The fact that there won’t be any measures on the November ballot to address San Diego’s homelessness crisis is only the latest struggle in what may be the defining issue of Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s tenure.
He lost his latest round of the fight earlier this month when the City Council rebuffed his last-ditch effort to place a Convention Center expansion measure on the ballot that would have also pulled in cash for homelessness, leaving the mayor without the new money he’s argued is needed to make a bigger dent in the problem.
In the first years of his tenure as mayor, Faulconer was hands-off on the issue – a reluctance even he has admitted prevented major steps forward as homelessness exploded on his watch. The deadly 2017 hepatitis A outbreak forced his hand, and in the months since the crisis hit, Faulconer has hustled to show he’s taking dramatic action.
He’s opened three shelter tents. The city bought a shuttered indoor skydiving facility it plans to turn into a navigation center where homeless clients can be connected with help. And for the second time in two years, he pushed a ballot measure that would include funding for homeless services.
Yet most of his efforts haven’t gone as planned despite a dramatic shift in focus and spending.
The tents have fallen far short of city goals to move homeless San Diegans into permanent housing. The navigation center purchase spurred a slew of questions. The ballot measure won’t go before voters this November.
The flurry of activity and some of the ensuing struggles have turned the old criticism of Faulconer’s record on homelessness on its head: Long accused of being overly cautious on the issue, advocates now worry Faulconer is making rapid-fire decisions that seem divorced from a larger strategy.
Faulconer and his team say he remains committed to making a difference, and that he’s spending more time on homelessness than on any other cause.
Faulconer’s team points to the hundreds of people now sleeping each night in shelter tents or in safe parking lots who might otherwise be forced on the street. They also note the mayor’s efforts – including recent success at the state level – to push for more funding to serve homeless San Diegans and growing homeless populations elsewhere in the state.
“We’re helping people, and that’s what’s most important,” Faulconer spokesman Greg Block said.
There have been successes along the way, though even those haven’t come without controversy.
Faulconer expanded safe parking lots for homeless San Diegans, a move that’s drawn largely positive reviews. A new storage center in Sherman Heights has drawn fewer complaints than expected since its opening. A controversial, city-backed Downtown San Diego Partnership program to bus homeless San Diegans elsewhere so they can reunite with their families has outperformed expectations, though the group can’t confirm all its clients have remained housed.
Yet residents across the city aren’t noticing a dramatic decrease in street homelessness despite the annual homeless census’s report of a 19 percent drop in the city, and increasing housing costs have left many on the brink. Dramatic impact will require broad change and collaboration among government agencies and nonprofit organizations across the county, entities that Faulconer can encourage but not force to make adjustments.
Faulconer has another two years to try to make a mark. He says he’s not giving up.
A decade ago, when he served on the City Council, Faulconer opposed homeless-serving facilities proposed in his district.
Faulconer acknowledged he took a different view after he became mayor in 2014.
“As mayor, you have a much more acute window into so many different issues than you had as a Council member,” he told Voice of San Diego in early 2017. “That’s just reality.”
Faulconer’s first major move on the issue after becoming mayor hinted at the challenges to come.
He proudly announced plans in 2014 to move away from longtime temporary winter tents in Barrio Logan and Midway and to open a year-round shelter focused on moving homeless San Diegans into permanent housing. The shelter that Father Joe’s Villages opened at its St. Vincent de Paul campus the following year has struggled to match clients with permanent housing.
In early 2016, Faulconer set a goal to house 1,000 veterans within a year. The effort hit snags. Homeless veterans spent weeks seeking housing despite incentives meant to urge landlords to take them in. It ultimately took 19 months to house 1,000 veterans.
Faulconer and his team focus on the positive when describing the effort – namely that it’s helped about 1,300 formerly homeless veterans move off the street, and that the Housing Commission has since expanded the program to assist other populations.
During that same time, San Diego’s overall homelessness problem soared.
