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Something happened 10-15 years ago to homelessness. I don’t know exactly what triggered it. But I remember walking through the Occupy San Diego protests – the tent encampments that sprang up at City Hall in 2011 demanding Wall Street accountability for the recession – and realizing many of the campers were not necessarily activists but homeless people who had come to live in what became a supportive village.  

After that, the tent – the personal tent, the nylon or polyester Coleman, Marmot or REI camping tent – came to define street homelessness across the country. It drastically changed the visibility and experience of street homelessness. 

Tents and homelessness are not a 21st Century combination. Tents and campers once filled the entirety of Mission Valley in the early 1940s as migrants from across the country clamored into San Diego to get the many jobs the defense industry created.  

But the tent encampments that sprang up in East Village, along the Navy Broadway Complex and throughout San Diego’s hundreds of canyon river beds, started to frame the conversation here differently. It was as if the unsheltered population were tired of two things: tired of hiding and tired of being cold.  

The tents privatized public rights of way and asserted homelessness into the public consciousness. 

They were a protest – a manifestation of our failure.  

The tents helped people create community and provide mutual aid. They created a sense of safety, privacy and even family life but also offered cover for crime and violence.  

Worse, though, are the concentrations of death and disease. An outbreak of the feces-borne hepatitis A led to suffering on such a scale in 2017 that it provoked city and regional leaders to take homelessness seriously in a way they had not, though the tent villages had expanded for several years. Now, even those most sympathetic to the tent encampments and the plight of their residents can’t deny the gruesome deaths they often host, whether it’s at the hands of murderers and traffickers or errant drivers who lose control of their vehicles.  More than 10 years on, we’re only now, barely, grappling with what the tents changed about homelessness. 

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said something recently about them that should provoke thousands of conversations and a wholesale rethinking of what we’re doing about this crisis.  

In an op-ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune March 28 about the homeless crisis plan he is pursuing, Gloria acknowledged the reality the tents have created: 

“One of the central challenges we face is that many of the folks camping on our sidewalks or in canyons don’t want to live in a congregate setting – which most of our shelters are – so they refuse offers of beds in these facilities,” he wrote.  

The city, right now, has 1,468 beds under contract in congregate or shared settings.  

People who have been working on homeless outreach and services have known that many people prefer their personal tents to congregate shelters for many years. There’s nothing particularly insightful about the mayor’s claim, except that he said it. And if he believes it, and he should, then it has enormous implications far beyond the city of San Diego. If others agree, we need to rethink how we are deploying millions of dollars meant to address the problem and how we are talking to people on the street.  

It’s like a taboo has finally been broken. People who are living in tent encampments don’t want to move to shelters. The data is overwhelming. Every time the city sweeps out a huge encampment, the vast majority of people outreach workers offer shelter to refuse. Why? Not because they want to remain homeless necessarily. But because their personal tents offer them dignity, privacy and enough shelter to survive.  

The congregate shelters, by contrast, can often be dystopic, dangerous and restrictive. Their incompatibility with healthy living became obvious, again, when disease struck. The very first thing former Mayor Kevin Faulconer realized as COVID-19 began spreading in the United States was that he needed to clear the congregate shelters. A bunch of people jammed into a poorly ventilated setting would have been ideal for the spread of the disease.  

COVID left homeless residents even less interested in those options as alternatives to their own camps.  

“If the environment they are coming into isn’t safe, clean or comfortable, what makes that different than being on the street?” said Hanan Scrapper, the regional director at People Assisting The Homeless, the city’s primary partner in many homeless outreach and assistance efforts. “When we do traditional shelters and response efforts, we’re not always thinking about dignity.” 

It turns out, unhoused residents are a lot like people who have homes. They want privacy. They want, though, to be close to community. They like pets. They like being together with loved ones. And yes, some of them like to do drugs or drink. All of these things, however, can be restricted or difficult in a congregate setting.  

