Jim Desmond
Jim Desmond at the US Grant Hotel on Election Night. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The similarity among the talking points of Republican elected officials last week on their opposition to “Housing First” as a homelessness policy led us to surmise that a coordinated strategy may be afoot.

This week, Republican elected officials held a joint press conference to explicate their opposition to “Housing First” as a homelessness policy.

Housing first is a set of policies based on the premise that the best first step to ending homelessness is stabilizing a person’s situation by giving them a home – without conditioning the housing on entering any sort of treatment. A precursor approach, transitional housing, provided shelter with less autonomy than a personal home and tied that shelter to a client’s willingness to attend things like addiction or mental health treatment.

What they had to say: County Supervisor Jim Desmond kicked off the press conference with a relatively mild critique, really.

“Right now, (housing first) is the only tool in the toolbox if you want state or federal dollars to come in and help you for homeless solutions,” he said. “And right now, it’s not the only tool in the toolbox that should be there. We need many other tools as well. And unfortunately, even though housing first works for some, it’s not the panacea that everyone expects it to be.”

Homeless service providers who require clients to enter treatment before receiving some form of housing, he said, shouldn’t be cut out of receiving state or federal funds.

El Cajon Mayor Bills Wells described his work as a psychiatrist in emergency rooms, witnessing the grip addiction has on people.

“The Housing First model tells us that people are homeless because they’re down their luck and all they need is a leg up,” Wells said. “They need a house to stay in and they’re going to be fine. But that’s not the case. Any of you who have dealt with addiction in your lives, in your family’s lives, and I know that every single one of you has been touched by addiction by somebody, knows that you can’t just give them some money or give them an apartment or give them a college degree and they’re going to be fine.”

That isn’t exactly the case housing first advocates make. Rather, they say attempts to treat addiction are most effective if patients are moved from the streets and into a stable living situation first.

Providers get political: Vista Mayor John Franklin and Oceanside Councilman Ryan Kim spoke next, but Chris Megison, CEO of the homeless services provider Solutions for Change, caught our attention, since it isn’t often that service providers so forcefully join elected officials in a full-throated policy debate.

“We’ve been waiting for this kind of resolution and courage and, and I don’t use that word lightly,” he said. “You know, when you’re an elected official now and you stand up for something like this, that you believe in you, you’ve got to take a lot of heat.”

He said the root cause of homelessness is substance abuse, and taxpayers are being deceived that housing first could work.

 “We are on the front lines of this, we see this every day,” Megison said.

Solutions for Change wasn’t alone in getting into the fray. PATH, a homeless housing and service provider, issued a response to the press conference – again, getting into this sort of tit-for-tat on specific policy debates is not common among the nonprofits that handle most of the region’s homeless services.

“Attempts to discredit Housing First fundamentally mischaracterize this solution as ‘Housing Only,’” wrote Tyler Renner, the organization’s director of media. “Housing options like permanent supportive housing pair residential units with onsite supportive services and case management. This provides stability and safety while people can work on recovery and other life goals.”

Who wasn’t there: One person who didn’t attend the press conference, though, was Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey – another local Republican who was listed as an attendee in a press release.

Bailey had regularly invoked housing first as a demonstrable failure in recent weeks. He’s also widely discussed as a potential challenger to County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer’s re-election bid.

He also this week released a lengthy, professionally produced video that seemed to recalibrate his message.

Bailey, in a video released on his website “sandiegocomeback.com” softened the edges on his approach and did not focus his critique on housing first specifically. Prop 47, a statewide law that lowered many felonies to misdemeanors, however, got a namecheck.

The new message isn’t a far cry from what Mayor Todd Gloria now says about how the city needs to respond.

 “Although there is a myriad of reasons someone may end up homeless, ultimately they fall into one of two camps: those that want help, and those that don’t,” he said in the video. “Refusal to accept help does not give anyone the right to violate all of society’s laws.”

“We must make saying yes to getting help and off the streets the only acceptable answer through a coordinated region-wide approach that connects those wanting help with available resources, and a unified standard of enforcement that must include prosecuting misdemeanors,” Bailey said.

What Sycuan Wants

Cody Martinez, the chairman of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, said Major League Soccer leaders weren’t sure about having the tribe join its exclusive ownership club.

Martinez said the other owners were cautions because they didn’t understand the tribe’s governance or internal processes.

They became comfortable only after a big effort by Martinez and his colleagues.

“I have basically spent two years on the road promoting our organization and helping them understand how we work and how we could be a reliable partner,” Martinez said.

Now, Sycuan is the only tribal owner of a major men’s professional sports team after Sycuan and British-Egyptian businessman Mohamed Mansour were announced as the two major investors bringing MLS to San Diego.

When you look at political donations or advertising or major news like this, few other organizations in town match Sycuan’s presence. It occurred to us at the Politics Report that it would be interesting to ask Martinez just what the tribe is trying to achieve. Buying a piece of Major League Soccer is the most significant investment the tribe has ever made and the most significant purchase off-reservation since its purchase of the US Grant Hotel almost exactly 20 years ago.

That deal was worth $45 million – about one-fifth of the estimated investment Sycuan made in soccer. (Martinez would not disclose the exact purchase price. MLS is one company and not a franchise system of individual teams. Sycuan and Mansour and their partners did not buy a franchise or individual team but invested in Major League Soccer at an estimated fee of $500 million total).

It’s diversification, stupid: Martinez said there’s no grand plan for Sycuan’s investments.

“The tribe is not looking to make a quick buck. We look at planning through the lens of seven generations into the future – so we look at very long-term opportunities, local when possible and things that benefit the community,” he said.

Martinez said the seven generations ahead outlook is a tradition in the Kumeyaay and it has personal relevance to him. In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant established several local Indian reservations, including Sycuan’s and Martinez thinks his is close to the seventh generation since then. What his ancestors started building then has had obvious impacts on his and his fellow members now.

He said after making major investments into its resort, golf course and casino, Sycuan is trying to become less and less dependent on gaming. 

As for politics: “We stay out of partisan efforts,” Martinez said. “We support both Democrats and Republicans. We need to know they have the tribe on their radars when they’re shaping their goals and objectives.”

Sycuan’s biggest political challenge lately has come from the left, though. Labor unions trying to organize hospitality workers pushed a bit to try to discourage MLS from partnering with the tribe.

“When workers at Sycuan’s Casino Resort tried to organize, Sycuan chose to divide its workforce,” wrote Brigette Browning, the executive secretary-treasurer of the San Diego Labor & Imperial Counties Labor Council. She called on the Board of Governors of MLS to reject Sycuan’s application because it was involved in anti-union activities. (Two years ago, we wrote about the unionization struggles at Sycuan and the peculiar legal questions that they provoked.)

The letter didn’t work and MLS’s Board of Governors now welcomes Sycuan as a member.

It’s been 25 years since Sycuan first started sponsoring the Padres. Now it’s moved from sponsor to ownership of a major sports endeavor.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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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