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As he eyes a run for governor and tries to cement his legacy as San Diego mayor, Kevin Faulconer is likely to point to one major claim about his time here: that he reduced homelessness.
He’s already touting the statistics and actions. But if historians and voters statewide look at both, they’ll find some inconvenient context and detractors.
Faulconer made homelessness his top priority nearly four years into his tenure after a deadly hepatitis A outbreak terrorized San Diego’s homeless population, dramatically increasing both service offerings and police force to address the problem. He made an unprecedented decision to move homeless San Diegans into the Convention Center when the pandemic set in, and then permanently house hundreds who stayed there, moves he considers among his foremost achievements.
While other large California cities have in recent years reported spikes in homelessness, San Diego’s 2020 point-in-time count documented a 4 percent year-over-year overall drop in homelessness in the city, and a more substantial 12 percent decrease in San Diegans living on the street. There are also far fewer tents and makeshift shelters on downtown streets than there were four years ago. But changes in the way the annual point-in-time count is carried out and the methodology the group that leads it uses to arrive at its final tally, plus city crackdowns that have made homelessness less visible, complicate historic comparisons that Faulconer has made.
“What I’ve tried to do is take out the stigma that says providing homeless services is a bad thing,” Faulconer said last week, reflecting on his work on homelessness. “It helps people. It makes a difference. And we’ve seen the results on our streets.”
But Faulconer was also reluctant to take a leading role in tackling the city’s homelessness crisis before it finally exploded into a health disaster for which some advocates will never forgive him.
Four years ago, homelessness was surging in San Diego. The city had its own skid row in East Village and more tents popped up elsewhere nearby. Smaller camps dotted canyons and neighborhoods throughout the city.
Unsanitary conditions in those camps helped fuel a health crisis that drew international scorn on San Diego. By mid-2017, a hepatitis A outbreak had sickened more than 200 people. Twenty people eventually died and nearly 600 were diagnosed with the virus, which is spread when a person ingests trace amounts of fecal matter from a person who’s infected. Downtown San Diego, home to homeless camps with occupants who often lacked easy access to restrooms, was considered ground zero of the outbreak.
Faulconer had struggled to deliver on key promises he made to address homelessness. He spoke about the need for consensus on solutions, which proved elusive.
That changed after a Voice of San Diego story highlighted bureaucratic fumbling by city and county officials as hepatitis A deaths increased.
Faulconer rushed to open shelters that two power-brokers had for months urged him to pursue and later, to move forward with a homeless service hub that remains controversial years later and safe lots where homeless San Diegans living in their cars could park. Even more investments would follow, leading the city’s homelessness budget to balloon from $45 million in fiscal year 2017 to nearly $103 million in 2019. Faulconer also rallied state and federal officials to deploy more homelessness funding, and made moves to increase low-income and supportive housing development needed to get more homeless San Diegans off the streets permanently.
Faulconer said the hepatitis A crisis convinced him that he could no longer wait for others to line up behind homelessness solutions.
“I think everyone’s natural inclination is to try to gain consensus, but when that becomes an obstacle to actually helping people, that’s when that’s over and that’s what leadership is about,” Faulconer said. “And so, that was really my thrust, which was to say, if we keep doing things the way we’re doing, we’re not going to help people. We’re not going to improve.”
Former Port commissioner Steve Cushman is among the Faulconer allies who also mark the hepatitis A outbreak as a key turning point.
Faulconer seemed to recognize that he was uniquely positioned to act. It was not in character. His instinct to champion policies others had already coalesced behind had dominated his political career.
“He saw that he could really make a difference, and he grabbed it and ran with it,” Cushman said.
Hundreds of homeless San Diegans moved into the new so-called bridge shelters operated by Alpha Project, Father Joe’s Villages and Veterans Village of San Diego after they opened in late 2017 and early 2018 during the hepatitis A outbreak – and thousands more have since stayed in them.
The shelters, named with the expectation they would be bridges to longer-term homes, have like other city-funded shelters struggled to connect homeless San Diegans with those homes.
San Diego Housing Commission data shows those shelters, plus a fourth bridge shelter that opened last fall, helped 1,258 homeless San Diegans – or a fifth of those who stayed there – move into permanent or longer-term housing before the coronavirus pandemic led the city to shutter them this spring due to social distancing concerns.
The city now projects that more than 1,100 homeless San Diegans who have stayed at the Convention Center and two other city-funded shelters during the pandemic will have moved onto housing by the end of the month. Two hotels the city purchased with the help of state funds, a step Faulconer advocated early in the pandemic, provided a shot in the arm to the operation’s housing efforts.
The new shelters were only part of Faulconer’s response.
He also directed police to step up enforcement and sweeps of homeless camps, a controversial approach that has also had the effect of making homelessness less visible.
Faulconer and police officials have said they wanted to prevent the unsanitary conditions that once inflamed the hepatitis A outbreak and threatened both homeless San Diegans and the rest of the community.
Arrests and citations for encroachment, a violation meant to address wayward trash bins, not humans, spiked 54 percent from 2016 to 2018, according to police data provided after a public records request. Those arrests and citations continued to spike until earlier this year when enforcement decreased due to the pandemic.
Anthony Pleva, 51, and other homeless San Diegans say the message from police writing those tickets has been clear.
“If you want to go the shelter, they won’t write you a ticket but if you don’t want to go to the shelter, they’ll write you a ticket,” said Pleva, who sleeps on the street in East Village.
Pleva has decided against moving into city shelters including the Convention Center, concluding they are unlikely to be safe spaces that can offer him long-term solutions.
“It doesn’t address the problem,” Pleva said. “It just makes the streets look better for people that have a house.”
Last year, Faulconer also successfully introduced a new ban on so-called vehicle habitation to replace a previous version a U.S. District Court judge blocked the city from enforcing and declared unconstitutionally vague.
