Councilwoman Barbara Bry speaks at the San Diego City Council inauguration ceremony. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Councilwoman Barbara Bry’s adamant opposition to a federal strategy for combating homelessness represents a dramatic reversal from her position throughout her time in local government – until recently.

When she first ran for City Council in 2016, Bry said the problem with the city’s approach to homelessness had been its failure to adopt “housing first,” a policy enacted under President George W. Bush that calls for homeless people to be quickly connected to housing and then linked to voluntary services to help them stabilize.

In that campaign, she expressed optimism that in embracing housing first, the city was no longer doing the “wrong things.” That optimism lasted all the way until her State of the District address last year in which she gave a full-throated, unequivocal defense of the policy.

“There is one solution to homelessness, and that is housing,” she said. “Tents, skydiving facilities and incarcerations are costly reactions that lead folks right back to the street.”

During a May budget committee hearing, she was similarly convinced that there was only one proven way to combat the city’s homelessness crisis.

“We’re really not meeting all the demands that we have today to build more supportive and more affordable housing which is really our only way out of this,” Bry said.

But Bry – now a mayoral candidate – reversed her perspective sometime between May and October.

That’s when she sent a campaign email titled “On Homeless: Stop Digging!”

“Over a decade of treating homelessness as a principally a ‘housing problem’ has dug a deep and dangerous hole,” she wrote, arguing that one of her opponents, Assemblyman Todd Gloria, had led the city “down a disastrous path” that exacerbated the problem.

“Accepting the failure of past policies by making mental illness, drug addiction and public safety our first priorities is the first step to a successful approach.”

Since then, demanding the city take a new approach to homelessness that focuses on public safety and treatment for addiction and mental health problems has become a key plank of Bry’s campaign.

That culminated in a victory lap Wednesday night, following Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s State of the City address, in which he boasted that he would no longer cow to political correctness, said drug addiction and mental illness need to be addressed to solve the homeless crisis and promised to overturn recent criminal reforms that he says have kept cities from helping homeless addicts.

She tweeted after the speech that the mayor was following her lead on homelessness, capped by an image declaring “Barbara. Was. Right.”

Glad 2 see Mayor @Kevin_Faulconer following my lead on homeless. Better late than never. Housing First was tragic disaster. Father Joe warned politicians. They didnt listen. Exactly why Father Joe endorsed me. Kevin should be complimented for change. @vosdscott @sdut #SanDiego

— Barbara Bry (@bry4sd) January 16, 2020

Faulconer spokeswoman Ashley Bailey challenged Bry’s claim that the mayor was following her lead, noting that in his speech two years ago he said “I’ve outlined a ‘Housing First’ plan – but not a housing only plan.”

“Her so-called leadership on homelessness is questionable at best,” Bailey said.

Bry has not mentioned in her campaign statements that she has newly arrived at the belief that “housing first was a tragic disaster.” Her campaign did not respond Thursday to a request for comment about when or why she changed her mind.

But she did acknowledge during a mayoral debate last year, shortly after her first anti-housing first email, that hers was an evolving position on the best way to address homelessness.

“I think I’ve learned over the last few years that if we don’t focus on mental health and substance abuse issues, we are not going to reduce chronic homelessness,” she said at VOSD’s Politifest. “So it is essential that we focus on that also.”

She also told VOSD late last year that she believed that, per judicial rulings, the city could not sweep homeless camps unless it could supply shelter for all homeless San Diegans living on the street.

“I intend to achieve that threshold and move homeless from the streets to an appropriate shelter,” Bry wrote in an email.

Gloria, who Bry alleges led San Diego down the tragic path of focusing on housing, reacted to the mayor’s speech with his own tweet, which likewise contrasted with Bry’s position.

1. No one is touting “housing only” approaches to homelessness.
2. “Housing First” means something comes second which are wraparound services like drug treatment, job training, etc.
3. Criminalizing poverty will not solve our homelessness crisis.#SOTCSD

— Todd Gloria (@ToddGloria) January 16, 2020

But another irony of Bry taking credit for the city allegedly abandoning housing first is that the city has in fact long been criticized by some homelessness advocates for being slow to implement the model – and to effectively scale up the approach across its homeless service system.

For years, some of the city’s prominent homeless service providers resisted moving to the housing first model and away from the so-called transitional housing model, which instead requires homeless people to receive services to address issues that may have led to their homelessness before moving them to permanent homes.

The region’s production of affordable and permanent supportive housing considered the crucial ingredients of the housing first model hasn’t matched the scale of its homelessness crisis.

San Diego has fewer supportive housing projects than other large metros despite having one of the nation’s largest homeless populations. A 2018 analysis by the San Francisco Controller’s Office found that San Diego had the lowest number of supportive housing units per capita of 18 large metros reviewed.

In the absence of needed units, the city has struggled to efficiently move homeless San Diegans off the streets.

In late 2017, amid a deadly hepatitis A outbreak that devastated the city’s homeless population, Faulconer rushed to open new shelters in the hopes that they could serve as a safe haven for vulnerable homeless San Diegans and quickly move them off the streets permanently. To keep those shelters open, the city has repeatedly tapped Housing Commission funds meant to support permanent housing.

And late last year, the city opened a homeless housing navigation center aimed at linking homeless San Diegans with housing and services that does not itself supply new housing.

By comparison, communities considered housing first success stories such as Houston have reported dramatic reductions in homelessness after focusing on rapidly moving homeless people into homes.

In the city’s homelessness plan approved by the City Council last year, consultants from the nonprofit Corporation for Supportive Housing highlighted the need for San Diego to clarify housing first principles among its homeless service providers and community stakeholders.

“CSH found that, in San Diego, housing first has been implemented inconsistently in programs across the city, leading to a lack of fidelity to the core tenets of the approach and a misunderstanding by many as to how it should be applied in various settings even though most program staff identified their programs as low barrier,” consultants Ann Oliva and Liz Drapa wrote.

The homelessness plan called for the city provide more guidance on housing first and to more than double the city’s supply of supportive housing over the next decade to effectively reduce homelessness and implement the housing first policy in the city.

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...

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.