Street homelessness and despair appear to be rising on city streets and partial county data shows drug overdose deaths also spiked among homeless residents last year, ushering in renewed calls for new solutions.
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Street homelessness and the misery tied to it appear to be surging to new highs across San Diego.
Tents and makeshift homes line downtown sidewalks, open space in Balboa Park and other corners of the city. Dozens of residents created a village along Sports Arena Boulevard in the Midway District that eventually drew the sort of clean-up operations and police crackdowns typically concentrated downtown.
The suffering of residents residing outside is palpable. Many are pessimistic that help is coming and have recently endured cold, rainy weather and weeks of halted city shelter intakes amid spiking COVID cases in those shelters. Partial data on deaths investigated by the county Medical Examiner’s Office shows deaths of unhoused people are also rising. Drug overdose deaths among homeless residents alone spiked 85 percent in the city in 2021.
Experts fear the situation could worsen amid skyrocketing rents and other threats.
A downtown business group’s monthly census showed in late January that street homelessness had already soared by more than 60 percent downtown and areas just outside it since last spring. Local leaders are now bracing for the results of last week’s countywide point-in-time count, which could document a dramatic increase in homelessness when the results are unveiled later this year.
The painful realities on city streets have inspired downtown power brokers to rally behind an option many would have opposed years ago: city-sanctioned plots they are dubbing safe villages that could be filled with tents or even tiny homes. It’s unclear whether the idea will materialize, but the Downtown San Diego Partnership has hired a consulting firm led by a former homeless San Diegan to help it assemble a more specific pitch.
Mayor Todd Gloria, who for months resisted the concept, said he’s now eager for more details from the Partnership. He acknowledged he’s frustrated with the worsening state of the city’s homelessness crisis and how the pandemic has hampered efforts to move more people indoors as cases have spiked and service providers face staffing shortages.
“We’re not in a position to turn away any idea that has merit and is feasible and is implementable, but without locations, staffing, budget, it becomes more of a suggestion than a true proposal,” Gloria said. “And so, my ears are open. My door is open.”
Councilman Stephen Whitburn, who represents and lives downtown, said he supports the safe village concept and City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said he thinks it is worth seriously considering.
For now, Gloria said his team is focused on finding new sites for shelter and housing. He noted that the city and county late year converted a shuttered Pier 1 Imports store in Midway into a shelter for people with addiction and mental health challenges. He said he’s eager to do the same elsewhere if the city can find workable properties. He also highlighted the bolstered non-police homeless outreach and rent relief the city has deployed to try to stem its homelessness crisis.
But absent widespread new solutions, those living on the street are increasingly dejected. Many question whether housing and help that fits their needs will ever manifest. COVID outbreaks in city shelters have made some more reluctant to move into shelters they already weren’t sold on – and there are far from enough open shelter beds to house all sleeping outdoors.
At the same time, advocates have raised flags about the increasing vulnerability of the city’s homeless population. Advocates and homeless residents themselves have also decried controversial police enforcement and homeless camp clean-ups they say add to the trauma they experience.
More people facing harsh conditions on street appear to be frail, aging and grappling with health conditions. More homeless residents also seem to be struggling with mental health and substance abuse challenges, sometimes fueling tense encounters with housed residents frustrated by local governments’ response to the problem. Open drug use is now routine downtown and has only increased in recent months, adding to the tension.
Demonstrating the deteriorating condition on the streets, deaths among homeless residents are increasing. Partial data from the county Medical Examiner’s Office suggests deaths of homeless residents investigated by the county spiked 44 percent in the city from 2020 to 2021, an increase that likely undercounts the scourge because it doesn’t account for COVID-19 deaths or include 2021 deaths that remain under review. Separately reported 2020 data from the county showed 10 COVID-related deaths among the region’s homeless population. The county has since reported another 25 deaths.
More rampant drug overdoses and deaths tied to them drove the overarching increase in deaths. The partial county data shows accidental drug overdose deaths of homeless residents nearly doubled in the city in 2021 – and at least 70 deaths in the city alone were tied to fentanyl, an opioid painkiller that is 100 times more powerful than morphine that is increasingly laced into other drugs.