A downtown business group’s monthly homeless census peaked at nearly 1,400 in August 2016 and residents and business leaders demanded a response. Faulconer also faced bad press after the city installed jagged rocks under Interstate 5 at Imperial Avenue and said it did so at the request of residents. But emails revealed the move was really intended to clear homeless people camping there before the 2016 All-Star Game at nearby Petco Park. The move left the impression that the city and the mayor wanted to hide – rather than confront – its homelessness problem.
Faulconer’s response to the growing outcry was to hire former Clinton White House communications strategist Stacie Spector to serve as senior adviser on homelessness issues. She started in October 2016.
Spector spent months working on controversial plans to address homelessness, including the navigation center facility to connect homeless San Diegans to services that’s now moving forward, and a plan to rapidly offer hundreds more shelter beds.
Then Spector left the city without explanation after just seven months. A couple months later, Faulconer announced he was promoting staffer Jonathan Herrera, who had worked on public safety issues, to take the post.
Around the same time, Faulconer began publicly saying the city needed more cash to invest in the problem.
That June, he urged the City Council to call a special election to increase taxes on hotel stays to fund a Convention Center expansion, homeless programs and road repairs.
Stephen Puetz, Faulconer’s then-chief of staff, said Faulconer pushed to include homelessness in the measure despite arguments it wouldn’t help the initiative surpass the tough two-thirds threshold.
“The mayor firmly believed in it,” Puetz said. “He wanted a long-term, dedicated source for homelessness.”
The mayor who had historically opposed tax increases was now trying to sell one.
Most of Faulconer’s other efforts also stalled last summer, even as the mayor’s team argued he was spending more time, money and political capital on homelessness than previous mayors.
At the time, Faulconer was adamant he needed to get stakeholders on board with plans for new shelter beds and other initiatives before proceeding.
“It’s important to do it the right way,” Faulconer said. “It’s important to get buy-in.”
Meanwhile, citations and interactions between police officers and homeless San Diegans soared, further undermining Faulconer’s credibility with advocates.
But things would only get worse. Another crisis was brewing.
By mid-June, around the time the City Council killed Faulconer’s 2017 ballot measure, four San Diegans had died after being diagnosed with hepatitis A, a liver condition that spreads when a person ingests trace amounts of fecal matter from a person who’s infected with it. Unsanitary conditions in the city’s homeless camps fueled the outbreak.
Faulconer wasn’t engaged as city and county staffers communicated behind the scenes in the initial months of the outbreak.
By late August, the death toll reached 15 and more than 330 people had contracted hepatitis A. Officials only snapped into action after it was revealed they’d been fumbling with small-scale, bureaucratic responses.
Suddenly, the solutions that Faulconer had said would require more stakeholder buy-in came quickly.
He made a flurry of big announcements. The city would open three shelter tents by the end of the year and a temporary city-sanctioned camp at 20th and B streets in October, and it would immediately help expand a safe parking program.
Within months, the city also made plans to open a homeless storage center in Sherman Heights and quickly sunk $7 million into a shuttered indoor skydiving center it plans to turn into a center to connect homeless San Diegans with services and housing, a purchase that has since drawn criticism.
In most cases, Faulconer and other city officials set aside typical bureaucratic processes to get things done. They were focused on swift action rather than on in-depth data analysis, long-term strategies or consensus-building.
“The truth is that nothing is easy when it comes to reducing homelessness and frankly, we can’t spend any more time worrying about whether this group or that group will be offended,” Faulconer said as he shared plans to press forward with new homeless tents. “Lives are on the line. We need to take action.”
The mayor also spoke out about the need at the state and national levels for increased homeless funding for cities, advocacy his team says helped spur a state budget deal that will bring millions of dollars in onetime homelessness money to San Diego in coming months.
But the shelters, which have given hundreds of homeless San Diegans refuge from the streets, emphasize the lack of an overarching city strategy to reduce homelessness – with or without new funding.
As they planned for the new shelters, the mayor and other city leaders focused more on getting homeless San Diegans off the street than on what would happen after that.
