Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced in late March 2020 the city’s plan to turn Golden Hall into a temporary homeless shelter with more than 240 beds in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced in late March 2020 the city’s plan to turn Golden Hall into a temporary homeless shelter with more than 240 beds in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer has touted his track record on homelessness throughout his bid for governor – and his Republican gubernatorial opponents sought to undermine that pitch during a Wednesday debate.

The exchanges put the spotlight on the complicated record Faulconer has on one of the state’s biggest crises. The former mayor dramatically increased service offerings to address homelessness. He also ratcheted up police enforcement to try to compel homeless San Diegans to use those services, a tack he has played up during his bid for governor but avoided emphasizing while he was mayor. Yet Faulconer was reluctant to lead on homelessness until a deadly hepatitis A outbreak devastated San Diego’s homeless population nearly four years into his tenure. He can indeed point to drops in homelessness on his watch but changes to the annual homeless census and its methodology, plus city crackdowns that have made homelessness less visible, complicate Faulconer’s comparisons.

Republican former Rep. Doug Ose and businessman John Cox seized on those issues and more on Wednesday night.

Ose described the former mayor as “plastic” and said the reductions in homelessness that Faulconer has described don’t “hold up to examination.”

Cox, a fellow San Diegan, described seeing “tents all over the place” during a drive downtown last week.

Faulconer pushed back, claiming “double digit” reductions in homelessness during his time as mayor and noting as he has often during the campaign that he did not allow homeless camps on city sidewalks. He also said his efforts had improved the quality of life for both homeless and housed San Diegans.

“I am going to lead by example as governor and take that exact same firm approach,” Faulconer said.

Here’s some context on claims Faulconer and his opponents made Wednesday night.

Faulconer’s Claim: He reduced homelessness by double digits.

Opponent’s Claim: Changes in police enforcement and count methodology drove those results.

Experts caution that annual homeless counts that can become major political talking points aren’t comprehensive assessments. They represent a minimum number of homeless residents and a snapshot of a complex problem. Counting methods also often change, as they did in San Diego. Other dynamics such as police enforcement and broader societal issues can also shift numbers.

Here’s how I described what happened to San Diego’s homelessness numbers in a December story digging into Faulconer’s homelessness track record:

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.

Opponent’s Claim: Faulconer “rousted the homeless,” as Ose put it, and forced them to move elsewhere.

Faulconer’s Claim: He didn’t allow homeless camps on city sidewalks while he was mayor and used police to help move more homeless San Diegans into shelters.

Faulconer’s approach to homelessness in San Diego 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 told me last year.

During his tenure, and particularly in the wake of the hepatitis A outbreak fueled in part by poor sanitation in downtown homeless camps, Faulconer dramatically ramped up police enforcement of crimes associated with homelessness. In 2018, he created a police division focused on quality-of-life crimes and addressing homelessness.

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. And in 2019 alone, police data reveals officers wrote about 3,330 citations and made 1,425 arrests for encroachment and illegal lodging, the latter of which is settling somewhere without permission.

Faulconer’s approach contradicted the city’s own 2019 homelessness plan and has for years drawn criticism from experts and advocates who say arrests and citations complicate efforts to move homeless San Diegans off the street and do more to displace them than help them.

Despite all that enforcement, there were still homeless camps in San Diego. Until earlier this year, though, there were fewer of those camps downtown. There are more of them now, as Cox noted Wednesday night when he described a recent drive in East Village.

So did police help move more homeless San Diegans off the street? Faulconer and police last year reported that the department’s homeless outreach team had helped facilitate more than 40 percent of intakes into the Convention Center shelter that then served as a temporary shelter during the pandemic.

Yet many homeless San Diegans told me during Faulconer’s tenure that they weren’t confident in the solutions police offered, at least in part because police were the ones offering them. Police-affiliated diversion and shelter programs created on Faulconer’s watch also garnered less favorable overall outcomes than other homeless service programs in the city.

Meanwhile, more than 2,500 people who have stayed in bridge shelter programs and the Convention Center shelter that opened on Faulconer’s watch have connected with permanent or longer-term homes – though these and shelter programs throughout San Diego have long struggled with the lack for affordable housing available for formerly homeless people.

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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