Earlier this month, I was crossing a street on the edge of East Village when I heard cries for help from a tent. Multiple people inside were calling out for opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone – commonly sold as Narcan – as a companion inside faded. Another homeless resident sprinted over to hand off the lifesaving treatment as I began to dial 9-1-1. A man emerged from the tent moments later, faint and sweating as he waited for paramedics to arrive.
That’s now a regular occurrence on downtown streets.
Joseph Therrien, 68, who spends his nights in East Village is among the homeless residents who are losing faith that the situation will improve.
He recounted being robbed and beaten with a baseball bat last fall and laying on the sidewalk for hours before help arrived. That experience and others during his years on the street have hardened him. He’s skeptical that the city and its homeless programs can help him.
“They have all these big ideas, but it never gets done the way it’s supposed to,” Therrien said. “By the time it gets done, people are dead.”
Meanwhile, more people seem to be falling into homelessness. More advocates and homeless San Diegans report seeing newcomers sleeping in vehicles, canyons and on city streets.
I met Toneca, 64, earlier this month on an Imperial Avenue sidewalk surrounded by several family members. She said they had recently moved to San Diego after they were unable to remain with a friend in Las Vegas.
Toneca said her family sought beds at nonprofit Father Joe’s Villages the day they arrived only to learn there weren’t any available, likely because city shelters halted intakes amid COVID outbreaks. Shelters began taking in new clients again on a limited basis the day before we met.
While Toneca and her family awaited shelter, she said she and her family members had witnessed constant drug activity and had belongings stolen.
“It’s bad,” Toneca said.
Bryan “Cowboy” Rhoades, 51, who has recently stayed on Sports Arena Boulevard in the Midway District, agreed.
“I am so ready to get out of here,” he said earlier this month before police resumed enforcement of crimes associated with homelessness in the area.
About six months ago, Rhoades said, a car hit his tent overnight, sending him and his dog Blue flying. An advocate put him up in a hotel after he was quickly released from the hospital. Rhoades later ended up back on Sports Arena Boulevard, where he stayed for months. When I spoke to him last week, he was mulling where to move after another stint in a hotel and increased police enforcement at the Midway camp..
Rhoades told me he doesn’t see a city shelter as an ideal landing place because it would be hard on Blue, who is protective of him and uncomfortable with crowds.
Many other homeless residents have shared perspectives like this with me for years.
They want to move off the street, but they’re concerned about conditions in packed shelters that make them anxious or fearful their belongings may be stolen, or rules such as curfews that may complicate their ability to work night jobs or make them feel less like independent adults. They also worry about being separated from their partners or street families – and in the past couple years, about COVID outbreaks in city shelters.
The Housing Commission reports it has taken steps to minimize rules at its shelters in recent years including directing shelter providers to relax curfew requirements and allow pets.
But the concerns remain.
So does the city’s so-called progressive enforcement approach to crimes tied to homelessness, which began under former mayor Kevin Faulconer. If police have an open shelter bed to offer and a homeless resident refuses it, she can be cited for pitching a tent without permission or blocking a sidewalk after first being warned. After multiple encounters and declined shelter offers, she can be arrested.
Gloria has defended the city’s enforcement strategy and said it is meant to encourage homeless residents to move from the street into shelters and ideally, into housing, rather than continue to languish in unsanitary, unsafe conditions. The mayor’s office reports that about 100 city shelter residents recently secured permanent homes in a new supportive housing project downtown.
“The goal is to get them (into shelter), get them stabilized and get them graduated out into housing,” Gloria said. “That’s the objective.”
Rhoades and at least a half dozen other homeless residents I spoke to in recent weeks told me they would likely embrace the safe village concept the Downtown Partnership is pushing over city shelter beds. Several said they’d appreciate a safe space at an outdoor site where they could have their own personal space and access services and amenities including showers, laundry service and case management. Several other homeless residents said a safe village wouldn’t be a good fit for them, but a handful thought others would check it out.
The Downtown Partnership and a chorus of homeless advocates argue the city needs to deliver new options for homeless residents amid surging street homelessness and suffering.
Echoing prominent advocates and other power brokers who spoke out amid a 2017 hepatitis A outbreak that exemplified public health concerns tied to an exploding population of people living on the street, Downtown Partnership CEO Betsy Brennan and others insist that the city can’t wait for permanent housing to materialize and must deliver rapid solutions for its seemingly growing population of homeless residents living outside – and prioritize solutions for those not inclined to move into bustling shelters.
