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Giving mass in New York City before 20,000 people in 2015, Pope Francis implored care for the homeless, saying, “These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.”
San Diego took a moment to push back on that “deafening anonymity,” as hundreds of volunteers set out in the predawn on Feb. 24 to count San Diego’s homeless residents for the annual point-in-time count organized by the Regional Task Force on Homelessness. The survey collects data on the estimated number of homeless people living in our communities, as well as the circumstances of their homelessness. Despite the early hour on the coldest morning of the year, thousands answered questions from strangers – a respite from anonymity – a moment to be heard and not taken for granted.
While good data and listening to those with lived experience is crucial, these moments must inspire policy action. We can end rough sleeping – people sleeping outside on stoops, benches, and sidewalks instead of a bed. We can challenge the cycle of chronic homelessness. We can support families on the brink and make sure they stay in their homes. Here are three things we can do, supported by data, to build new compassionate systems to end homelessness.
In the short term, the city should immediately lower barriers to getting people off the streets. Safe Campsites in centralized locations throughout the region, like the idea recently proposed by the Downtown San Diego Partnership, are showing results in San Francisco and Denver. This harm-reduction approach moves folks from dangerous street environments to coordinated, welcoming, safe camping locations to reduce the harms of rough sleeping and more effectively triage individual needs.
Not only do these city-sanctioned campgrounds have a sanitary and safe environment, they provide a place to create an economy of scale for services, reaching more people and saving more money. By co-locating services, outreach, and healthcare resources, combined with a low barrier alternative to a sidewalk, we meet the crisis with immediate, humane action.
In the medium term, San Diego needs to get serious about housing as many people as possible, as fast as possible. To do this, we should stand up a block-leasing program, under which the city of San Diego could master-lease thousands of units to get them quickly into the housing pipeline. These could be existing hotels, apartments, or converted vacant commercial spaces, which the city would manage and fill, working with the county to provide wrap-around physical and behavioral health services. The benefits include immediately eliminating barriers like credit worthiness, job stability, or security deposits, and creates a supply of units to rapidly re-house people from Safe Campsites. Because leases can be negotiated over longer terms with the city, block-leasing allows for stable and lower prices per unit. Such a program could be paid for through existing State funding like Homeless Housing, Assistance and Prevention (HHAP), Project Homekey, and federally funded rapid re-housing vouchers. Master-leasing works – it is a cornerstone tool in Bakersfield, for example, the first California city to achieve “functional-zero” chronic homelessness. Let’s try it here.
Over the long-term, our strategy for prevention mandates we build many more deeply affordable and middle-income homes. In addition to market-rate housing, it’s time to leverage serious public resources and build high-quality, mixed income Social Housing. Social Housing creates non-market rate housing through large-scale government enterprise, which stabilized housing costs in cities like Vienna, Singapore, and helped Helskinki eliminate homelessness.
Housing is the foundation for personal safety, health, and well-being. In San Diego, the constricted housing supply, generally, and the collapse of our deeply affordable housing stock has churned the most economically vulnerable out of homes and onto the street, with data indicating that the massive increase in housing costs directly contributes to the homeless emergency. This aligns with the annual point in time count’s preliminary data showing over 85 percent of the homeless population became homeless while living in San Diego.
Peer cities around the world like Helsinki, Singapore, and Vienna have demonstrated ways of building publicly-owned or financed housing for the middle-class, utilizing public land banks and municipal housing trusts. Transit-adjacent social housing can lower costs per unit and create thousands of units to stabilize the affordable housing supply and complete the journey to stability for those entering Safe Campsites and master-leased units.
The point-in-time count again reveals the profound, sprawling nature of the humanitarian crisis of homelessness. But the challenge need not cause analysis paralysis. While encampments downtown and at Midway have dominated recent news, the forgotten story is of unsheltered people in every San Diego neighborhood. Disbursing homelessness, instead of concentrating effort and proven solutions, is a game of whack-a-mole, with politicians claiming credit for cleaning up one site, while ignoring the systemic changes needed everywhere.
Cities around the world struggle with similar challenges to San Diego, but some have made different policy choices that challenge our ideas of what cities can be and who they are for. Our city needs to adopt global best practices with short-, medium-, and long-term plans to restore safety to our streets and dignity for everyone who calls San Diego home.