Two weeks ago, Mayor Todd Gloria was talking to a room full of reporters, making a case for a new ordinance that would crackdown on homeless encampments. He listed several accomplishments – including a really big one.
“And that’s on top of the 70 percent increase in shelter beds that this city has invested in in just the last two years,” Gloria said.
The claim – to have nearly doubled shelter capacity – was a central reason why people should support his new crackdown. I have done everything I can to give homeless people somewhere to go, he was saying. Now, when they don’t listen, we must enforce.
City councilmembers narrowly passed the controversial ordinance later that night.
But Gloria’s claim about increasing shelter capacity is dubious, at best. Before Covid-19 (and Gloria’s tenure) the city funded 1,409 shelter beds, according to the San Diego Housing Commission. Now, it funds roughly 1,805. That’s an increase of 28 percent.
Twenty-eight percent is hardly nothing. It’s also not 70 percent.
Here’s how Gloria’s team comes up with the 70 percent figure: They start the clock on April 1, 2021, nearly four months after he took office, when shelter beds were at an extreme low, due to the pandemic.
During the pandemic, most of San Diego’s shelters closed to stop the spread of the virus. To provide shelter, former Mayor Kevin Faulconer and city officials converted the San Diego Convention Center into a large shelter, which at times provided a place to stay for more than 1,000 people.
The date of April 1, 2021, is just after the Convention Center’s shelter closed. The city’s major shelters were opening back up, but at limited capacity, due to the pandemic. “Operational” capacity on that day was 1,071, according to Dave Rolland, a spokesman for the mayor.
Operational capacity is different than maximum capacity. Maximum capacity reflects the number of beds funded by the city. Operational capacity reflects the number of beds that are actually up and running on a given day. It can be affected by staffing issues or any number of other logistical challenges.
The problem with starting the clock on April 1 is that shelters were opening up that day with far less capacity than they’d had in the past – and far less capacity than they would have in the future, when the pandemic ended.
Rolland’s logic is difficult to follow.
“Using the time right before the pandemic as a benchmark wouldn’t make sense because the capacity in the existing shelters at that time was not possible in 2021 due to Covid restrictions,” he wrote.
It’s inappropriate, in other words, to compare capacity from before the pandemic to capacity during the pandemic, Rolland argued. But it is appropriate for Gloria’s team to compare shelter capacity during the pandemic to shelter capacity now, when pandemic restrictions have eased.
It’s quite the paradox.
What is clear is that choosing a day in April 2021, when shelter capacity was temporarily reduced due to a natural disaster, and comparing it to today, paints a distorted picture.
Available shelter in San Diego is functionally maxed out most of the time, as Voice of San Diego has previously reported.
Former Republican mayor Faulconer has criticized Gloria’s approach to homelessness, as focusing too much on enforcement and not enough on creating new shelter space. The two have to work together, Faulconer argues.
“What matters is the beds. It’s just inescapable that you have to increase real capacity,” Faulconer said. “You have to treat it with the sense of urgency it deserves.”
Gloria has opened at least eight new shelters during his administration. But the majority of them have relatively little capacity. Some are specifically designated to serve vulnerable populations – such as women who are medically fragile, queer youth and people with mental health disorders – something advocates have long called for.
Rachel Laing, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said Gloria has pursued “a broad spectrum of shelter types” and noted that many people have referred to larger shelters as “warehousing people.”
“There is always a need to make choices with the limited time and resources available,” she wrote in an email.
Shelter capacity is complicated. It can be a game of two steps forward, one step back. A new Gloria-backed shelter, that can serve 42 families, and as many 164 individuals is set to open in Barrio Logan. But a larger step back also looms.
Golden Hall – once a venue for sports, concerts and banquets – currently has the capacity to shelter nearly 500 San Diegans. It’s scheduled to go offline in the coming months.