Inside a near-packed Balboa Theatre last week, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer aimed a hearty 750 words at homelessness during his annual State of the City address. He said the city is on a new (“housing first”) course to address the roots of the issue. And he announced a $12.5 million Housing Our Heroes initiative that would put roofs over the heads of 1,000 currently unsheltered veterans who are living in the streets by the end of 2016.
Some believe the mayor is late to the game, and compared to mayors stepping to the fore in other cities, he is. Others point to previous five-year and three-year plans in San Diego for eradicating homelessness— as well as federal programs and/or challenges—where objectives were not met.
But could we be turning a corner here?
During Faulconer’s annual address I sat near a volunteer homeless advocate who whispered a restrained exclamation of joy at the mention of the veterans’ initiative. The homelessness advocacy community has been praying for the mayor to take a leadership role. It remains to be seen if he will stand at the bow of the ship for the voyage. But his comments do represent a public acknowledgement and commitment to a goal that can and should be benchmarked by the San Diego Housing Commission throughout the coming year.
A spokesperson for the mayor says more details will be forthcoming in a press conference next month.
San Diego needs to play some serious catch-up. Our city ranks fourth in the nation in homeless population, with 8,742 counted in January of last year. San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria is concerned that number may increase this year when the annual count-in-place results come in.
“This is a frustrating issue for the homeless as well as the folks who see it,” said Gloria, who also chairs the Regional Continuum of Care Council, a coalition of homelessness stakeholders. “We have to show that this is a solvable situation. When my constituents see people defecating in the streets their first reaction is not always what’s best for humanity.”
However, Gloria says when veterans are mentioned in the equation there is a different reaction. “There’s more compassion, it captures your attention,” he says. “Focusing on veterans is a logical en- try point so that success can breed success.”
Faulconer said in the State of the City: “For veterans who are already on the streets, I am working with San Diego landlords to open their doors.”
Unfortunately, in the past, landlords have been slow to rent to homeless veterans, even ones who have housing vouchers in hand. Apartments that rent for about $1,000 a month in this tight market get snapped up quickly on craigslist.com from applicants with good credit ratings and no past evictions.
Landlords are afraid of veterans with mental illness problems doing damage to units or causing disturbances. There’s also sometimes a two-week lag in voucher payments kicking in.
“We have already begun a partnership with San Diego [Regional] Chamber [of Commerce] CEO Jerry Sanders and local apartment associations to identify hundreds of housing units for veterans,” said Faulconer.
The Chamber’s communications director acknowledged this but declined to discuss specifics.
An ongoing series of meeting hosted by 25 Cities San Diego (the local arm of a federal initiative focused on homelessness) is being scheduled with the aim of bringing landlords together to hear their concerns about allocating apartments for homeless veterans. That feedback will be valuable. Those landlords may need to be incentivized or at least convinced this is a serious venture that bears teeth and is backed by political will.
“It’s several factors, but in other cities where this is succeeding, the landlords are stepping up,” said Michael McConnell, local team leader of 25 Cities. “They’re stepping up because they’re being asked by the right people.”
By all accounts, if the mayor of a city is publicly and vocally behind such a push it has a substantially greater chance of getting homeless people—veterans, children, families, all human beings—off our streets.