By Ken Williams | Editor
The annual figures on homelessness are in, and the numbers are shocking:
- 5 percent increase in homelessness in San Diego County since 2016 — meaning that 9,116 people are living on the streets or in shelters.
- 14 percent increase in the unsheltered homeless population.
- 10 percent increase in the city of San Diego’s homeless population.
- 54 percent increase in homeless youth without shelter — meaning that 883 people younger than age 25 are living without a roof over their heads.
The 2017 Point-in-Time Count of the region’s homeless population, conducted by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, is a somber reminder that despite all the earnest efforts to solve the problem, things are not getting any better.
District 3 Councilmember Chris Ward, who serves as vice chair of the task force, has made homelessness one of the key issues he wants to work on. Ward participated April 26 in a Quality of Life Forum sponsored by the North Park Community Association at the Lafayette Hotel.
Other panelists included San Diego Police Sgt. Brandie Sorbie, a member of the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT); Lara Easton, chief deputy city attorney; Amy Gonyeau, chief operating officer for the Alpha Project San Diego; and Angela Landsberg, executive director of North Park Main Street.
Several dozen people attended the forum, which was moderated by Joseph Balestrieri. Audience members were not allowed to ask questions of the panelists.
Not surprisingly, Ward dominated the conversation due to his involvement in the task force. He represents a district that includes both Uptown and Downtown, two areas where the homeless population is very visible.
“This is a regional problem, not just a Downtown problem,” Ward said. He noted that the homeless population grew 20 percent Downtown, particularly in East Village where a number of homeless shelters and services are located.
Ward said there has been an uptick in homelessness in the Uptown area as well as in Mission Valley, especially along the San Diego River.
The count results showed that 77 percent of the unsheltered people became homeless while living in San Diego County. This helps dispel the popular notion that other California cities and counties and other states are giving homeless people a one-way bus ticket to San Diego.
Ward is particularly dismayed by the 58 percent increase in homeless youth. Of the 1,150 homeless youth who are sheltered or unsheltered, the count showed their sleep history:
- 19 percent slept on the street or sidewalk.
- 17 percent “couch surfed.”
- 16 percent had transitional housing.
- 15 percent slept in a vehicle.
- 11 percent slept in a tent or hand-built structure.
- 3 percent were in emergency shelter.
- 1 percent were in motel/hotel.
- 1 percent were in jail or a treatment program.
- 1 percent in a safe haven.
- 1 percent in unstable situations.
- 15 percent were unsheltered in other circumstances.
“If we don’t help them early, then they will become chronically homeless,” Ward warned.
Despite all the negative news, Ward suggested that things likely will get better. The task force is a recent merger of various service providers and organizations devoted to solving the homeless problem, so Ward seems this as a positive development.
The task force’s vision is simple: “An end to homelessness in the San Diego region.” And its mission is clear: “To provide comprehensive data and trusted analysis that empowers the entire community to identify, implement, and support efforts to prevent and alleviate homelessness.”
One of the big problems is that the San Diego region does not get its fair share of federal dollars devoted to the homeless — even though the region ranks among the top three cities for the number of unsheltered people. About $18 million in federal homelessness funding comes back to the San Diego region.
The federal government has also demanded that more of its dollars be focused on providing housing opportunities for the homeless, so local officials have tried to comply. That has resulted in the loss of almost 700 beds in temporary housing in shelters.
Despite the grim figures, there is one bright spot. “One area we’re seeing significant decline is in homeless veterans,” Ward said, citing the city’s efforts to care for those who served our country.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced the “Housing Our Heroes” program during his State of the City address in 2016 with the goal of placing 1,000 homeless veterans into housing. Ward said the city is close to meeting that goal.
Ward also lauded the family reunification program, which tries to reunite homeless individuals with their long-lost families.
The task force is expected to release a comprehensive plan on combatting homelessness in June, Ward said. It is also in the recruiting stage, searching the nation to find an executive director who has a proven track record in reducing homelessness.
Landsberg talked about how the homeless problem has a negative impact on small businesses on Main Street as well as on local residents and visitors to North Park. She talked about the legal challenges of removing homeless people and their belongings from near businesses and homes.
Sgt. Sorbie explained the difference between encroachment, such as tents or structures, and illegal lodging.
HOT, she said, consisted of six officers, working on two shifts, who deal exclusively to homeless issues citywide.
“We don’t typically do enforcement,” Sorbie said, “but we can if we need to. We go out on a daily basis and contact anyone who is homeless and let them know that we are there to help them … if they want our help. It’s not a crime to be homeless.
“We can tell folks that they can’t have tents or structures and that they cannot block sidewalks or entrances,” she added.
Gonyeau said Alpha Project has noticed that “tent city” is up 104 percent Downtown.
Other statistics show that 69 percent of the homeless are men, 29 percent are women, and 2 percent identify as transgender. Veterans total 8 percent of the homeless population. Also, 39 percent self-reported that they had mental health issues and 20 percent said they had substance abuse problems.
Task force, HOT and Alpha Project officials all work together to connect people with mental health and/or substance abuse issues with services that are available.
Ward said he expected the homeless situation would improve in the years ahead.
“We might be a little late getting into the game,” he said, “but we are getting there.”
“I think real changes are coming as a result of the [task force] merger,” Landsberg added.
Representing 700 businesses in “downtown” North Park, Landsberg urged business and property owners who feel hassled by the homeless to issue a “letter of authorization” to the Police Department to allow officers to remove the homeless from alcoves, porches or their property. “They cannot block doors and sidewalks,” she said.
As far as whether to call 911 or the Police Department’s non-emergency number, Ward said “use your own judgment. You know when a situation is dangerous.”
Sobie said HOT has a phone number for non-emergencies: 619-446-1010. “We only check our messages once a day,” she said, adding that their email address is email@example.com.
Landsberg advised people not to feed the homeless, despite all good intentions. “Giving food or money to the homeless is not going to solve the problem,” she said. “Give money to the folks who are providing the services.”
Sara is the editor of San Diego Uptown News.