman for City Councilman Chris Ward, who represents downtown, said earlier this week that Ward also hadn’t received updates from the mayor months after the councilman also proposed the city consider vacant city buildings and properties that could house the homeless.
The politics of homelessness have likely contributed to Faulconer’s slow progress on arguably the most overwhelming problem he faces as mayor.
There’s rampant disagreement about the right response to homelessness, a fact that tests a mayor who prefers to follow consensus rather than blaze a controversial trail.
Calls for hundreds of new shelter beds and the intake facility clash with advocates who urge a singular focus on permanent housing.
One of those advocates pushing for a greater focus on permanent solutions is Tom Theisen, former board president of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, the countywide group that aims to coordinate the region’s response to homelessness.
Theisen’s not impressed with Faulconer’s commitments – or steps he’s already taken.
“The mayor seems to seek policy by consensus. But there is no San Diego consensus as to how to address homelessness,” Theisen said. “Instead of being a leader who promotes strategies that work in other cities, he’s expanding San Diego’s traditional programs, such as intake centers, shelters and criminalizing homelessness. These programs are well-intentioned, but won’t lead us to the homeless reduction that other cities have seen.”
Adding more shelter beds, Theisen said, will only emphasize the fact that there are no permanent affordable places for people to go once they leave a shelter.
Then there’s that fact that even the possibility that the old Central Library could become a temporary shelter inspired downtown leaders, including longtime Faulconer ally Kris Michell of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, to call a press conference to denounce the idea.
Another challenge for Faulconer: San Diego’s homeless problem is far from static. Data from the Regional Task Force on the Homeless shows homeless-serving agencies in the city moved more than 4,000 people into permanent housing last year. During that same period, thousands ended up homeless.
That’s one of many reasons Faulconer’s most high-profile efforts up to this point haven’t gotten the results he’d hoped.
City Council Democrats rejected a bid to put the mayor’s tax hike on the ballot this November, raising a number of concerns including that the measure wouldn’t provide enough cash to address the problem in a meaningful way. Faulconer’s measure was primarily aimed at raising money for a Convention Center expansion. Measures in other cities that focused on affordable housing raised far more than the $10 million annually Faulconer’s measure expected to raise to fight homelessness, Council Democrats noted.
More than a year after the launch of an initiative to house 1,000 veterans over 12 months, the city still needs homes for about 200 to meet that goal. Homelessness has also grown most dramatically in the blocks surrounding the city’s year-round shelter at Father Joe’s Villages. The mayor was among the foremost champions of a shift to the year-round approach over winter tents.
All this has contributed to the dissatisfaction with the mayor, even as local leaders and advocates talk up growing momentum toward a more regional solution to homelessness.
“There’s not a good story coming out of City Hall from the mayor’s office,” said Bob Link, who serves on the boards of multiple downtown groups and volunteers at a day center for homeless San Diegans. “I think the frustration has compounded.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this post said the mayor’s stalled ballot measure proposal would bring in $10 million to fight homelessness. That is the annual amount it was projected to bring in.