The debate about homelessness in San Diego, and its causes and solutions, is dominated by a familiar cast of assumptions and theories. But new research, as well as several existing data sources, provide basic truths the region must grapple with to alleviate the crisis.
The data show that among four of the most prominent assumptions about homelessness, some are plain wrong and others are only half-true.
Assumption 1: Homeless people are flooding in from out of town to places like San Diego.
We have a lot of data now on where people become homeless. San Diego’s annual census of homeless people, the point-in-time count, collected this information during its most recent tally.
One out of every five homeless people, did not become homeless in San Diego County, the census found. That’s roughly 2,000 homeless people in San Diego out of more than 10,000.
That’s not a majority and it’s not a flood, but it is a very sizable chunk.
It’s likely, as some frequently suggest, services play a part in this. Services obviously attract people. Many encampments are clustered downtown in East Village precisely because that’s where so many service providers are. City leaders purposefully set it up that way. They forced homeless service providers into East Village, so homeless people would follow.
But this number doesn’t explain, as some conservatives have suggested, why California has such a severe homeless crisis. (California is home to 12 percent of the country’s total population, but 30 percent of its homeless population.)
A full 90 percent of people who become homeless in California stay in California, a comprehensive study by UC San Francisco found. Even with 10 percent fewer homeless people, California and San Diego would still be in the middle of a crisis.
Assumption 2: Many homeless people don’t want to get off the street.
This idea has been floated from the far right to San Diego’s Democratic Mayor Todd Gloria. And for some homeless people, it’s possible the assumption is true. But the available data shows shelters in San Diego are functionally full pretty much every day of the week.
On an average day just 23 city shelter beds were available across the city, Voice of San Diego recently found. Most of those go unfilled for logistical reasons. Far more people ask for shelter each day than receive it.
In pursuit of more aggressive policies to crack down on homeless encampments, Gloria, in order to prove he has also been compassionate, has repeatedly claimed he increased shelter capacity by 70 percent. That claim isn’t true, Voice also found.
Shelter space (or the lack of it) may haunt the city going forward. Reductions, rather than additions, are on the horizon. Golden Hall, which has capacity to shelter nearly 500 people is scheduled to go offline in the coming months. The shelter at old Central Library has already closed due to permitting issues. And a new safe camping site is only permitted to operate until December, as CBS 8 reported.
Assumption 3: Homeless people are drug addicts or mentally ill. Treating these things is the only way to solve homelessness.
New research by UC San Francisco, shows it’s somewhere along the lines of half-true.
Researchers at UC San Francisco conducted in-depth interviews with roughly 3,200 homeless people from across California. The findings confirm that many homeless people have at some point in their lives struggled with drug use or mental health issues.
On mental health: The combined percentage of people who have experienced serious depression, anxiety, had trouble remembering or concentrating or dealt with hallucinations was 82 percent. It’s worth noting though the largest portion of that group had experienced depression or anxiety, rather than hallucinations. Some of them may have experienced depression or anxiety after becoming homeless, rather than before.
On drugs: UCSF researchers found that nearly two-thirds of people had also regularly used hard drugs – cocaine, methamphetamines or non-prescribed opioids – at some point in their lives. A nearly identical figure applied to alcohol.
Some people see substance use, in particular, as a moral failure. To them, a person’s homelessness is also a moral failure. But the prevalence of drug use confirmed in the UCSF study did not occur in a bubble. People had many other overlapping complications in their lives: 49 percent experienced physical or sexual violence before the age of 18; more than a quarter have been hospitalized for a mental condition.
Regardless, it’s true that mental illness and substance abuse are prevalent in the homeless community. So is that what causes people to become homeless? Other new research goes a long way toward answering this question.
Two researchers recently studied cities across the United States to try to understand what factors are common to cities with large homeless populations. That brings us to another assumption.
Assumption 4: Homelessness is caused by a lack of affordable places to live. ‘Housing First’ is the answer.
In their book “Homelessness is a Housing Problem,” Gregg Colburn and Clayton Page Aldern, examined rates of drug use, mental illness and also the housing market in each of the places they studied.
High rates of drug use and mental illness did not correlate with high rates of homelessness. West Virginia? High drug use, much mental illness, low homelessness.
The areas most likely to have large homeless populations had two main characteristics. Housing in those cities was expensive AND not very many places were available to rent – exactly the conditions in San Diego.
In their book, the researchers compare finding housing to a distorted game of musical chairs. In this game, some people have broken ankles and other ailments. These people are the most likely to be left standing when the music stops. So it is with housing. People with mental illness and substance abuse problems are the most likely to have problems getting housing in a tight housing market.
But in places where housing is affordable and abundant, people with mental illness and substance use disorders can usually maintain housing.
In that sense, the last half of Assumption #3 is false. Treating illness and addiction don’t treat the housing market.
As for Assumption #4, this new research confirms that large homeless populations do correlate with a lack of affordable housing – not, as others proffer, substance use or weather. (Seattle and Boston, for instance, have large homeless populations.)
Does that make Housing First, as the policy is dubbed, the answer?
Solving homelessness, according to Housing First, requires moving people into permanent housing as quickly as possible with no conditions, such as sobriety. Housing First advocates also value treatment for substance use and mental illness; they just believe these treatments won’t be nearly as effective unless a person is housed.
In 2016, California began requiring cities to adopt a Housing First model, though at that point it was already a guiding philosophy in San Diego.
Some of the key components of Housing First are creating what are known as permanent supportive housing units – as well as vouchers for rental assistance. By both metrics, San Diego is not anywhere close to meeting demand.
Just 223 permanent supportive housing units were permitted in 2021, according to the city’s most recent housing report. In 2020, the city permitted 139.
These permanent supportive housing units are not coming online anywhere near the necessary clip to alleviate the city’s homelessness crisis. San Diego County’s 2023 census counted 10,264 homeless people.
As for rental assistance vouchers, roughly 140,000 families are currently on the waiting list. The average wait time for a family to receive a voucher is 12 years.
Housing First can work, as it did in Houston. Homelessness has decreased there by 62 percent since 2011, as the Atlantic reported. But, as the Atlantic also noted, it’s much more difficult to build in some places, including San Diego, than it is in Houston. Houston’s rental vacancy rate has also frequently hovered above 10 percent.
Housing First, as its currently practiced in San Diego, is not equipped to meet the urgency of the moment. Despair is palpable on the streets. Homeless people are dying at much greater rates than they were just a few years ago.
In the face of this crisis, conservatives and progressives must both wrestle with the facts that challenge their narratives. The data about who homeless people are, as well as what’s working and not, is readily available.