Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

As he leaves office, Mayor Kevin Faulconer is selling his homelessness policies as solutions for a state overwhelmed by its homelessness epidemic.

The gist of the Faulconer doctrine: Deliver more homeless services and housing and force homeless Californians to either accept them or face consequences from police, an approach that is controversial at home and among national experts.

Faulconer, who is mulling a run for governor, is fleshing out a possible 2022 state ballot measure to allow communities across the state to replicate what he believes has worked in San Diego. He told Voice of San Diego last week that it’s likely to include what he dubbed a “compassionate yet firm” approach to drive more homeless Californians off the streets and into shelters.

This strategy directly contradicts the city’s own homelessness plan, developed on Faulconer’s watch, which urged the city to review enforcement practices that can have tough consequences for homeless San Diegans, including as they try to move off the street.

“I believe that we need statewide legislation that will really reinforce the approach that we’ve taken here in San Diego, particularly when it comes to providing shelter and an obligation to use it,” Faulconer said.

The San Diego approach Faulconer describes has included a surge in city spending on homeless services backed in part by bursts of funding from the state, hundreds of new shelter beds and increased police activity – both in the form of enforcement and outreach – to try to move homeless people off the street.

“We’ve invested a significant amount of taxpayer dollars in services and shelter, but we’ve also said if we provide that, you have to use it,” Faulconer said.

Faulconer has said this work has led to reductions in homelessness in San Diego, pointing to homeless census numbers showing a year-over-year drop in overall and street homelessness though past changes to the process for completing the count and Faulconer’s own policies making homelessness less visible complicate the success story he’s touting.

Faulconer’s stated goal to find ways to encourage more homeless Californians into shelter – while far from fleshed out –  is reminiscent of past proposals by a former Democratic state assemblyman and a Los Angeles County supervisor and the Sacramento mayor that would have obligated homeless people to accept care or shelter. The Trump administration also once considered using the federal government to force homeless Californians into new facilities.

Advocates and civil rights attorneys deemed all of those proposals legally questionable and said they could violate homeless Californians’ constitutional rights.

Homeless San Diegans, activists and lawyers fighting on their behalf have for years also panned Faulconer’s directive to police to crack down on homeless camps even as he has increased service offerings. Many say the shelters or safe parking lots the city has offered in lieu of tickets don’t work for all homeless San Diegans and aren’t certain to link those who try them with permanent homes.

“The basic approach of criminalization has not ended, and the solutions (Faulconer) has proposed have been very inadequate,” said Disability Rights California attorney Ann Menasche, who has challenged the city’s enforcement of its so-called vehicle habitation ordinance in federal court. “There’s a tendency to blame homeless people for their predicament.”

Two experts who once coordinated the federal government’s response to homelessness and advised communities across the nation on homelessness solutions also told VOSD that the kind of enforcement Faulconer has advocated can undermine rather than bolster efforts to address homelessness.

Barbara Poppe, who led the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness during the Obama administration, said enforcement – and even police orders to pack up their belongings and move elsewhere – can cause trauma, new criminal histories and the loss of possessions and important documents.

“All of those end up being barriers to ending up in housing,” Poppe said.

Former San Diegan Matthew Doherty, who has advised Gov. Gavin Newsom on homelessness and also led the U.S. Interagency Council before being dismissed by the Trump administration last year, agreed.

“I know of no communities – literally no communities – in which police enforcement has contributed to reductions in homelessness, and there is no reason to expect that a focus on police enforcement would create such results,” Doherty wrote in an email to VOSD. “The tools for ending homelessness are connecting with people, understanding their needs and goals, and supporting them to access housing and services that address those needs and support their pursuit of their goals. A focus on police enforcement activities undermines efforts to deploy those tools effectively.”

Faulconer has argued the focus in San Diego hasn’t been on ticketing and arrests but rather on trying to connect homeless people with help.

Faulconer and police Capt. Scott Wahl, who helps lead the neighborhood policing division created in 2018 to address homelessness, have said officers consistently offer shelter and other services before writing tickets or making arrests. They also have said that the department’s homeless outreach team has helped facilitate more than 40 percent of intakes into the Convention Center shelter during the pandemic.

“Their No. 1 approach when they come across individuals is, how can we help you get to shelter tonight?” Faulconer said. “That has to be our approach. And that’s the approach that I insist on.”

