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. 

Will Huntsberry / Voice of San Diego

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.

This theory is also prevalent on both sides of the political spectrum. It has been expressed by Republican County Supervisor Jim Desmond and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, alike.  

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.

Will Huntsberry / Voice of San Diego

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.

Median rent in San Diego is $3,400, according to Zillow. Rental vacancy rates here (3.5 percent) are nearly half what they are across the rest of the country (6.4 percent.)

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.

An encampment near Neil Good Day Center on 17th Street in the East Village on May 23, 2023.
An encampment near Neil Good Day Center on 17th Street in the East Village on May 23, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

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.  

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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  1. This is not accurate and everybody knows it. If you give a person free stuff from X city and then ask them where they are from, they’re going to say X city because that’s where they’re getting free stuff. You lost will, house them in your parents house if you want.

  2. Great article, thank you for the research. Some observations from what our group of homeless feeders are hearing on the street.

    We hear fairly consistent reports of theft and abuse in the shelters. I can’t put any numbers on that but it is a common report and reason people give for moving out of a shelter.

    We are also hearing that the Alpha Project shelter on Newton St in East Village will close in ’24.

    This is just my opinion, but as people who can be admitted to shelters are given beds, then that leaves those who are barred from shelters on the street. This may be the reason for the common impression that “All homeless are drug addicts or wackos.” The street population is a selected group that has had those without issues filtered out.

    As many have noticed the City has a major push going on to clear the streets in East Village. The police are using the Encroachment ordinance to tell people they must move even with no beds available. This has resulted in the homeless scattering to many other neighborhoods. We are seeing more homeless in City Heights. Others in our group report the same thing in their neighborhood. The outlying neighborhoods do not have the infrastructure to deal with homelessness: Shelters, Outreach Teams, Housing, that downtown has. It will be expensive to put that in place and a huge political fight.

    Lastly, I find it supremely ironic that Mayor Gloria who has complained bitterly about County cities exporting their homeless problem to San Diego, apparently has no problem with exporting downtown’s homeless problem to the neighborhoods in the rest of the city.

    1. We’ve seen new homeless encampments springing up along Sweetwater Road in Spring Valley. Some of them feature residents who have been stealing bicycles, switching out parts to build new bikes and selling them.

  3. I love how all the lib media cherry pick this flawed “study”. If you read the study it notes 75% of the vagrants are criminals who did time – read that anywhere? Inconvenient. My favorite however was the question they asked the hobos – would you be better off if we gave you $5,000 and a monthly wad of cash? Only 80% said yes – how stoned do you need to be to say no to free money. Enforcement is the answer not free treats.

  4. The Gloria regime will steamroll to victory. None of you have the power, the influence, the chutzpa to overcome our God and darling Todd. You can post all you want but remember the words of a wise constituent. He said, “Danny, we like you, but no voter will waste their ballot on a lower tier candidate.” Therein lies the answer. The two-party system has created a mess replete with cronyism, inside deals, corruption, special interests and just plain stupidity. Dan Smiechowski is a candidate for San Diego Mayor. Ignore me till you die. It is an honor.

  5. And where will these campers go when the city loses its permit in a few months? It’s ironic actually, the city issued a permit to itself that expires!

  6. Local media articles on homelessness tend to focus on ways to get already homeless people into housing, but tends to ignore the factors that are pushing people out of housing and onto the streets. Many of those factors spring from recent zoning actions by the city. Many of those zoning actions increased allowable building density and heights on existing lots, increasing property values. That in turn increased the number of developers buying up older housing in established communities, evicting the residents and building new higher density unaffordable housing. For example, the new seven story apartment block on Kearny Mesa rents studio apartments for $4500 a month.

    How about a series of articles connecting the dots between the city’s recent upzoning actions, neighborhood redevelopment and densification and housing affordability?

    1. How can anyone, anywhere, think that *more* housing units *increases* prices? Just absolutely depraved sociopathy devoid of basic economics and human decency.

  7. We’ve seen new homeless encampments springing up along Sweetwater Road in Spring Valley. Some of them feature residents who have been stealing bicycles, switching out parts to build new bikes and selling them.

  8. Excuses, excuses. Those who are mentally ill need to be placed in treatment centers. I realize the government is short on these, but I believe solving problems like this is why we have political ‘leader’? Those who do drugs and alcohol need to be called to account when they allow such practices to infringe on the rights of other citizens to enjoy a safe and healthy environment. We have a right to not be exposed to excrement and urine and used needles, etc. A certain level of public decorum is essential for a civil society to function. Churches that do not offer wrap around services should not be serving meals that enable people to continue living a dissipated lifestyle on the streets. That leads to problems like the Hepatitis A outbreak San Diego suffered. It is better to offer meal vouchers for redemption at centers which also offer wrap around support services for those living on the streets.

  9. You say yourself that 82% suffer severe mental illness, 67% suffer addition to hard drugs, and 67% suffer addition to alcohol. Question: what percentage are either severely mentally ill, or addicted to hard drugs or alcohol?

  10. Consider that approximately 11 people exit homeless for every 13 entering and at least 20% if the newly homeless population originate from outside of San Diego. If we can prevent or actively discourage this problematic population from relocating to San Diego (with no means to support themselves), we would at least be able to achieve a steady state of homeless figures.
    There is no moral, financial or legal obligation for the city to support this population subset, and the drain on our limited resources prevents us from making meaningful progress in addressing the issue.

  11. From someone who came off the streets during a sweep, I would like to say that it is an admirable thing to build shelters. But I do not believe that the aggressiveness is necessary. People must want to go to a shelter. If they do not then there must be some place for them to go that is an authorized legal place for an encampment. With water and some means of communication with the city. So I know it’s a long road, but at least that road has an end to it, and you know you have reached your destination. A Community, A City, and a Country without homelessness.

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