A homeless encampment near Market Street in downtown San Diego / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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San Diego’s latest homeless census found the number of people living on the street and in shelters has grown 10 percent since the last count in 2020. But because it’s a one-night snapshot, experts agree that number is just the minimum. 

The Regional Task Force on Homelessness tallied 8,427 homeless individuals across the county in late February for its annual point-in-time count. But other data points suggest the scope of the region’s homelessness crisis is much larger. 

More than 21,000 individuals accessed temporary housing, such as shelters, or interacted with outreach workers from October 2020 to September 2021. And that doesn’t include people linked with housing or housing resources, meaning it understates the volume of people who grappled with homelessness during that time, reports Lisa Halverstadt

To get a better grasp on what the new numbers represent, Voice Managing Editor Andrew Keatts spoke with the task force’s CEO, Tamera Kohler, about caveats in the data, her takeaways from the count and why she’s optimistic about the future. 

Here are some interesting parts of that conversation, edited for clarity and length. 

Listen to the full interview with Kohler here

Andrew Keatts: Why don’t we just start with the big picture. What was it that this year’s census of San Diego County’s homeless population told us about this crisis that we’re dealing with? 

Tamera Kohler: I think the point-in-time count is something that is sometimes misunderstood. So, I’m just going to level set a little bit of what it is. It is required every other year in San Diego. We have felt it’s important to do it every year, but because of the pandemic we didn’t do it last year. This year it gives us a snapshot — it’s not the big picture numbers, it’s on one given night and it gives us a lot of trend data. It gives us a minimum number of individuals that we find unsheltered. So that means on your street, in cars, any place you really wouldn’t spend the night that’s not called housing or shelter. And this year, we have a different environment than we had prior to the pandemic. 

So although we’ll make some comparisons to 2020, I think it’s really important not to make strong comparisons because we all know how different our lives are today after a pandemic. But we found no less than 8,427 individuals experiencing homelessness — both unsheltered and sheltered. We’re not going to catch every person in a car, a canyon and out of the way spaces, but that is the number of people we talked to or we saw. 

AK: We’re talking 8,000-some people that we were able to count in this point-in-time number, but there were nearly three times that number of people who at one time or another in San Diego did not have a home. I don’t want people to overlook how much bigger in magnitude that is about the number of people who are living in some sort of despair in this county. 

TK: Not only is this a minimum count, but we shouldn’t be looking at it as it’s only 8,400 individuals. It’s not, it’s a bigger challenge. It’s a bigger problem. It’s a bigger group of individuals. And it also means we need to plan for those bigger numbers. So, the 21,000 individuals who touched those emergency services — literally homeless, whether in shelter or unsheltered — were three times the amount. The point-in-time count tells us a couple things: Experiencing homelessness in San Diego is a bigger problem than we even can wrap our heads around in a point-in-time count. And secondly, not all of those individuals are still experiencing homelessness or our count would show 21,000. 

So people move through our system. Homelessness is addressed in a number of ways every single day. But every single day more people are coming into the system as well. 

AK: To add another point of comparison, you’ve kept these numbers going back over time, and just in 2017 there were fewer than 10,000 people coming through the system. The issue has more than doubled since 2017. So based on that, I have to ask, Tamera, what good reason for optimism is there about this situation being handled in a meaningful way or being solved in a meaningful way if the situation is twice as bad as it was five years ago? 

TK: I think that’s a fair and honest question. Why should we be optimistic when it feels like we’re not seeing the fruits of our labor? We’re seeing more people experiencing homelessness, but I would also say our rent prices in 2017 were profoundly different than they are today. But also that there are some areas where people were not fully engaged or fully invested — the state of California being one of those, not putting money into homelessness and the housing crisis. They’re beginning to double down on that. They put funding into homeless services. 

I’m optimistic because of a couple things that I see coming together that are the only way we’re going to stem some of the tide. And I think part of that is really intentionally saying we have to have X amount of housing. We’re also looking to convert things. And one place that I’ve seen a lot of truly measurable success is how we have been working on veteran homelessness and really leaning in and tackling that. The federal government has doubled down on the amount of funding and support the veterans administration is really stepping into it in a more intentional way. 

