San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria will likely say during his State of the City Speech Wednesday night that homelessness is a housing problem. He has said it before and saying it again in the middle of his speech will provide a segue to talk about all the projects, some of which are many years away, that will generate more housing in San Diego.
“Homelessness is a housing problem” is a controversial take among many people (mostly those who have homes) in regions like San Diego. They see examples of mental illness, drug abuse and the sheer filth every day and conclude homelessness is a product of a sick society, an overly generous government that creates dependence or the fault of a distinct population of sub-humans. In some online neighborhood forums, it is common to see unhoused residents referred to as “trolls” or worse.
At the same time, to homeowners, especially those who can keep up with their bills, the “housing crisis” is no crisis at all. The scarcity of homes is making them wealthier – the most obvious impact to them is that their home, or homes, are worth far more than they were. It’s not in our nature, as humans, to easily process that something making us more prosperous is making others suffer.
It’s a lot easier to conclude instead that people living in the cold deserved it or at least did something to justify it. Worse, they might have even chosen to live like that. And regardless how they got there, now they are so far out of touch with society and civilization that what they need is not housing but to disappear. If they do try to picture what should happen, they defer to Christian-like demands for physical, mental and spiritual rehabilitation. Not housing. Housing is not the problem.
That’s wrong, though: Homelessness is a housing problem. The mayor will say it and he will be right. He will want it, though, to serve as an excuse or at least an explanation for why we can’t expect the situation on the streets to improve anytime soon. We can’t give him that.
The situation on the streets is not acceptable. We can explain it as a product of the extreme scarcity of homes and resulting cost of them. But that’s like explaining sea-level rise to a guy drowning in a rip current.
In 2000, San Diego was a decade or so removed from the cutbacks in the defense industry that devastated the economy. San Diego County had 1,312,800 jobs.
A home is where a job sleeps at night and housing prices were in the very beginning of what would become a dizzying rally upward. San Diego was expensive but nothing like today. You could buy a nice home in need of some work near Sunset Cliffs for $250,000 – the equivalent of $440,000 now.
There were 1,040,149 housing units in the county.
Twenty years later, in January 2020, the region had 220,000 more jobs than in 2000. In that same 20 years, the population of San Diego grew by more than 529,000 people.
As for homes? Only 175,980 new homes had been constructed in those two decades.
It’s not the first time San Diego has created far more jobs than homes. In the early 1940s, the defense industry was creating so many jobs, more than 40,000 people were coming to San Diego every month. Many of them ended up homeless and in 1941, the mayor apologized to a visiting reporter for all the squalor and suffering he was seeing as they toured the city.
When we create jobs, we increase the demand for homes – for homes across the entire spectrum of affordability.
You can’t have a conversation about this without someone pointing out that the only homes they see being built are “luxury,” or citing some high rent they saw in an ad. So let’s draw this out:
If a biotech company attracts a half a billion dollars in investment and begins hiring scientists and project managers and accountants at high salaries, those employees are going to find places to live. If they can’t find one in Carmel Valley, or Poway, they will bid up the prices of homes in a place like North Park or Del Cerro. People who make less, who may have hoped to live in North Park or Del Cerro, will find those homes out of reach and begin bidding up the prices in Barrio Logan or Lemon Grove.
It goes all the way down the ladder until someone ends up on the ground.
In November, Gregg Colburn a professor at the University of Washington came to San Diego to make a speech about his book “Homelessness Is a Housing Problem.”
Colburn studied every major metropolitan area in the United States to see why some faced such huge homeless crises and others did not.
If homelessness is the product of a sick culture or moral failing, then California is an easy target. What Colburn found and expertly demonstrates in his book is that all cities have substance abuse problems and poverty and mental illness. Almost all cities are run by Democrats. But only some have such horrendous homelessness crises.
“Why, for example, does Seattle have between four and five times the per capita homelessness of Chicago?” he asked.
He ran the numbers. Per capita abuse of illicit drugs did not correlate to population of homelessness, neither did rates of substance-use disorder. Access to welfare did not correlate to the population of homelessness. The average temperature (San Diego is a nice place to be homeless!) did not correlate to the population of homelessness.
He even tried to see if it were true that homelessness was worse in areas run by Democrats and could not explain why homelessness would be so much worse in Left Coast cities than in Chicago or Cleveland, where Democrats have governed for decades.
One factor did correlate to homelessness: the housing market. Areas where rents were extremely high had extremely severe homelessness as did regions where the vacancy rate was low.
Homelessness is a housing problem.
