Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

More than a year ago, the city finally got a strategy to address its homelessness crisis and began ramping up efforts to implement that plan. Then a pandemic happened.

Yet key leaders tasked with executing the city’s 2019 homelessness plan calling for thousands of new supportive housing units, more housing aid and reforms to the homeless-service system say the coronavirus pandemic in some ways helped the city advance some goals. It also provided an early check on just how committed the city was to the new homelessness strategy many had already feared would gather dust on a shelf.

“It really tested the plan’s relevance, and everything the plan identified was just as relevant under COVID and a public health crisis as it was before,” said Lisa Jones, executive vice president of strategic initiatives at San Diego Housing Commission.

Jones and others say the plan has helped guide key decisions the city has made during the pandemic, including the decision to quickly purchase two hotels to permanently house hundreds of people staying at the Convention Center shelter and to try to streamline efforts to house people at the temporary shelter.

But in some cases, namely on the plan’s calls to reduce the impacts of police enforcement on homeless San Diegans and to get more feedback from homeless people, the city hasn’t acted with as much urgency and has less progress to show.

Mayor Todd Gloria, who took the helm Dec. 10, said he has appreciated the guidance the plan has offered during the pandemic and wants to bolster efforts on a few of the plan’s key goals, including improved coordination with the county on behavioral health services. He’s also looking to add two goals to the strategy: ending chronic homelessness and working with countywide leaders to regionalize the plan.

Per the federal government’s definition, chronically homeless people are those who have been homeless for at least a year, or repeatedly, who also have a disability.

“I recognize this is not something that’ll happen overnight,” Gloria said. “It’s something that will take some time, but our goal ought to be to join the ranks of other cities across the nation that have ended chronic homelessness.”

Here’s a look at progress the city has made on its homelessness plan in its first year, and a few areas where city officials including the new mayor say they hope to boost efforts in the new year.

The goal: Deliver 3,500 new supportive housing units, including 60 percent of those new units within four years.

The Housing Commission-funded plan produced by the Corporation for Supportive Housing urged the city to more than double its stock of so-called permanent supportive housing units, homes that typically come with services and amenities for vulnerable formerly homeless residents.

The city lost out on two immediate options to help finance those additions with the failures of November’s affordable housing bond Measure A and the March hotel-tax Measure C, meaning it will be more reliant on state or federal funds the flow to the region.

But there has been some progress. Data collected as part of this year’s point-in-time count shows the city added 739 supportive housing units from 2019 to 2020, though all were in the works before the city got its homelessness plan.

During the pandemic, the city rushed to buy two hotels supplying 332 new supportive housing units with the help of state Project Homekey funds.

Jones and Gloria said the city wants to chase other opportunities in 2021.

Jones said city officials are already exploring potential housing projects that could be funded if the city receives another infusion of state or federal funds. The city also expects to begin setting annual housing development targets in the new year, as suggested in the plan.

“We’re out there looking right now at options and projects, so this is a very intentional focus that we’re going to continue to drive and be ready for,” Jones said.

The goals: Halve street homelessness in the city within three years – and add 300 to 500 new shelter beds. End veteran and youth homelessness.

Late last year, the city made moves to add more than 250 shelter beds for families, single adults and young adults between 18 and 25 to try to chip away at these goals. The pandemic quickly changed those plans, and the city moved hundreds to shelter beds at the Convention Center. The city later opened a temporary shelter in the South Bay for homeless families.

The January point-in-time count released this spring showed a 12 percent year-over-over year drop in street homelessness in the city, as well as a 44 percent drop in unsheltered veteran homelessness and a 37 percent drop in the number of youth living on the street.

In the months since, the city reports it has connected more than 870 homeless San Diegans, including more than 175 veterans, with permanent or longer-term housing as part of the Convention Center operation.

Tamera Kohler, CEO of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless and a member of the team executing the plan, said the city’s success in housing veterans has been aided by strides made to streamline processes to help veterans access and use federal Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers that have long presented challenges for both providers and homeless veterans.

