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When the winter tents came down for what was supposed to be the last time nearly two years ago, I celebrated along with other homeless advocates. Our days of warehousing people in tents instead of real homes had come to an end!
I made lofty statements about never seeing “those things” again. After all, we’re America’s Finest City – ready to move forward with effective, evidence-based solutions to end homelessness, right? Apparently not.
The fact is, our city is not ready for real solutions. Despite the well-intentioned rhetoric from Mayor Kevin Faulconer, old-school homeless service providers here continue to dig in their heels and stick to methods that focus on transitional, or short-term housing and interventions. Shifting toward a housing-first model has proven much more difficult than everyone thought.
Now we find ourselves in the midst of a deadly hepatitis A outbreak – 18 people dead, and over 480 infected. In response, a city-sanctioned homeless encampment recently opened near Balboa Park. The mayor assures us the encampment will be short-lived – once the three proposed industrial tents are opened later this year.
So, how did we get here – again?
In the early morning of March 7, 2016, I documented one of many homeless encampment sweeps. Hundreds of people living on the streets downtown were forced to remove their belongings or have them thrown away, right before a widely forecasted El Niño thunderstorm blew into the area.
A policy masked as an effort to clean up the streets downtown, the ongoing sweeps have displaced the people who live there, taken away their only possessions and concentrated the unsanitary conditions that helped lead up to the hepatitis A outbreak. They failed to sanitize the areas once they were cleared, and zero effort was made to install trash cans or increase access to bathrooms, hand-washing stations and storage facilities.
What’s worse, in some cases, bathrooms were removed or locked because of issues with homeless people using them.
All the street washing and bathroom installations that are happening now as a reaction to the hepatitis A outbreak should have been the city’s focus all along. The street sweeps simply pushed our homeless population into concentrated, neglected areas in the East Village and Barrio Logan, and cleared the way for a perfect storm for the quick spread of hep A.
About a month after the El Niño sweep, I broke the news about jagged and dangerous rocks being installed to remove homeless people from an area adjacent to Petco Park. In the months following, it was confirmed that the main focus of this unwarranted anti-homeless tactic was to “clean” the streets in preparation for the upcoming MLB All-Star Game, and the arrival of Comic-Con shortly thereafter.
As a result of these inhumane tactics, homeless people were further pushed to the outskirts of downtown into increasingly crowded, unlivable and unsanitary conditions.
As I continued watching and documenting the sweeps, police enforcement increased. There was a rise in citations – often resulting in stay-away orders – and inconsistent police and city policies caused chaos and confusion on the streets.
Homeless people didn’t know where they could or could not go, and when they asked, they were often met with no real solutions. Many were put in jail – at the expense of taxpayers – and money was wasted on Band-Aid solutions that could have gone toward successful evidenced-based practices, such as permanent supportive housing.
And so two years after the removal of the temporary winter tents, the mayor and city are once again reinstalling them, as a string of bad press piles up – highlighting the initial lackluster response to the hepatitis A outbreak, inhumane sweeps and ineffective enforcement policies. Given the city’s track record, this approach, not surprisingly, flies in the face of guidance from experts, who recommend moving homeless people into permanent housing, rather than temporary encampments and shelters.
Our mayor has said these are extraordinary times that require extraordinary actions. I couldn’t agree more. As much as I believe shelter installations serve as a Band-Aid at best, I understand that they are needed at this point as a result of our failure to provide real solutions.
This time, however, I hope the mayor and city reflect on how we ended up here again, listen to expert advice and change their ineffective policies, so we can finally get off this deadly merry-go-round.
Michael McConnell is a San Diego businessman who runs the Homelessness News San Diego Facebook page and has been active in local initiatives to address homelessness.