As the city hurried to approve contracts with three nonprofits to operate the homeless tents, some City Council members balked at the initial lack of housing targets for the nonprofits operating them. They pushed for a contract provision requiring at least 65 percent of clients in the so-called “bridge shelters” to move to permanent housing. The shelters have fallen far short: Just 12 percent of homeless clients had moved onto permanent housing through the end of May.
The Housing Commission, which helped negotiate the shelter contracts, said it expected to take in more clients who already had housing vouchers and didn’t accurately predict the needs of vulnerable shelter residents without them.
But Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy now says it was clear the 65 percent contract goal wasn’t feasible.
“There wasn’t any housing,” McElroy said. “God, if there was, we’d have everybody in it.”
Still, Faulconer and McElroy have argued the city made the right call in proceeding with the shelters. They say the shelters have provided safe havens for homeless families, seniors and others who would otherwise be languishing on the street and have highlighted the stories of those who have moved into permanent homes.
McElroy also argues with those who criticize Faulconer for the actions he’s taken in the past year – or question his commitment to reducing homelessness.
In 33 years working on homeless issues in San Diego, McElroy said he can’t think of another mayor who’s devoted more to the cause.
“He’s certainly done more than anybody else,” McElroy said.
But homeless advocate Michael McConnell said Faulconer has failed to take a strategic approach to ensure that new projects and investments bolster the city’s ability to move more homeless San Diegans off the streets over the long haul.
“He just creates a lot of things that people tell him he needs, or he thinks he needs,” McConnell said. “It’s a shame because in my opinion we have made no progress on homelessness, in reducing the crisis.”
Even some of the mayor’s supporters have grown frustrated.
East Village real estate agent and property manager Claudette Cooper said she voted for Faulconer with the hope that he’d improve conditions downtown. She’s grown tired of waiting for results.
“My clients are moving out,” Cooper said. “They are moving out of East Village right now.”
Faulconer and a coalition of labor and business leaders have for months argued they had a solution to help the city make a bigger impact.
The coalition proposed a November ballot measure to raise hotel taxes to fund a Convention Center expansion plus invest in road repairs and about $2 billion in homeless programs over 42 years. The pitch was similar to the mayor’s 2017 measure but directed more money to homelessness. This time, they opted to pursue a citizens’ initiative and began collecting signatures.
Faulconer made the measure his top priority, and emphasized the money it would bring in to combat homelessness.
Then Faulconer and the campaign got devastating news earlier this month: The county registrar of voters would need to conduct a full count of signatures the campaign submitted, a process that would drag on past the deadline to put the measure on the ballot this November.
As a last gasp, Faulconer tried to get the City Council to put an identical measure on the ballot. It didn’t go well.
Before the vote, advocates criticized the mayor and the political establishment for the rush to save the flailing ballot effort and called for a measure more focused on homelessness.
John Brady, who lived for a time on San Diego streets, stood before the microphone as the spokesman for the Voices of Our City Choir, a group made up of homeless and formerly homeless San Diegans.
“We do not need a bigger Convention Center. We need housing,” Brady said. “Stop trying to sell this city something that does not address its needs.”
The City Council declined to put the measure on the ballot.
Immediately after the vote, Faulconer scolded the Council for failing to advance a measure that could bring in money for homelessness.
“The Council members’ procedural complaints are hollow comfort to the veteran living on the street or the family struggling to make ends meet,” he wrote in a statement.
He says he won’t give up his fight against homelessness – or for a 2020 ballot measure to increase resources for solutions. He’s also hinted he’d be open to another shot at a special election to advance a similar measure.
His team is working behind the scenes to analyze the impact of the mayor’s homelessness initiatives and assess areas for improvement, and planning how to spend the incoming state funding he helped lobby for.
In the days since the vote, Faulconer has tried to publicly emphasize his commitment to homelessness.
And early last Thursday, he stood before cameras to rally homeless outreach workers preparing to deploy throughout East Village.
“It’s not easy work,” Faulconer told CBS 8 that morning. “It’s hard work but it’s incredibly important, not only for the individuals we’re trying to help, but for our quality of life in our neighborhoods throughout San Diego.”