Kohler, Jones and Keely Halsey, the city’s chief of homelessness strategies, said the city has also dug into other shelter processes during the Convention Center operation to try to help move homeless San Diegans more efficiently out of a shelter bed and into housing, something it has struggled to do but must achieve to see significant reductions in homelessness.

Despite that work, 2021 is likely to bring additional challenges. Many experts expect homelessness to increase across the country as eviction moratoriums expire and the economic impacts of the pandemic continue.

The future of the city’s shelter system is also unclear, though Gloria told VOSD he’d like to see if the city could increase shelter capacity after the Convention Center closes next year.

The goal: Get a lot more input from homeless San Diegans.

The plan encouraged the city to get more feedback from homeless San Diegans on everything from the homeless service system to police enforcement.

Various coronavirus restrictions have complicated progress at a time when many homeless San Diegans have been frustrated and overwhelmed with service gaps.

Ed Bidwell, 61, has stayed at the Convention Center shelter for months and has craved opportunities to provide input on the shelter, staffing and other issues – and to get more information on what might be coming next.

“Why isn’t anyone asking us what’s going on?” Bidwell said. “Why aren’t city officials talking to homeless people?”

Jones said the city is working to create more opportunities for homeless San Diegans to weigh in on services in the second quarter of 2021, likely via phone app, surveys for different types of services and other options to walk in or call to provide feedback, including anonymously. She said the city has also connected with community groups of homeless and formerly homeless San Diegans that it hopes to regularly engage with as it continues work on the homelessness plan.

John Brady, who once lived on the streets and now serves on the leadership council overseeing work on the plan, said he is hopeful the city can make more progress on this goal next year and that it will also prioritize finding ways for homeless San Diegans to provide real-time feedback, including when they face challenges that the city can immediately help with.

“Why aren’t people being treated like customers, which they are?” Brady said. “That’s a mindset change that we need to make in the system moving forward. I hope we can make some progress next year.”

The goals: Review the impact of enforcement affecting homeless San Diegans and look at ways to reduce that impact, and dial back the police department’s prominent role in homeless outreach.

On Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s watch, the city dramatically increased enforcement of crimes tied to homelessness and police offers of help and services, moves that experts say can hamper efforts to help homeless San Diegans move off the street.

Gloria said he is exploring possible changes in the new year and looking at how the city might respond to community concerns in different ways.

“We all know that the law enforcement response is often the most expensive one and with not always the best outcomes,” Gloria said. “But the answer isn’t simply to stop that intervention. We have to have better options available to us.”

Some police enforcement decreased during the pandemic after VOSD and inewsource reported on continued efforts that contradicted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directives. Still, as The Reader recently reported, parking enforcement that can affect people living in their cars has soared.

The city made some changes to lessen the impact of continuing enforcement in the last year, including helping to expand access to homeless court to people not sponsored by a homeless service provider and to allow more people living in vehicles to address parking tickets through the program. It also rolled out a new diversion program late last year 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. Just 17 percent of participants who enrolled in the program between late November 2019 and the end of March remained for the full 30 days.

In response to the city’s homelessness plan, the City Council also voted this fall to create a coordinated street outreach program led by nonprofit PATH that will deploy social workers throughout the city to connect with homeless San Diegans.

Under Faulconer, city officials said the program was not meant to replace the police department’s homeless outreach team. Gloria could decide to change that in 2021.

The goal: Post data publicly so San Diegans can track the city’s progress.

The plan suggested more than two dozen metrics the city and Regional Task Force, the countywide group coordinating the local response to homelessness, could publicly track to show how the city is faring on efforts to reduce homelessness.

The Housing Commission this fall unveiled a dashboard on its website providing updates on key goals in the plan, including the number of supportive housing units in the city and written updates on various other goals

Jones said the dashboard is in its first phase and will be more regularly updated in 2021.

Lisa Halverstadt

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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