AK: You’ve mentioned reexamining what shelter is and what safe shelter that can be an acceptable way to address the situation of say an 87-year-old person living in their own car. It’s hard to fathom. What did you mean by that? What are these alternative scenarios that while maybe they can’t bring an end to this crisis can bring some short-term relief? 

TK: We’ve done sheltering the same way now for 20 years. It’s sort of a general congregate model in a lot of ways. But that doesn’t work for everyone. Also, you can’t use or be on anything and be in shelter. We’ve got to understand that what you need is areas where people can safely be sheltered even if they are coming down off of something. So really embracing harm reduction for some of these populations and having shelters that can have a higher level of clinical support. This is not disparaging any of the shelters that we currently have, or those operators, but we need to really look at the landscape and hear from people with lived experience. 

That may be more safe parking lots, converting some other properties into shelters, non-congregate shelters, safe villages or safe camping. I think we need to be open to all options and opportunities and listen to people who are actually out there on the street and what they would embrace. 

Related Reading: Paul Downey, CEO of the nonprofit Serving Seniors, wrote an op-ed for us urging the city to address senior homelessness. The latest count found one in four residents experiencing homelessness are adults 55 and older. Of those, nearly half became homeless in the past year. Read his argument here

What We’re Working On 

  • The San Diego Unified Board of Education voted unanimously this week to delay mandating COVID-19 vaccines for students until July 2023. District staff said students have already been vaccinated at a high rate and the virus isn’t spreading in classrooms nearly as much as it is in the county in general.  
  • While San Diego is sitting on what its water agency has celebrated as “drought-proof” water supplies, water shutoffs in Tijuana are so common for the city’s residents that water conservation has become second nature. MacKenzie Elmer spoke to residents there and explained why it’s only going to get worse
  • Keatts gave us an inside look at how the 80th Assembly District Race has developed into something of a preview of races we could see a lot more of as Democrats assume uniform control of government in the region. Read his story here.  

Read These Comments 

On San Diego Unified’s decision to delay vaccine mandates … 

“The rationale for San Diego Unified to stop requiring vaccines is incorrect. “…the original vaccines have lost a significant margin of effectiveness to prevent new infections…”. The vaccines have never been effective in preventing infection and their approval did not rest on preventing infections. The vaccines prevent *serious illness* resulting from infection and the vaccines are still doing a great job even though the virus has been changing.” – Carrie Schneider 

“The effectiveness of ventilation systems has been underestimated, as we have determined on airplanes. Voluntary mask wearing by vulnerable students, teachers, and staff is also an excellent focused solution, unlike the shotgun mask mandates.” – Don Kimball 

Thanks for reading. Send me your thoughts on our latest reporting and what’s happening in San Diego at megan.wood@voiceofsandiego.org or by joining our texting club. 

Megan Wood

Megan is Voice of San Diego’s engagement editor. She is responsible for producing and overseeing content that extends the reach of the organization....

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2 Comments

  1. Geez, hard hitting interview Andrew. You get no answers or solutions when libs interview libs…just “throw more money at it”!
    Time for some tough love.
    For you follow up interview, May I suggest you ask “why would the homeless flock to SD when the cost of living is so high? Could it be that they are coddled and Allowed to abuse substances and people ??”

  2. Monsieur Craig, this is Smiechowski the old Pole. I agree with you in large measure and considering that this week is my 50th anniversary of being a registered Democrat that is saying the truth. Just minutes ago, I switched parties to the Hog Wash Party. Anyway, I would bet my sweet dupa that these numbers are way too low as San Diego County goes as far northeast as Borrego Springs my Ironman compound. I am thinking more like 50,000 homeless. Just look at Oceanside alone, man! Vote Smiechowski D2 SDCC 3 POINT PLAN 4 HOMELESS!

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