Clockwise from top left: Community activist Tasha Williamson, Councilman Scott Sherman, Councilwoman Barbara Bry and Assemblyman Todd Gloria / Photos by Vito Di Stefano and Adriana Heldiz

Months after the City Council signed off on a long-awaited homelessness strategy, none of the city’s mayoral candidates is fully embracing the new plan.

City Councilwoman Barbara Bry, Assemblyman Todd Gloria and Councilman Scott Sherman say they are all on board with the central tenet and the plan: its recommendation for the city to deliver 3,500 new supportive housing units over the next decade plus fund hundreds more rental assistance slots and subsidies for those on the brink of homelessness at an estimated cost of $1.9 billion.

But each has also outlined other goals for the city that aren’t detailed in the plan – and in one case, even directly contradict it. Meanwhile, fellow mayoral contender Tasha Williamson is skeptical about the efficacy of the new plan altogether.

Their varying degrees of enthusiasm about the plan raise an important question: What is the point of having a homelessness plan, if not to commit the city to a specific approach going forward?

Bry said she’d like to see more attention to what she described as “the root causes of homelessness” such as addiction and mental illness. Gloria released his own homelessness plan and said he wants the city to focus more on ending chronic homelessness, a goal that’s not included in the plan. Sherman wants to increase police enforcement, yet the plan takes pains to emphasize the negative effects of enforcement.

Williamson, on the other hand, questions why city leaders need a plan to lay out strategies they should already be deploying – and whether the plan will result in real action on the city’s humanitarian crisis.

“Everyone knows what they need to do to end homelessness, to support homeless people better and I think they just need to do it,” said Williamson.

Bry and Sherman, along with the rest of the City Council, voted to accept the new roadmap and housing targets in October following demands for a holistic homelessness strategy. Consultants from the nonprofit Corporation for Supportive Housing spent months crunching numbers and analyzing the city’s homeless service system as part of a $183,900 contract to produce an overarching vision to address homelessness in the city.

City officials have since taken steps to expand shelter offerings and create a flexible funding pool to better serve San Diegans who need aid to avoid homelessness or to more quickly move out of city shelters.

They are especially focused on the plan’s early goals to halve street homelessness and end both veteran and youth homelessness in the next three years.

But a year from now, a new mayor will be at the helm and could propose a shift in direction, including different goals.

In his own homelessness plan released earlier this month, Gloria wrote that San Diego should join other communities elsewhere in the nation that have sought to end chronic homelessness.

In an interview with Voice of San Diego, Gloria said he’d likely try to update the city’s homelessness strategy to incorporate that goal. Gloria believes the city could achieve this goal by building more supportive housing and scaling up successful programs such as Project 25, which housed some of the most vulnerable homeless San Diegans.

“Chronic homelessness is an important national metric. It is a population that consumes a great deal of public resources and probably, importantly, is the one that is most disconcerting to housed, sheltered San Diegans and the ones that I think they want us to focus on,” Gloria said. “I would hope to bring more emphasis and attention to that.”

Gloria said he supports affordable housing advocates’ push for a November 2020 housing bond measure, which he said could help deliver funds and resources to provide the housing called for in the city’s homelessness plan – and to house chronically homeless San Diegans.

Bry, who has publicly praised the city’s new plan, also backs the $900 million property tax measure and has said the city should better address chronic homelessness.

Bry didn’t call for specific edits to the city plan but told VOSD it should focus more on addressing the causes of homelessness.

Bry has said she will urge the county to further bolster mental health services and substance abuse programs, needs the plan also called out. The plan noted that the county – not the city – controls resources in this realm and that the county would need to be engaged to provide additional resources.

“I will aggressively pursue additional county, state and federal funds and improved coordination with county and non-profit providers to identify and assist chronically homeless with substance abuse, mental health, and job training services,” Bry wrote in an email to VOSD. “In addition, I will require that the outcomes of these programs be measured and reported to the public.”

Bry said she also wants to advocate for the county to open more beds for patients with mental illnesses and establish programs to better aid those at risk of homelessness.

Gloria and Sherman, the sole Republican in the race, have also called for the county to do more to address homelessness and behavioral health concerns.

Unlike Bry and Gloria, Sherman does not support the housing bond and instead urges new incentives and reforms to regulations and fees he says stymie housing development. He cited the city’s rezoning effort in Grantville, which he said has ushered in more affordable and permanent supportive housing in the neighborhood.

Sherman said he stands by the plan’s goals to provide more housing and aid across the city but thinks the city should also increase enforcement to compel more homeless San Diegans to take up offers of help – a significant departure from the plan’s suggestion that the city re-evaluate its reliance on enforcement.

“We need to work on the funding and compassion side with housing and those types of things, which I’ve done pretty much most of my time on the Council, but what we don’t do enough is focus on the enforcement side,” Sherman said. “Because if you have the compassion side without the enforcement side, you end up actually enabling a lot of these people who have drug addictions and these types of issues that are on the streets.”

The city’s homelessness plan recommended a review of enforcement policies and practices homeless San Diegans and service providers told consultants have hampered efforts to move homeless San Diegans off the street.

Enforcement of violations commonly associated with homelessness has already soared since the 2017 hepatitis A outbreak that city leaders have said was fueled by long-standing homeless camps.

Sherman said he supports continued offers of shelter and other services before citing homeless San Diegans – now a mandate following a Supreme Court decision not to take up a major homelessness case – and expanded efforts to help homeless San Diegans address fines and other issues as they seek help moving off the street.

The homelessness plan also urged increased access to a court program designed to help homeless San Diegans.

Bry has also hinted at the need for more enforcement – once more shelter and housing options are available.

“Under current judicial rulings, the city is unable to clear sidewalks and other city facilities of homeless encampments unless there is shelter available for all persons living on the streets. I intend to achieve that threshold and move homeless from the streets to an appropriate shelter,” said Bry, who said she has not yet concluded whether more shelter beds are needed.

Gloria, who once advocated a carrot and stick approach to enforcement, said he has since concluded that isn’t the right approach.

“Our focus should be on providing enough housing of all varieties to be able to get people off street,” Gloria said.

Williamson, an outspoken criminal justice reform advocate, agreed.

“People need services,” Williamson said. “We need to invest in people, and I do not believe we should be putting homeless people into jail.”

Unlike current city leaders, Williamson said she also doesn’t buy into the notion that the city needs a plan to address its homelessness problem. After all, she said, other plans have gathered dust. She said the next mayor should simply focus on taking action to deliver more resources that the city’s elected leaders have long recognized are needed.

“There’s no more time for inaction. People need permanent supportive housing. They need services,” Williamson said. “We need to invest in the people in this city and we have not been doing that.”

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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