A homeless encampment in downtown on Nov. 11, 2022.
A homeless encampment in downtown on Nov. 11, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

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.  

Mayor Todd Gloria discuss homelessness at a Politifest panel, moderated by Voice of San Diego reporter Lisa Halverstadt on Oct. 8, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

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 and 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.  

A homeless man at an encampment near the San Diego Zoo on Park Boulevard on Sept. 15, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

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. 

A homeless man’s shoes at an encampment near the Zoo on Park Blvd on Sept. 15, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

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.  

Housing navigator Levi Giafaglione of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in the East Village on Dec. 20, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

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.  

Tents where unsheltered San Diegans live line the street outside the shuttered California Theater on Sept. 2, 2022. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

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. 

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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42 Comments

    1. Nope, it’s a supply problem. Humans will act in accordance with incentives. Do you actually expect property owners to lower rents out of the goodness of their hearts? That’s not how capitalism works, friend.

  1. I live at the Essential student housing complex.

    They have failed to provide hot water.

    They have failed to provide heating.

    They have attempted to unlawfully enter my dormitory, for no good reason other than what they refer to as an inspection.

    They have threatened to evict me after I denied them entry.

    This is another reason people are homeless. Because landlords in san diego ignore the rules, and toss people out on the street.

  2. The Essential, where I have lived for 2 years, is refusing to renew my rental because I don’t attend college.

    They have made up this rule on the spot

    In July, I will be another homeless on the street, scaring the people, pooping in the gutter, using up your police resources to be endlessly shuffled around the city.

  3. And amidst all this the City Council approved allowing over 1% of the housing inventory to be used for short term vacation rentals.

  4. Initially I thought this was going to a puff piece about let’s get more homes and life will be grand… The author makes well thought out points and rightly doesn’t let the mayor get away with his talk about developments like Sports Arena. The reality is, there is a lot of available housing, but developers have set prices too high for the large number of lower income people to afford. The mayor is even sacrificing our neighborhoods by allowing unrestricted ADUs on what were single family homes. The 6 unit complex that went up next to my home have average rents of over $2500 for a 1 bedroom. The mayor glowed when he took a tour and called it “gentle density”. The 3br 1 bth unit rents for $4000/month…this is pure greed and shameful for the mayor to buy into it. Maybe time to turn Sports Arena into a model tiny home village and help people with low cost homes and services to help them back into society and self dignity.

  5. Accurate description of the situation. Another note, since the late 1980’s downtown San Diego has eliminated over 10,000 Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units that are by far the most affordable for individuals on the verge of homelessness. We have under 5,000 still remaining but these units are now at serious risks.

  6. More free stuff! More free stuff!
    Why is it the free and subsidized housing always gets destroyed by the inhabitants?
    If Gloria/Lewis theory were true then there would be no homeless in cheap to live places like Detroit, El Paso, St. Louis , Memphis, Cleveland , Milwaukee etc.

  7. So what does “more housing” look like that is targeting the homeless and soon to be homeless?

    Are we talking about 500 square foot studios? What does the rent need to be, to be considered reasonable? How should this housing be financed? Where should this housing be located? Who is going to manage these properties…? What happened with the hotels that were purchased during the pandemic that were supposed to give people a place to live?

    I have yet to hear the Mayor or City Council put forth a clear strategy on addressing this issue beyond “it’s an unacceptable problem.”

    There are millions of dollars being spent in the name of the homeless and it doesn’t seem to be doing much to solve the problem.

  8. It’s beyond shameful that the mayor and council bend over backwards to subsidize developers who build multi-unit, 480 square foot ADUs (apartments) in residential neighborhoods that rent for $2500 a month, while ignoring the huge opportunity for multi-story transitional/very low/low income housing along El Cajon Blvd and University Avenue.

    1. Developers are building new traditional apartment complexes along El Cajon Blvd and University Ave. But they are not “affordable”. They are “market rate”, meaning for people who can pay more than $2500 a month for a one bedroom unit. Take a look at “The Boulevard” apartment complex on the site of the old 7-Up bottling plant on El Cajon Blvd and Florida Street, for example.

  9. Could not agree more! A clear and insightful summary of our situation that should be obvious even to our “leaders”. If the situation is going to change there needs to be a real effort to increase density of housing units in the city. There are too many restrictions on what can be built in many neighborhoods.

  10. In addition to SRO’s, mobile home parks are another last stop of affordability for renters. A decades old mobile home park in Bay Park was run into the ground, all tenants “relocated” and the Seaton was built. A luxury complex where rents start at $3860 for a 1 BR. This gentrification has been happening in San Diego for decades and the city council and planning commission have allowed it. It is greed and favors and absolutely immoral.

  11. In other countries I never see people living in tents on the sidewalks like in California. It appears to be because other countries have evolved to have separate designated areas for the poor and homeless and so there is a place for to homeless to go instead of the sidewalks and city streets. US cities could organize similar segregated areas where homeless could legally set up camp & provide security/toilet/water & other services within those areas. Keeping the size of the designated areas small could enhance their manageability. In other words, reinvent the ghetto.

