Stephen Whitburn reflects on his first year in office.
By Vince Meehan
San Diego Downtown/Uptown News sat down with District 3 Councilmember Stephen Whitburn at his Downtown office right before the New Year in 2021.
Stephen Whitburn is the eternal optimist. This goes beyond the idea of seeing the glass half empty or half full. Whitburn works hard everyday to keep that proverbial glass full no matter what comes along. And when that glass is full, he starts working to fill another. At the tail end of 2020 – which included the second wave of Covid 19 – Whitburn was elected Councilmember of District 3 which includes all of Downtown and Uptown. It was not an optimal time for an elected official to begin a freshman term, but Whitburn has succeeded in getting much done in the past year. This work ethic is apparent as he reflects on his first year as District 3 Council member in his Downtown office at City Hall.
“As I look back over the year, I’m just very appreciative to the residents of District 3,” Whitburn said. “They’ve been so engaged and communicative with our office, and they’ve been great to work with.”
2021 was not a good year for anybody to begin a term as an elected official. COVID-19 hung on longer than anticipated and that kept the City of San Diego from functioning at its full potential. But to hear Whitburn talk about last year, you’d think that it was no different than any other. “There is definitely a lot to learn here at City Hall! Because there are a lot of departments – so many issues – and so many things that we need to get done. I’m fortunate to be a part of a City Council that works really well together. And that has been one of the things that has really enabled us to get so much done this year. Disagreements make the news, but mostly we work well with each other as well as the Mayor’s office.”
Last year, Whitburn was instrumental in nurturing a coalition of both public and private entities to address San Diego’s ongoing homelessness crisis.
“The homelessness situation is unacceptable. It is a humanitarian crisis. It impacts our neighborhoods and it impacts our small businesses,” Whitburn noted. “The good news is that the City is doing more than ever before to address it. The City has a new Department of Homeless Strategies and Solutions, along with a new director of that department who is really well versed on the things that need to be done.”
Whitburn said that alongside city resources, there needs to be extensive and active community involvement. He has worked to gather a committed and determined team to kick that effort into high gear and move forward.
“I’ll tell you, that coalition exists right now. There is a lot of communication between our local government bodies, whether it’s the city or the county, our nonprofits, our small businesses — and I work closely with all of them,” Whitburn said. “I am the city’s representative to the Regional Task Force on Homelessness where I interact with other governmental bodies and agencies including the San Diego Housing Commission and many of our nonprofits.”
Whitburn says that working with non-profit social service agencies has been key because they can work at a street level and provide individualized one-on-one outreach. This allows the teams to have a good chance of persuading people to accept shelter and services that are available. That often is a huge first step in closing the homeless cycle.
“We’re doing that across District 3 and it is the most effective outreach that we have done to date,” Whitburn added. “Hundreds of people have been connected to housing and services. Obviously, we have a long ways to go. We have a lot of people who are still unsheltered and we need to continue to expand that outreach to get them into shelter.”
District 3 has a stellar pedigree of past council members who were both effective as well as loved by their constituents. This includes Toni Atkins, Chris Ward, and Mayor Todd Gloria. These representatives were known for their commitment to the residents of District 3 and made it a point to actively attend community meetings and events in person as opposed sending an aide. This resulted in them having a finger on the pulse of the community and not being surprised by any issues that the residents were passionate about. Whitburn has continued this tradition and has allowed him to have keen insight as to what he needed to focus on upon taking office.
“I haven’t been surprised because of my experience on the campaign trail,” he said. “When I was talking to voters about what they were looking for in a council member and what the issues were of importance to them and the number one issue then – and it continues to be the number one issue now – is the homelessness crisis.”
In response to that, Whitburn worked with the City and County to open a new shelter in the Midway area specifically for people who have addictions and mental health issues. Operated by Alpha Project, the small shelter is dedicated to harm reduction so can serve people who did not thrive in other shelters. The Midway district has seen a recent explosion in encampments, according to NBC. This shelter will act as a first step in defusing the situation and providing a way off the streets.
“Another thing that gives me optimism that we are going to make progress on this, is that for the first time ever in San Diego’s history, every level of government is aligned in prioritizing the homelessness crisis,” Whitburn elaborated. “The City Council is aligned on it, the Mayor is all in on addressing homelessness, we have a County Board of Supervisors now that is really focused in this issue. The county is largely the provider of social services and mental health care and addiction services so we need them and they’ve really been stepping up. So every level of government is invested in addressing this crisis.”
Additionally, Whitburn has made it a point to focus on rental assistance for his District 3 constituents. According to Whitburn, three quarters of District 3 residents are renters and many have been struggling because of COVID. The City distributed $128 million in rental assistance through the Federal CARES Act. He said there have been more applications for that assistance from District 3 than anywhere else in the city. Additionally, the City created a pool of five million dollars to provide legal defense and assistance for those facing eviction.
“It’s so important that we not allow the homelessness crisis to get any worse, that we actually make progress in reducing the number of people who are on the streets.” Whitburn added.
Last year has been challenging, but Whitburn’s optimism has been key in moving District 3 forward despite the pandemic. He is looking forward to holding in person Council meetings as opposed to the Zoom meetings that have been necessary during Covid. He is also looking forward to working with his district’s residents who have been very active in calling in to those Zoom meetings.
“There have been some really bright spots this year as well. Our office was able to secure funding for a new dog park that will be located at the Ed Center – the School District’s headquarters – over at Normal Street and El Cajon Blvd. It’s something that District 3 residents really asked us for help with and I’m really proud that we were able to deliver that for them,” he said.
COVID or no COVID, Whitburn intends to hit the ground running in 2022 to make sure that his District 3 constituents are well represented, and have their voices heard. He intends to continue to work closely with the community as well as business groups such as the Downtown Partnership, Hillcrest Business Association and North Park Main Street to keep the neighborhoods both resident-friendly as well as business-friendly.
Through all the ups and downs Whitburn still sees last year as a success in his effort to serve the residents of his district. Before he ran for office, Whitburn was heavily involved in the community as a member of the San Diego Human Dignity Foundation, the North Park Planning Committee, and San Diego Pride, so this passion comes naturally for him. And a little known fact is that he served over 10 years as a journalist in his home state of Wisconsin after college. All this experience has given Stephan Whitburn the insight and the optimism that helps him serve District 3.
— Vince Meehan can be reached at email@example.com.