Faulconer and police officials have said they offer help including shelter beds before cracking down, and that they have increased opportunities to lessen the burden of that enforcement or help homeless San Diegans avoid it altogether. Homeless outreach officers have facilitated more than 40 percent of intakes into the Convention Center shelter.
“Simply put, we now balance compassion and accountability,” said police Capt. Scott Wahl, who oversees the division Faulconer created to focus on homelessness, during an October City Council committee briefing.
But advocates and even the city’s 2019 homelessness plan have highlighted the challenges enforcement can present for homeless San Diegans as they try to move off the street – and for those trying to serve and count people living there.
Many activists and homeless San Diegans will never forgive Faulconer for encouraging increased police enforcement, or allowing the conditions that put homeless San Diegans and others at risk of a seemingly third-world ailment like hepatitis A.
Sandy Myskowski, 41, who expects to soon move from the Convention Center into one of the hotels the city purchased, said she has appreciated shelter staff who have supported her but is exasperated by the city’s longer-running focus on enforcement and temporary solutions, and lack of sustained commitment to necessities like restrooms for homeless people.
“Faulconer has not done anything for the homeless unless there’s been a catastrophic event to make everyone stand up and pay attention,” Myskowski said.
David Hampson, 49, who earlier this year moved from the Convention Center shelter into a Nestor townhome after years on the street, said he also disapproved of harassment by police but has come to understand the need for some enforcement – and to appreciate Faulconer’s resolve to open up the Convention Center and purchase hotels.
“I think Faulconer did a pretty good job,” Hampson said.
San Diego politicians like Faulconer have long anxiously awaited annual point-in-time censuses that essentially assess the state of the region’s homelessness crisis.
But experts caution that the counts are not comprehensive assessments. They represent a minimum number of homeless residents and a snapshot of a complex problem. Counting methods also often change.
Pat Leslie, director of Point Loma Nazarene’s social work program, for years advised the group that conducts the annual count and said she doesn’t believe it’s the best way to evaluate Faulconer’s legacy.
“He can honestly say there are some actions he’s taken that have helped influence homelessness,” said Leslie, noting Faulconer’s decisions to shelter homeless San Diegans at the Convention Center and city hall complex. “The point-in-time count just has so many influences in it that it’s perhaps not the hook to hang the hat on.”
But in recent interviews with Fox News and other outlets, Faulconer has touted his most recent report card, describing how homelessness has “gone down double digits” in the city and San Diego County while it has increased in many other communities in the state. He has also sometimes referred to decreases countywide over the last two years – or over his tenure as mayor.
The latest point-in-time count results do show street homelessness dropped by more than 10 percent in both the city and the county from 2019 to 2020. Overall homelessness, which includes people staying in shelters, fell 5 percent countywide and 4 percent in the city this year.
More historical comparisons are complicated because the approach behind San Diego’s annual counts changed after Faulconer increased his focus on homelessness. First, in 2018, the Regional Task Force on the Homeless made the controversial decision to exclude RVs from its annual tally, leaving out hundreds who would have been included in previous years. Then, in 2019, the group stopped using estimates gleaned from interviews with homeless San Diegans to project the number of people staying in tents and vehicles and only tallied what volunteers confirmed directly.
Before the results were ever announced, the effort was also dogged by concerns about police enforcement that spiked downtown days before the annual census, leading the task force to later add those who were arrested to its final tally.
As a result, the task force cautioned against comparing the 2019 count with previous ones. Faulconer still does, though.
Regional Task Force board member John Brady, who was once homeless himself, was among those who sounded alarms about the 2019 arrests. He has also raised concerns about how the enforcement may be making homeless San Diegans less visible and thus less likely to be counted or helped.
“I think that what we may have done in some ways because of our aggressive enforcement policy is, people have done a better job here of hiding their homelessness and dispersing throughout the community, and it’s not as visible or easy to count the population, and to some degree, it’s not as easy to serve it as a result,” Brady said.
The impact of Faulconer’s policies, both in terms of additional services and increased enforcement, are most obvious downtown.
The tents that dominated some sidewalks years ago have largely disappeared. The Downtown San Diego Partnership, which has also made some adjustments to its census methodology in recent years, counted 694 people sleeping outside in its most recent count late last month. That is far less than the more than 1,400 the group counted in December 2016.
Kathleen Hallahan, president of the East Village Residents Group, has for years criticized what she saw as a lack of strategic planning and outreach by Faulconer as he hurried to move forward with homeless initiatives, many of them in and around her neighborhood.
But she acknowledged that the change in East Village has been significant.
“The neighborhood has been transformed from five years ago,” Hallahan said. “The number of people living on our streets has been drastically reduced.”
But the people who remain on downtown streets, Hallahan and other residents have said, seem more troubled and more likely to be battling addiction and mental health challenges.
Despite the change downtown, polling shows most San Diegans aren’t convinced the city has made significant progress on homelessness and that they still see homelessness as one of the region’s top challenges.
A poll of about 500 city voters funded by the Lucky Duck Foundation, which has publicly and privately lobbied Faulconer to take more dramatic steps to address homelessness, last fall found only 3 percent of respondents noticed a recent reduction in homelessness. About 45 percent reported homelessness seemed stagnant while 42 percent said they believed it had increased.
Faulconer is confident he has put a dent in the problem but acknowledges much more needs to be done after he leaves office – both in San Diego and across the state.
He’s talked up his homelessness response as he considers a run for governor and earlier this year launched a committee to back a yet-to-be detailed 2022 ballot measure he said he hopes to use to apply the lessons learned in San Diego elsewhere in the state.
“There is a change, but the reality is, we have to keep that change going,” Faulconer said.