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.