“The right thing to do is something now,” Brennan said.
Advocate John Brady, who once lived on the street in East Village and now leads the consulting firm helping the Downtown Partnership shape its safe villages proposal, said he has been taken by the despair he’s seeing on city streets as he works on the project.
Earlier this month, Brady said he tried to help a man staying at the Midway camp who was hospitalized with second-degree burns after his tent caught fire. The man told Brady he left the hospital before a doctor cleared him to leave, concerned he would lose what was left of his belongings during a planned Thursday city clean-up operation if he didn’t return to his charred tent. After Brady told police about the man’s predicament, the department’s Homeless Outreach Team helped transport the man’s belongings to a storage unit and take him back to the hospital. But the hospital wouldn’t readmit him.
The next day, Brady saw the man lying in a sleeping bag behind a discount store.
“It’s heartbreaking right now,” Brady said.
Tamera Kohler, CEO of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, thinks the city should seriously explore safe village amid worsening conditions on the street. She noted that other cities including Seattle and San Francisco have pursued sanctioned camping areas and that it could be a particularly important response to help get more homeless San Diegans connected to help in a way that works for them.
“I think the opportunity that it presents us is to have really listened to those who have some real, legitimate concerns about sheltering in a traditional shelter environment and their desire to have a safe place to potentially camp where we can also assess needs, offer services, engage them in a way where we also know where they are and they have some level of security,” Kohler said.
The concept isn’t entirely new in San Diego
In 2017, the city hurried to open a safe campground in a city operations yard amid the hepatitis A outbreak that devastated the region’s homeless population. There were few complaints despite initial concerns from neighbors, but the camp shut down as the city opened three new shelters.
Yet there have long been concerns about the model.
A former federal official Gloria last year hired to advise him on the city’s homelessness response panned the former campground in a 2017 letter to regional officials, arguing that it didn’t focus enough on moving people staying there into permanent homes. Programs elsewhere have faced similar criticisms.
The model also brings safety and liability concerns for governments since participants may overdose or use drugs or alcohol inside their city-sanctioned structures.
Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy, whose nonprofit ran the 2017 San Diego campground, has said his group had to take to greater pains to monitor the safety of those who were staying in tents rather than open-air shelter beds. Alpha Project thus far isn’t pushing to operate a new safe campground. Advocate Michael McConnell, who has for years documented the city’s homelessness problem on social media almost daily, said he supports the city pursuing the safe campground concept again because many homeless residents liked the approach in 2017.
McConnell said it seems like a humane response to the reality he admitted he’s recently struggled with himself. He said homeless San Diegans he encounters seem to be facing more challenges and yet are more grateful for even small acts of kindness.
Homelessness is more visible and so is the suffering associated with it.
“When I drive around, I don’t even know how to describe it. I just haven’t ever felt quite like this, just driving around. I think it’s because I know if you thought it was hard to get people help before, it’s just so hard now,” said McConnell, who spends hours a week driving to and visiting homeless camps. “It’s really banging your head against the wall right now. It’s taking so long for people to get help.”
And there seem to be more people who need that help.
Jakob McWhinney contributed reporting.
‘..city-sanctioned plots they are dubbing safe villages that could be filled with tents or even tiny homes…’
and parking – tents and parking so people can sleep in their vehicles – the city tickets people living in their vehicles until the city has the ‘legal right’ to confiscate the vehicle, which leaves the people living on the sidewalk.
Wtf wasn’t I counted last week??!! I was laid off 23 months ago due to covid, and evicted AFTER my apartment complex was sold despite living there 17 years and never was late paying my rent in my entire adult life!! I’ve been living in my car in El Cajon City since mid-September and am 4 weeks max from running out of my life savings and about to lose my storage unit with EVERYTHING I own in it from clothes to collectibles to furniture to everyday household stuff! So, my ONLY choice is death once I’ve spent my last dollar! Bye shitty government resources!!
This is exactly what happened to my daughter who survived, living in her van con version in S.D. for almost 10 years. During a period when she was struggling to have it repaired… her adoptive city’s police impounded the vehicle that was her home.