So what are we even doing? Just last month, County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher announced the county was going to help prop up a new mega-tent shelter for 150 people in the Midway area. The mayor is supportive. But if the mayor agrees that congregate settings can’t compete with the tent encampments, why are we still supporting them? I asked his team.  

“Our goal on shelters is not to create the ideal situation but to put them in position to access services to become part of the system that ultimately leads them to housing and to get them off the street. It is not safe on the street,” said Rachel Laing, the mayor’s spokeswoman.  

But, the mayor himself said that’s not working? 

“Well, that’s where enforcement comes in. If we have enough beds, we are allowed to compel people to move,” she said.  

Now we are getting somewhere. We’re saying the quiet parts more loudly now. The congregate shelters, while helping some, provide a tool to the city. In a world where the personal tents changed everything and the widespread adoption of recreational camping gear by the homeless made life just comfortable enough, with just enough dignity, the large shelters allow the city to make homeless residents uncomfortable again.  

That’s what the mayor has decided to do. The tents make sense to some, he wrote.  

“But we simply can’t be a city that lets people set up camp wherever they please. It’s unsafe, it’s unsanitary and it speaks poorly of us all if we do nothing to address the destitution and despair,” he wrote.  

He’s also right about this but merely uprooting encampments sets off an endless cycle of uprooting and re-rooting. The people don’t disappear, they just regroup. The process is hard on the people on the streets, hard on the police who have to carry it out and if the ongoing presence of so much human suffering on our streets is itself a form of violence that traumatizes all who have to move through it, then the approach ensures the most people possible experience it.  

It may be worth, instead, rethinking this paradox. Sometimes when you are fighting something, you have to channel its energy rather than keep trying to destroy it. The personal tents are not good. But they represent a human desire to take care of oneself and to build community. The tents reveal not a desire to be on the street but a very human desire to build a home.  

There’s no reason our unsheltered population would not continue to do that on their own if given the space.  

“From our experience, what we’ve seen is when clients come into a clean, well-kept environment with good food and healthy culture, they try to take care of it. They see people care for them and it gives them hope,” said Scrapper.  

They want to build homes and yet we are spending so much of our resources and energy on trying to tear them down and force them into our system.  

It would be one thing if it were working but it’s not. Despite a mobilization of city, county and state resources, it is getting worse. More people are suffering. More are dying. More are living in filth. 

It’s no coincidence that our already extraordinary cost of living is skyrocketing just as the problem deepens. Homelessness is the lowest rung on the housing ladder. In place of cheap housing, they’re putting up personal tents.  

The mayor doesn’t want to accommodate them in a safe camping village, Laing says, because the city and providers cannot afford the support personnel needed to keep it safe. But he has also proven incapable of winning the war on the tents in the streets. 

If you’re losing a war and wasting money fighting it, it may be time to rethink it.  

The people on the streets are telling us they want space to set up their own lives. 

Whatever dollars we spend forcing them to consider our approach instead may be better spent keeping them safe and clean as they pursue their own.  

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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25 Comments

  1. I remember several years ago when the city had a tent encampment off of Pacific Hwy. I believe it had Alpha Project run it?

    Regardless, the idea of Safe Camping has started to spring up around homelessness, also the idea of Safe Parking, since RV’s are also part of the homeless problem. Let’s have areas designated for Safe Camping and Safe Parking. Such a system would I believe eliminate the garbage, and drug dealing that cause much of the problems associated with homeless encampments. It would also start cleaning up the downtown area.

    I will even nominate a location. There is about a 10 ac parcel owned by the City Parks Department at the end of Pacific Hwy where it intersects with Sea World Dr. It is cleared and currently used occasionally as over flow parking for events. There is enough room there for both Safe Camping and Safe Parking.

    Let’s start the process of addressing our homeless problem. As Scott Lewis talks about we will need a multi-prong approach composed of several different options.