Still, police have meted out thousands of citations and arrests for violations commonly associated with homelessness since the division was created. In 2019 alone, police data released after a public records request reveals officers wrote about 3,330 citations and made 1,425 arrests for encroachment and illegal lodging, offenses that were intended to address errant trash cans but have instead been deployed on humans blocking city sidewalks and settling somewhere without permission. Police data shows that enforcement dramatically decreased from May through mid-October as the coronavirus pandemic raged following reports about that enforcement by VOSD and inewsource.

Most San Diego police efforts to connect homeless residents with help haven’t had stellar outcomes.

For years, San Diego police have spoken at public meetings and hearings about the refusal of most homeless San Diegans they engage to accept shelter and services they offer.

Many homeless San Diegans have said they aren’t confident in the solutions that police are offering, at least in part because police are the ones offering them.

They have become used to police descending on homeless tents, often early in the morning, to clear tents early in the day and remain in compliance with a legal settlement that requires police not to enforce illegal lodging between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m.

“I personally see police show up at 5:31 and start issuing tickets,” said Anthony Pleva, 51, who has recently stayed on the streets in East Village.

To try to lessen the burden of their enforcement, police late last year teamed with nonprofit Alpha Project to create a diversion program that allows homeless San Diegans facing a ticket or an arrest to avoid prosecution and fines if they agree to stay in one of the nonprofit’s shelters for 30 days.

Data released by the city and the San Diego Housing Commission shows 401 homeless San Diegans enrolled in the program between late November 2019 and the end of March, just before social distancing concerns led the city to move shelter-dwellers into the Convention Center. Just 69 homeless San Diegans remained for the 30 days necessary to have their infractions cleared and 4 percent who exited the program moved onto permanent or longer-term housing through March, a rate far lower than other local shelter programs, including Alpha Project’s.

The police department’s homeless outreach team has also for years struggled to fill the 50 beds the team operates at Father Joe’s Villages’ East Village campus despite weeks-long waits for the nonprofit’s other programs. Faulconer expanded and formalized the police shelter program in 2014 by allocating city funds for shelter beds run by police. The idea was to give homeless outreach officers something to offer homeless people they encountered.

San Diego Housing Commission data shows that average bed occupancy rates had improved over the past year before the program halted due to coronavirus restrictions and that 17 percent of those who exited the shelter July through April moved onto permanent or longer-term housing. By comparison, data from the Regional Task Force on the Homeless shows about 31 percent of homeless San Diegans who left other shelters in the city during the same period moved onto permanent housing.

Experts from the Corporation for Supportive Housing last year dug into the city’s homelessness initiatives, including the role police have had in addressing the cause, as part of an effort to create a homelessness strategy for the city. They recommended that the city consider how police enforcement was affecting homeless San Diegans and dial back the police department’s role in homeless outreach.

Hearing that feedback, the City Council voted in late October to establish a coordinated outreach program operated by homeless-serving nonprofit PATH. City Council President Georgette Gómez and multiple other City Council members have said they hope the program will help the city rely less on law enforcement to interact with homeless San Diegans though city officials have said the program is not meant to replace the police department’s homeless outreach team.

Hours before the vote on the new outreach program, Faulconer and the police department hosted a press conference to tout the successes of the neighborhood policing division’s work with homeless San Diegans, including the division’s outreach teams.

“Our city takes a balanced and compassionate approach that we’ve paired (with) our homeless services. We’ve invested over the last several years,” Faulconer said at the Oct. 27 press conference. “It has made San Diego a leader statewide on homeless issues.”

Faulconer and others then highlighted how the division addressed neighbors’ concerns about homelessness, trash and drug use at Euclid and Imperial avenues in Lincoln Park, an area for years referred to as the “four corners of death.”

Andrea Hetheru, who lives just yards away, spoke at the press conference. She later told VOSD that she and other neighbors are grateful to the officers who offered services and discouraged drug activity and the left-behind waste that had become common there.

The situation had gotten so bad before police focused on the area in August, Hetheru said, that workers delivering food in the area had been known to turn around and refuse to finish the job.

Hetheru said she was pleasantly surprised by the humane police response in a neighborhood often overlooked by city officials and to hear from police that they had given just one citation and made two arrests in the process.

“I’d never seen a balanced approach and I’ve never seen any equity in responsiveness, and this time I saw both of them,” Hetheru said.

But Barry Pollard, another nearby resident who has long worked with others in the community on efforts to improve the Four Corners, said that while continued police presence has kept the “four corners” clean, homeless San Diegans have migrated near the Tubman Chavez Community Center and Chollas Creek.

“Literally, they’ve just moved them about four or five blocks. To me, that’s not addressing the homeless problem,” Pollard said. “To me, what that’s doing is just moving them along.”

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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