Thankfully, she was able to emigrate to Hawaii, which has much more humane and constructive policies that has returned her to a housed person.
My apartment caught fire 5 months ago burning my 34yr old son 3rd degree burns on 89% of his body, he’s now out of hospital and we’ve been homeless since. We live in the unincorporated area of fallbrook, there are NO programs available for us. Due to his open wounds a shelter is absolutely out of the question. What our mayor and all government officials for san Diego county need to put a cap on the rediculas rents out there. We’ve lived in fallbrook our whole lives, over 55yrs for me, perfect rental history great credit, but I’m disabled and you can’t afford these rents on SSA. The rents through out San Diego county have tripled over the last year, it’s a crime people are taking advantage of renters. If you can afford 2 grand and up a month there’s tons of places available. I can’t afford more than 1300 tops. If I could afford over 2 grand a month I would buy a place. The only way things are going to change is blowing up our current government local officials emails ect that they immediately impose rental caps on greedy landlords and rental companies. And no, not all families homeless are druggies. More of them are NOT than are. Yes there’s a major problem with this issue, but I’m sick and tired of all the officials blaming the problem on drug addicts. My son and I don’t use drugs, we’ve got money to rent a place, but everything is priced so high my income alone won’t cover it. Until he’s healed, which according to doctors is going to be well over a year my income is all we have. Prayers going up for all of us.
‘.. 2017 hepatitis A outbreak ..’
in response to the hepatitis outbreak the city created a $6 million/year budget item called ‘cleansd’ – clean san diego – doesn’t that sound nice?
not one penny has ever went toward cleaning supplies – every penny goes to pay cops OVERTIME to terrorize the homeless 24/7 ..
the government has created the homeless epidemic – that’s why hundreds of millions is allocated to the homeless, but the epidemic continues to grow – defund the cops – cut their evil, bloated budget in half – and invest in education, skills training, small business grants, and housing – invest is the optimum word ….
I also support a Safe Village concept. The fact is many homeless are refusing shelters. We must either relax the rules, or find an alternative.
The other problem we must address is that people are becoming homeless faster than we can get them off the street. We have to turn off the faucet. I suspect it is way cheaper to prevent someone from becoming homeless than it is to get them off the street.
It mystifies me that no politician at the federal, state or local level is talking about the root cause of homelessness. Beyond the 40% who are mentally ill or abuse drugs and alcohol (which should be addressed more vigorously through the mental health system), we have an economic problem. People in expensive, thriving cities cannot afford an apartment while making the minimum wage. These are service workers we see every day. In fact it is estimated that 10 to 12% of the homeless have jobs, but cannot afford a roof over their head. Increasing unsubsidized housing construction will not lower home prices and rents near enough. We need a program that pairs housing with job skills and a national job bank that can inform the homeless where they can find jobs and live off of the street.
How many years and millions wasted before we admit coddling the vagrants gets none of them off the street and only attracts more? Zero tolerance for drugs, camping and sex trafficking will start to clean up this mess.
100% agree with Craig. The more free money that is thrown at these problems to try and make the situation temporarily “better”, the less incentive people have to stay off (or get off) the streets. Suppose we gave every single “unhoused” person a free and clear $10k/month stipend to pay for rent, groceries, health insurance, car payment, etc. Would those people suddenly clean up their acts, become contributing members of society, and cut themselves off the $10k/month program, OR would it become the new minimum base level expectation of assistance?
And even though we might have no homeless for a very brief moment (assuming everyone took the offer), how many *new* unhoused people would immediately migrate here from other areas (or simply give up on trying to barely survive here) in order to claim the $10k/month windfall? Back to square one, again!
Yes a bunch of them would take it and get back on their feet. More than half of homeless are the ‘one paycheck away’ that one small problem escalated and they lost their homes. And of all the money allocated to fight homelessness how much do you think actually goes where it needs to? And that goes to the other concerns too. Money never goes where it needs. There were so many hotel rooms that were paid for during covid that went empty. The people who could have used them didnt even know about them. So much waste.
I agree…where is all this “money” I left a comment that explains my situation but I can’t find a single resource available… nothing… so where is the help? How do people find it? Because calling the “ CES or 211 or whatever other busy line they give you” spins you full circle right back to Hurry up and Wait.. nothing is available… you’ll have to get on our 5 year waitlist… etc etc etc
Always an easy answer, eh Craig? “Off with their heads.”