    1. I like Bruce’s idea. Homeless also need schools for the children. Are there babies being born? Where are they born? Policing their own sections-neighborhood watch might be something. This might be something the homeless families might like. But the individuals who are camping on University and El Cajon Blvd (as an example) like living on the street, they like going through the neighborhoods stealing whatever catches their eye and then selling it. And we buy it from eBay, Craig’s list and other sites they use, or they sell it at the border. It’s just not one situation that is happening with the homeless. I wish our Mayor would have the skills to change what’s happening. I have only seen San Diego having more and more problems.

    2. That’s a good idea. But no one, no one at all that lives in Bay Park overlooking the bay would go for it. That puts it right in their face, where they would have to deal with it. Which makes people uncomfortable and upset. Everyone is against homelessness until it comes time to do anything at all about it. Then it isn’t their problem and “get it out of their face.”

  2. This may sound completely nutty, but the way you solve homelessness is by building homes. South Africa literally build tens of thousands of stand alone homes and subsidizes ownership.

    To accomplish this you can’t rely on private developers. We’ve clearly seen it doesn’t work. Shelters are needed but not a solution. Cities and states cannot afford the land, cost of building that quantity of homes, and the needed supporting community aspects of such an undertaking.

    But the federal government can afford it. They could start today. If we ever decided to have a “war in homelessness” instead of the shameful war on drugs or the numerous shooting wars we’re constantly engaged in, we could actually solve the problem.

    We simply don’t have the will. Americans believe generally that the rich deserve their riches and the poor deserve their poverty. They’d rather pay to house the homeless in prisons than in houses.

    People will complain about taxes, and housing the lazy, and rewarding alcoholism and drug addiction, and on and on, although there’s no real connection between taxes and the federal government undertaking such a program.

    They could do it anytime they want with a credit to the federal reserve. If only there were the will.

    1. I agree with all of the above- build more with rental subsidies, safe sites, and wrap around supportive services for as long as needed.

    2. But so many homeless like it that way. No rules whatsoever. They can’t live in the mainstream. And so many need mental help.

      1. You say this as if 1: you have 1st hand knowledge, 2: our houseless population has been offered SAFE, no-strings attached housing and said “Nope, I prefer to sleep on the street.” People don’t want to stay in communal shelters, it’s not entirely safe, and it’s dehumanizing, which you’d think couldn’t be possible after having people look right through you when you ask for food or just exist, but it is. Finland adopted a Housing First Program and it includes counseling and health care. Columbus, OH and Utah have instituted Housing First policies and have seen dramatically positive results in terms of their houseless communities. It’s doable, but people have to want to actually do something about it. But I’m afraid the number of people saying stuff like, “Nobody helped me, why should I do anything for them? They need to figure it out, I did!” Is higher than our housing prices. Too many NIMBYs.

        1. Elle, why are homeless shelters more “dehumanizing” than any military barracks that tens of millions of Americans service people have lived in?

          1. The difference with military barracks is that the people living in the barracks have a very regimented life, teaching the military discipline, and have a degree of personal space/privacy not available to those living in shelters. The people in the military barracks also have resources available to them such as clothing, medical care, sanitary facilities, relative freedom from violence, a command structure that usually cares.

            1. Ricky, those resources you mention sound like what would be available in a centralized regional shelter: all the necessary resources in one place such as health care, job counseling, etc. As for management that cares, the people who run shelters are far more dedicated than I think you know. As for privacy, it’s doesn’t seem much different than the military, and if they have less privacy, that’s just tough. They have no right to ruin our neighborhoods just because they like their privacy.