  12. Cities, counties, states must purchase land, by condemnation if necessary. Build rentals, various sizes, and some purchases. Rentals to be priced to be affordable to the bottom 20-25% of population – pricing to never rise above that population income level. Purchases to be priced at same level at beginning and value increase to be a set percentage, not market. First access to purchases available to renters of the project.

  13. How did San Diego get out of the the housing shortage in the 1940’s? We may find some help in that solution. I’ve read some of the history of Linda Vista, and the suspension of all building and planning rules, to make progress.
    Is it past time for that?

    1. How did we get out of this last time Glenn? It was a whole different time. We could just clear out a mesa or an old rancho and build a new subdivision. VIOLA – Rancho National becomes National City or University City. Can’t do that today!

  14. It’s easy to sit at home or in a bar and make judgement on what I call American refugees, not homeless. All those stereotypes fall away when we take the time to offer solace, face to face and respectful conversation.

  15. Scott, Thank you for this article. You are spot on. Still, a question remains regarding accountability. WHO are the people who have made and are making the decisions that keep housing from being built? A who is responsible for generating the FEMA-like response? How do we get them to act like human beings and do what they must for the humans who need their help?

  16. I have been working almost full-time for over 15 years as a volunteer to end homelessness, including serving as the President of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness for 4 years. Scott, what you are saying is absolutely true. However, since I started working on this problem, “civic leaders” have repeatedly parroted the excuse that creating adequate housing will take 5 years and that is “too long”. Frankly, we could have done it three times over since I started working on homelessness. Imagine where we would be now.

    Admittedly, it is a long and expensive journey to provide housing for all of our neighbors, and we should look for every shortcut available. But more importantly, we should run, not walk to reach the end of the journey ASAP. The lack of housing, affordable and otherwise, is a crisis, and we should treat it like the crisis it is.

  17. There are two potential explanations for this article.

    A) Author is engaged in disingenuous virtue signaling.
    B) Author has never met a homeless person.

  18. Your entire article was on point. you hit the main point of the then new sub divisions at Linda Vista Mesa and the Frontier Housing Project (Midway District). As far as housing goes we have been behind the curve since 1941 and the defense industry ramp up. I’m not sure we will catch the car.
    The City of San Diego did this to ourselves back in 1998 when the city approved the ballot measure to build Petco Park. To do this the City demolished blocks of low income housing called Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels. The homeless crisis took off from there.

  19. The key to making discernable progress in solving the “homeless” crisis is to begin with the people who have a recent history of employment (and paying rent). These are the people who have the best chance of making a New Start in afford housing. The people who suffer from drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness should be housed in supervised congregate facilities that provide treatment –until they can demonstrate that they can handle the responsibilities that come with independent living.

  20. Story of how Linda Vista developed is fascinating, https://www.sandiego.gov/sites/default/files/legacy/redevelopment-agency/pdf/lindavista/lvtenantactbldghrar.pdf —-while we no longer have large expanses of undeveloped land, we do have: upzoning, conversion of underutilized office space to residential and/or plenty of potential of mixed use. With that said, we have a TON of very successful and outspoken NIMBYism (“got mine, get-lost” attitude prevails).

  21. Homelessness is a 2-sided coin. To the powerless, it is too few homes. To the powerful it is too much population. It all depends on your perspective. In any society it is the powerful who control the resources.

  22. Many residents of SD have homes with extra, spare rooms that could get many of the homeless off the streets. Homeowners with these extra rooms should be given the choice to house an individual or family who is officially registered as unhoused (and be paid a stipend for doing so), or be made to pay a penalty tax that could support the construction or purchase by the City of housing for the unhoused. It’s time to get serious!

  23. Go ahead and build housing. Then watch it fill up. All the while more homeless pour into the streets from elsewhere waiting for their free houses. Coastal Southern California is the ideal place to park yourself while waiting for your free pad to show up.

    This cannot be solved at the local level. It has to be done by the State. State-run poor houses/dormitories/mental treatment centers, or whatever they must be called to make them sound good, should be established. Also stop decriminalizing crime and make it unattractive to live on the street. We all know the majority of the homeless are nothing more than urban drug campers.

    The bottom 0.5% of society must be treated humanly but they cannot be allowed to continue to make their own choices and literally foul our public places. 95 percent of the homeless must be told where to live and how to live, either directly for the mental patients, or indirectly with some constitutionally acceptable choices for the drug users: clean up and rejoin society or be arrested and go to jail.

  24. The author is half right. Homelessness is an AFFORDABLE HOUSING issue. People who pay affordable rents are being driven onto the streets by city hall politicians who have upzoned whole neighborhoods to encourage developers to buy up properties, then evict tenants so they can bulldoze the existing affordable housing to make way for new highrise condo towers and market rate apartment blocks. Most people see this happening every day. YIMBYs are too busy cheerleading for government to let developers build new high end market rate housing wherever they want to; and then sell or rent that housing at whatever prices the market will bear to even consider this fact.

  25. Capitalism and basic economics mean that with increased supply, prices will come down. If supply is short, price will go up. It’s not greed, it’s capitalism. Landlords will charge market rates. They will not make affordable housing out of the goodness of their hearts. No one would. We need more supply.

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