Why don’t any of these articles give more details on the ‘homeless’. We don’t need their real names, but we need to know the what/why if we are ever going to have a solution.
Where are the millions that are given to the city for the homeless outreach going when they are not used? Also the city does not ever address the property owners which the homeless vandalize, defecate and cause a lot of clean up with scattered trash to their properties. I understand and truly sympathize with the problem but each agency throws the ball to the other and where is ALL the money going? Many homeless do not want help from what I have been told by many agencies because there are rules in the shelters etc so they prefer to stay on the street. Put the homeless to work, have them help build their city, give them jobs and a purpose where they live and this might alleviate some issues
How about coordinating with the homeless to find a way to pay them for cleaning up after the homeless? Similar to how the County takes people with minor criminal infractions (e.g., misdemeanor DUI) and assigns them to a work crew cleaning trash off the banks of highways. Vest them up, give them tools and have them sweep through encampments to make them more sanitary.
I really struggle to have sympathy for these folks, but at the same time feel anger at our politicians who can’t seem to get out of their own way to solve, or at least make significant headway to this problem. Perfect is the enemy of good. While none of the solutions are perfect, some progress has to be made and I tire in hearing from these “advocates,” raising objections to solutions that are broached. I’m also tired of having to dodge these folks, step over their feces and see them sprawled out across the sidewalks down-town, or seeing their trash strewn across any number of sidewalks, etc. As for rules, I’m sorry, I follow rules everyday. I pay my taxes to pay for the sidewalks and streets they seem to want to call home. I pick up after myself and put my trash in proper receptacles. As for the mentally ill, I remember as a police officer during Reagan’s adminstration when all these folks suddenly showed up on the streets talking to themselves and God. Seems the Adminsitration saw fit to cut off most of funding for mental health care, so people got tossed out on the streets. And while those folks that were kicked out are long gone, their successor mentally ill folks still can’t get the help they need. Perhaps this Downtown initiative will gain some traction and start getting these folks off the streets. And as for that family that, for some reason, decided to come to San Diego rather than stay in Vegas. Send them back where they came from. If I remember they used to by people bus tickets to send them to family.
This is a national problem and needs a Federal program. I don’t see anything coming in the political environment we have now, but a large part of the problem is getting agreement on institutionalization of mentally ill who are incapable of caring for themselves.
Too bad our homeless are not UN-designated refugees from a foreign country who don’t know our language nor our culture and have never paid a dime in taxes. If they were, they would immediately get housing, medical, food, and other assistance.
Thank you for writing and publishing this article. It’s one of the most intelligent, interesting, and rational group of words I’ve come across in a long time.
Most importantly though, is the empathy. Thank you for acknowledging that , human beings that may be different because they don’t hold their hell within 4 walls, they are still human beings. If only everyone could experience exactly what the “homeless” experience EVERY second of every day, then maybe the world wouldn’t be so cruel because people can’t humble themselves.
Great read, great writing, great message.
1) Why does the media always call the clean ups “police enforcement?” The city does the clean ups with back up from the police. The police work for the city and just following orders.
2) So another “consulting firm” to figure this out? ” How many city employees are paid 100,000 a year to just handle homeless issues. Where are they??? Todd Gloria just hired a bunch and how many advisory board and committed are there. Ridiculous. Todd Gloria acts like he hasn’t been dealing with this for over 15 years in office.
I totally agree. City employees who supposed to help to battle homelessness are sitting in their offices. and makes good money. I live in Downtown. I have never seen them talking to homeless people and actively participate to get them off the streets. It’s a waste of our $. What about us just regular people. We pay property taxes. We pay income taxes. Why money we pay do not go to combat homelessness? Why we have to be afraid to walk on the streets and see hundreds of tents and pities of trash, needles, feces from homeless people. They do not obey the rules. They do not want any rules. We need to build them safe villages where each unit is cost efficient and safe. And we need this as soon as possible. How long our ofícialas will talk and talk, and no results. How long we can handle that?
It’s not surprise that homelessness is still a problem. The city had an opportunity to get $61 million from the state to build affordable housing or use it for other projects to help the homeless and they did nothing. Please report on why this happened. And now that the CEO of the San Diego Housing Commission, Richard Gentry has conveniently resigned, how does that impact getting anything done. Would like more follow up on these stories.