  3. Is the goal to get them into housing so they can get on their feet, get jobs and contribute to society or are we just trying to get them out of sight? Housing costs $ and I think there’s a fair argument for those that say they don’t want to pay for people to panhandle, drink and then go back to gov subsidizing housing for the night. I do think we’ve got a mental health housing problem that goes back to I think Reagan and then even Bush and Clinton cutting funds for mental health facilities, which just put those folks out on the street. Having lived in San Diego for 50+ years I see a conundrum: The climate attracts the rich (and everyone else) that drive up the property values and rental costs. The climate also attracts the homeless, whom the rich don’t want to see, and quite frankly, do create uncomfortable scenarios interfacing with business users or workers, or are intimidated by someone screaming incoherently in the middle of the street. Is the City of San Diego exacerbating it’s problem by overtly providing services at level above other municipalities and attracting more “users”? I remember a work buddy of mine in the 80’s from Denver saying that in the winter all the homeless head for so cal, it’s cooler than anywhere in AZ in the long run ….. and since then I have to say, the homeless have certainly increased. It’s a mess.

  4. This article points to the notion that we shouldn’t expect the unhoused community to live without the liberty of autonomy if they are willing and able to care for themselves in a community environment. I believe support for gig-charity will support this notion by multiplying the number of gig-job opportunities people will have to improve their situations via directly serving others around them. Increased efficiency in charity distribution and fulfillment can raise the value of charity delivered while reducing the cost of brick and mortar distribution systems all while rewarding the diligent for daily work. Privacy is a commodity that we’ve learned to appreciate in our modern economy which lends itself to the unhoused community as a thing of value no person is without. Gig-charity operations are already on the ground carving this new market up. In SD specifically, check out the Lucky Duck Foundation to see how they’re now paying members of the unhoused community for daily work performed. This is not a new concept, it’s innovation in the industry of charity.

    Support gig-charity.

  5. The housing first model (build units with supportive services) works. However, it costs a fortune and it takes a very long time to build the units. We need an interim approach while units are being built. That is where shelters come in. However, we must make those shelters more inviting so the homeless will use them. Let’s provide the staff it takes to make them safe and sanitary, and perhaps even allow some activities that have here to fore been taboo (e.g. drinking, but not drugs). All this stuff costs bucks. We had a $900 million ballot measure in 2019 that got 57% voter approval, but failed because it needed 67% (Kevin Faulconour did not support it!). Let’s put that up again for a vote.

  6. I wrote on my ballot statement for D2 SDCC to criminalize people who insist to live a vagabond life on public streets. OK? I’m a horrible despicable man, a cold-blooded soul with no heart. Except I don’t shed crocodile tears as society. We have had approximately 42 years to solve the problem of the unsheltered and the problem is worsening by the day. WHY? I will tell you why as with a firsthand account. I am a landlord. I have rented rooms to homeless folks at up to 70% below market rent only to have these people evicted for emotional and physical elder abuse. When I had my limo, I would give away a ton of gourmet food in the Gaslamp. I gave these folks money too. Most of these people are sick. Very sick! As a D2 candidate, I am proposing the construction of more hospitals/residence where 24-hour care would be provided. As it stands now, Mercy Hospital will discharge in a heartbeat. Both my Mama and Papa died at Mercy. Please don’t judge me as callous as I am a bleeding heart. I’ve devoted my life to helping others. We cannot continue like this anymore. If they want to work, we must give them a job. I say must as a last resort. The percentage who on their own volition, willpower who will accept housing by all accounts is not that significant. If they need housing, for the love of God, we can find housing for that number of people. I housed them myself and other landlords ought to follow suit at below market rents or even free temporarily. But I return to the drug, booze, emotional and psychological issues. These must be taken off the streets with compassion for society’s good as a matter of health and public safety. Candidates in my race who use the unsheltered as a wedge issue are immoral. The moral thing to do is to follow my plan. It’s tough and goes against societal hypocrisy but it is the right thing to do. Dan Smiechowski D2 SDCC Candidate 2022 (858 405 5118)

  7. To Scott Lewis,
    Gosh I guess bank robbers are telling us they need more money to support their lives. So by all means, let’s not force them to consider alternative ways of getting money. We need to rethink this while they continue their criminal (and vagrant) activities.
    —-Gary C., former VOSD supporter

  8. I talk with the homeless most days as I live downtown. Most do want a tent rather than a shelter because it offers privacy, and a sense of place. We all need to recognize this and provide a safe camping area. A few years back there was a parking lot near the 5 freeway at the bottom of Golden Hill – that worked out pretty well with toilets and some fresh water. There are private RV camps around the county – why not just set aside some camping grounds and provide similar service – showers, etc.

