Regional leaders touted several new programs to address San Diego’s homelessness crisis during an unprecedented city forum on Monday, but also stressed they face significant challenges that could make progress frustratingly slow.
The new programs, some recently underway and others still in the works, include additional shelter beds, more subsidized apartments and launching efforts to prevent homelessness with counseling and other services for those at risk.
The leaders also discussed new approaches to managing the homeless, including a comprehensive evaluation of which programs are working, a hotline for available beds, a regional plan for addressing homelessness and a countywide computer system to track all people seeking services.
The challenges include San Diego’s high cost of housing, its low vacancy rate, a sharp decrease in single-room-occupancy hotels and the region’s relative lack of federal and local funding compared to other cities with homeless problems.
Additional hurdles include neighborhood opposition to facilities for the homeless, a dearth of local prevention programs and inefficient regional services that allow many homeless people to repeatedly cycle through the system.
The leaders stressed that the problem — San Diego has the fourth largest homeless population in the nation after New York, Los Angeles and Seattle — developed over many years and will take many years to solve.
“It’s like a huge iceberg that we are unable to move in one piece and unable to melt, but we need to chip away thoughtfully and carefully,” said Stacie Spector, the mayor’s senior advisor for housing solutions.
Spector was speaking to several hundred people inside downtown’s Golden Hall for a four-hour forum scheduled by San Diego City Council President Myrtle Cole.
“We need to work together and act with urgency,” said Cole, stressing that the problem has become steadily more widespread and conspicuous.
Local residents at the forum praised some of the proposals, but also raised some concerns.
Some said it was a waste of taxpayer money to spend so much addressing homelessness, while others said the city should focus less on adding shelter beds and more on creating jobs so less people will be homeless.
Others complained that the city harasses homeless people, including arresting many. And one speaker said San Diego wouldn’t have a homelessness problem if the federal government cracked down on illegal immigration.
The forum comes two months after Mayor Kevin Faulconer declared homelessness the city’s No. 1 challenge during his annual “State of the City” address.
At Monday’s forum, Faulconer said he’s optimistic progress will come from plans to increase funding and new collaboration among regional politicians and social service agencies.
“This is an unprecedented problem that demands an unprecedented level of cooperation and coming together,” the mayor said.
In January, Faulconer proposed a 2018 ballot measure to increase the city’s hotel tax to provide money for a waterfront convention center expansion, road repairs and the city’s first dedicated revenue stream to address homelessness.
That could help San Diego keep up with Los Angeles and several cities in Northern California that have recently approved ballot measures to provide funding for homelessness.
San Diego already suffers from a relative lack of funding because of the federal government’s formula for doling out money to address homelessness, which provides the city the 22nd most money in the nation despite having the fourth largest homeless population.
A new San Diego State study also shows San Diego spends essentially no money on homelessness prevention, which is crucial with the local lack of affordable housing, and that the city has a high rate of recidivism — people cycling through homeless programs repeatedly.
The San Diego Housing Commission is proposing $2 million to launch a prevention and diversion program as part of a package of new programs that would cost $79 million over the next three years.
The bulk of that money — $50 million — would pay for 500 new subsidized apartments to permanently house the local homeless. Another $11 million would provide vouchers to homeless people for existing apartments.
Other parts of the package include nearly $7 million to encourage landlords to rent to homeless people and nearly $8 million for “rapid re-housing” units targeted at people who suddenly become homeless because of a job loss, domestic violence or medical crisis.
The remainder of the money would cover street outreach to homeless people and rental assistance for formerly homeless people ready to become independent after living in subsidized housing.
The Housing Commission will also assist the Regional Task Force on the Homeless with creating a “community plan to address homelessness” by June.
Meanwhile, the city and agencies across the region are implementing a countywide “homeless management information system” that requires real-time reporting of when homeless people enter the system and what happens to them.
The system, which was launched in 2014, has been delayed by problems, allows beds to be doled out based on strategic criteria instead of first-come, first-served.
It could also reduce local recidivism among homeless people, which a new San Diego State study completed last fall called a significant problem.
San Diego County had 17,500 people cycle through local homelessness programs between October 2015 and September 2016, far more than the roughly 8,700 the region’s annual homeless count in January has found the last two years.
Meanwhile, the city is pursuing several new initiatives. They include a central intake center expected to open in 2019, a hotline for available beds, adding a few hundred more temporary shelter beds, renovating a downtown facility where homeless people can shower and expanding the Downtown Partnership’s family reunification program.
In addition, the city is still trying to fulfill Mayor Faulconer’s promise last year to house 1,000 homeless veterans. Through Monday, about 600 are living in apartments and roughly another 300 have vouchers but haven’t yet found a spot, according to the city.
While adding permanent housing and more services were praised as crucial solutions to the homelessness problem, some neighborhoods have raised concerns.
Downtown residents recently began circulating a petition demanding that two additional beds for the homeless be added outside of downtown for every bed added in downtown.
County Supervisor Ron Roberts, chairman of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, told San Diego City Council members that they can’t let resident complaints deter them.