We need to see how our dollars are spend, every penny. How much this year 2022 was given toward resolution of homeless crisis and how it was spend. The report should be visible for the public. How many people purchased homes in Downtown San Diego? How much City Of Downtown received from tax payers, including from property taxes , business tax, Ball Park profit, Convention Center, parking meters, etc. We need a real plan and not to feed people who profit from homeless problem, Safe villages are good options and it must be approved as soon as possible instead of our authorities to discuss it for additional 10 years and by then every household in San Diego would be affected by homeless crisis. Also mandatory treatment for mentally sick or have serious addiction abuse who are danger for themself and others. Those individuals should not walk freely on our streets. We need to see monthly report how many homeless are out of the street, how many are getting treatment in the mental institutions.
Conservative cities don’t have this problem… SD is a Democrat run city and has a major problem… El Cajon and O-Side don’t because they don’t allow it. Stop listening to “homeless advocates” and listen to your TAX PAYING CONSTITUENTS… as someone who’s almost been killed twice in 3 years in PB… I can assure you that their plans are a joke, they’re disorganized, they have zero experience in the real world… Take the Communications Director of The SD Regional Task Force FOR EXAMPLE… he was Dr. Campbell’s Director of communication who said, “It’s not illegal to be homeless.” In response to having PB’s trash picked up more frequently bc of a major undocumented population living in our district… the guy has ZERO EXPERIENCE WITH HOMELESS but now he’s their Communications Director? We can’t make this crap up in SD… it’s a war zone.
I don’t normally comment but I felt compelled to today. I agree, there is no level of privacy or “home” in the shelter.
I worked 17 years in banking, my husband did shipping and receiving.. we saved, bought a food truck and ran our own business. Our children ages 5 and 7 went to gymnastics and football We lived an average lifestyle.
Last year my husband was I’ll got in the shower and fell.. he was air lifted to emergency open heart surgery apparently he ruptured his aorta. His chances were slim .. He made it through surgery but had a spinal stroke and was now paralyzed from the chest down… 3 months in icu with daily fevers of 104. We learn the surgeon left a hand towel in his chest.. during these 3months he suffered bed sores which infected to sepsis and they had to amputate both legs. We lost our home, our business and our stability. Our children were scared confused.
We then moved only to find that our new landlord was running from code enforcement and per a warrant unbeknownst to us the house was condemned.
We had no money left and no where to go. 4 months ago we came downtown to the shelter.
Staff enters without knocking anytime… people fight, scream.. we walk through naked people passed out with needles in their arms to get to school.
We were finally placed in housing just to go see the unit and realize it was upstairs with no wheelchair access. “I’m sorry,we’ll place u back in que” they tell us.
I’m depressed. Drs say my husband has 3 years.. he should be on a high protein diet, but we can’t have food, only if it’s shelter food, we are only given tap water room temp, “if u want ice get a drs note”, for frozen water??
He needs an air rotating mattress and memory foam because he’s recovery from bed sores. I can’t shower him because I must have my kids with me all times.
I hang a sheet and I’m told to take it down. The very little toys and Clothes we brought are apparently clutter and need to be thrown away…
Sooo sometimes homeless is something you are forced into.. you never imagine yourself here… and then Here you are.
I understand not wanting to be in the shelter and instead being in a tent… you feel degraded, like a child, your given zero privacy not even in your room to dress. If u want something other than zucchini onions and meat mash noodles you have to eat out in the element…
My kids look at me different because my authority has been stripped…. Mom u have to do what they say, your not in charge anymore.
Being here is depressing, life changing, degrading, and miserable.
Housing seems unreal. The classes are BS parenting classes was 1hour while they read and answered all questions For you.
I was made to learn a resume… seriously?? I am college educated.. I know how to write a resume, what a waste. It’s not helpful at all.
Housing seems like a pipe dream and I’m started to understand why people turn to drugs… this environment will break you down… THANKS MAYOR FOR ALL THE HELP but maybe it’s time to listen to the people going through it… stop coming up with solutions from your million dollar house.
Sorry it’s just extremely frustrating
Thanks for listening
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