  9. Why not designate an area where those people who prefer tents can set up their simple homes and live in peace? I have traveled to other countries and seen how they segregate those kind of homeless into what are called slums which are areas that are close to wealthy areas but separate and the poor exist there just fine.

  10. Thank you liberals. You created this problem by normalizing, encouraging, and perpetuating deviance and non conforming behaviors. You name it: pedophilia, gender dysphoria, single parent households, blm, antifa, Socialism, communism, and on and on. You wonder why the SD homeless population is exploding? You made this bed, now lay in. Nice job turning one of the most beautiful cities in the US into a homeless encampment.

    1. Capitalism made the problem, not liberals! Paying low and unskilled people a wage that is half what is needed to support them, while techies and others make a fortune is obscene.

  11. A perspective: while shelters indeed do not offer much privacy and the opportunity to have many of one’s personal possessions and pets, and the opportunity to drink and do drugs, the same is true of army, navy, or marine barracks. If it’s good enough for our armed service members, why isn’t it good enough for the homeless? If they don’t want to go to shelters, and prefer shitting on our sidewalks, tough.

  12. There is only ONE THING that causes homelessness: LACK OF SUFFICIENT INCOME. Rising homelessness and homeowner-downsizing is being caused by skyrocketing housing costs with little to no increase in income, combined with an increasing loss of new-job buying power (even new, higher minimum wages aren’t keeping up). Millions of alcoholics and drug abusers are not homeless.

    The skyrocketing cost of housing is amplifying the problem, but politicians are under tremendous pressure to never do anything about increasing housing without including private developers because our system is supposedly “Capitalism”. It’s not really Capitalism because corporate executives are bailed out and given free money by the government all the time, making our system “GENEROUS SOCIALISM FOR THOSE WEALTHY ENOUGH”. This mentality is an abomination against tax paying workers.

    Any attempts to create truly affordable, low-income housing are thwarted by developers and their lobbyists, who always demand large profits. New “low-income” development is not really “affordable” since costs have outstripped income at all levels. There might be one or two rental units made available for those few at the high end of “low-income” for every two hundred medium-to-high-income units currently being developed, but nothing for the truly “low-income” – nothing for those who were forced into homelessness by rising housing costs – and ALL new renters/buyers who do have sufficient income will use two-thirds or more of their net income for housing.

    The government’s ability to fund, own and maintain housing has always been a form of competition as a check against runaway inflation by private developers within the US form of “Capitalism”. If public funds were used to develop publicly-owned and managed “public housing” for all income levels, without being thwarted by private, profit-motivated developers and their lobbyists, who are now legally allowed to bribe, threaten and extort politicians, there would be little to no homelessness.

    FOR THOSE WITH ANECDOTES ABOUT ALCOHOL AND DRUG ABUSE BY THE HOMELESS: The abuse of drugs and alcohol doesn’t make people homeless, otherwise there would be millions more homeless. There are literally thousands of luxury rehab facilities throughout the USA that serve hundreds of thousands of the wealthiest US citizens.

  13. The government could build high rise apartment complex with single, double rooms. The rooms can be smaller, studio sizes. Encampment should be banned all across CA then the homeless will consider government housing.

  14. Supervisor Nathan Fletcher is on the right track: well run cogregate shelters are the best first step. Also important: the city needs to register every homeless person regardless of where they live. The city needs to know who they are, where they are, & what services are needed to get them into more permanent housing.

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