To help us understand that we must stop thinking about what individual circumstances led to someone’s specific housing insecurity, Colburn used a musical chairs analogy:
Ten friends decide to play a game of musical chairs and arrange 10 chairs in a circle. A leader begins the game by turning on the music, and everyone begins to walk in a circle inside the chairs. The leader removes one chair, stops the music, and the 10 friends scramble to find a spot to sit—leaving one person without a chair. The loser, Mike, was on crutches after spraining his ankle. Given his condition, he was unable to move quickly enough to find a chair during the scramble that ensued.
Did Mike’s sprained ankle cause his chairlessness? No. The lack of chairs did. His ankle caused him to miss out on the last chair but it was the lack of supply of chairs that meant one of them was going to go without – it turned out to be Mike.
A person who struggles with mental illness will miss out on the last home available in San Diego but in West Virginia or Chicago, there’s more room.
“There’s abundant evidence to conclude that blaming individuals is the wrong approach to homelessness,” Colburn told me. “Unless we focus on ensuring adequate housing is built of all types and that the regulatory framework that allows it to be built is in place and we make sure people can access it, we’re going to be stuck in this pattern of never-ending homelessness.”
Being homeless can make you crazy.
Levi Giafaglione fell off the bottom rung of the housing ladder once. He fled his home in Mississippi after coming out as part of the LGBTQ community and facing hostility from his family. He ended up in Los Angeles. He worked and had an apartment, but things fell apart and he found himself working but homeless, hiding that he lived in his car from his coworkers.
Soon, he lost the car and he joined a group of people who lived on the streets of Venice Beach.
Giafaglione, who now works as a housing navigator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, explained how chaotic and confusing homelessness is. You can’t sleep well. You can’t eat well. You don’t know where to go to the bathroom. You’re sometimes cold, sometimes hot, disoriented and fearful. At any moment, Giafaglione said, he could be assaulted or propositioned for sex or offered drugs or approached by a police officer or an aide worker or an angry pedestrian or anyone.
Facing that chaos, he said, people succumb to a helpless depression – a feeling that you have lost control of everything. When he hit bottom, he said, he lay on a rug on the Venice boardwalk waiting to die.
The chaos is so complete and so maddening that people act out to assert any influence over their surroundings – to have control over something, anything.
“People say it too, almost jokingly, ‘They don’t abide by the rules of reality or abide by the rules of society,’” Giafaglione said. “One of my little things I used to do to just kind of be suicidal and just to have any sense of power or control was just crossing the street whenever I wanted to. Cause, for one, go ahead, hit me. And then two, it was like, ‘you stopped for me.’”
The mental illness and substance abuse we see on the streets every day is a crisis. It’s real and it’s part of the problem – the housing problem.
Tamera Kohler, the CEO of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, likens it to being lost in a foreign city and ending up in an unfamiliar place that feels unsafe but you have no hope of getting back to a safe place.
“For many of us if we have a day that starts unexpectedly — we can’t find keys, or our phone — our brains don’t work the same way for the rest of the day,” she said. “All of the things that make you feel safe every day. A coat. A place to go to the bathroom. A bed with sheets. A door. Imagine having none of those things available to you.”
The fear, the chaos, the cold, the pain, it’s all overwhelming.
That is a crisis, an immediate one. The more time people experience that, the farther from a stable life they will get.
Unfortunately, there is nothing to hope for on the horizon. We have interviewed several city leaders recently and all of them have said we can only expect the immediate crisis to get worse. That just can’t be OK. It can’t be OK for us to have no hope for it to improve.
In the 1940s, the federal government wouldn’t tolerate our homeless crisis any longer. Federal officials knew, with our key position as a defense center, San Diego simply had to find solutions. They took over vast plots of land in Midway and Linda Vista to create thousands of homes and it worked.
There are no such open land plots now and San Diego’s problem is San Diego’s problem. If “homelessness is a housing problem” then housing will ultimately be needed to balance the community and it will allow the mayor to make the connection between the current crisis and the housing plans he is implementing.
But it will always be ludicrous to hear him list the Sports Arena redevelopment, for example, as one of the solutions on the horizon to the homelessness crisis. That plan is probably five years away, at best, from even beginning to deliver a meaningful impact to the supply of homes in the region. To include it in any part of your answer as to homelessness merits the laughs and hopelessness it provokes.
People are worried now. People are suffering now. Something immediate must occur. If we accept that homelessness is a housing problem, we can think of it as though a disaster has occurred that demolished thousands of needed homes and sent two or three people per home into the street.
What would we do if a tsnunami hit? Where would the FEMA campers and tents go? How fast would we act to set aside vast areas for people to safely be, during however much time it would take to rebuild their homes?
Homelessness is a housing problem. A slow-rolling housing disaster created it. Now, we need to act like it happened as fast as a hurricane.