May 10 2016 05:50 PM

The job falls to the San Diego city councilmember from District 3

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Chris Ward rests on the Imperial Avenue “rock garden.”
Photo by Ron Donoho

The city councilmember for downtown San Diego is the de facto mayor of homelessness. The June 7 primary election should determine if Chris Ward or Anthony Bernal (both Democrats) will sit in the District 3 seat being vacated by termed-out councilmember Todd Gloria. The question is whether Ward (chief of staff to state Senator Marty Block) or Bernal (community representative for Gloria) is better suited for the daunting challenge.

Yes, the mayor could and should take the lead on regional homelessness. Lacking from that office, however, is a strong sign of humanitarian drive, or recognition of the upside to business owners and residents, to firmly tackle the issue.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer's administration converted a 350-bed temporary shelter to an "interim housing" facility and announced an initiative to get 1,000 veterans off the street by the end of 2016. Every so often, a TV news team rediscovers the homelessness epidemic, and those are the two sound bites. Never mind the city eliminated winter shelters, and numbers for the mayor's 1,000-veteran "Housing Our Heroes" initiative are way behind pace to make goal.

Meanwhile, the 2016 "official" count of regional homeless (8,692) keeps San Diego in the top-four spot in the country, while the number of "unsheltered" homeless in San Diego County rose last year by 19 percent.

The city's visible reaction has been to systematically sweep East Village homeless encampments, in a useless effort many believe is leading up to a human downtown whitewashing for the July 12 MLB All-Star Game at Petco Park.

One other recent action on homelessness from the mayor's office was the creation of a "rock garden" under a bridge between downtown and Sherman Heights. The rocks were put in to discourage large crowds of disruptive homeless individuals from sleeping there. The Sherman Heights residents who traverse the underpass were pleased by the rock installation—until the homeless shifted over to Sherman Heights.

After I wrote about the rock garden, a Ward campaign representative emailed me a link to his "working paper" on homelessness. We agreed to do an interview—at the rock garden. I followed up that meeting with emailed questions to Bernal.

Both claim to support the emerging concept of "housing-first" with wraparound services for the homeless.

On the rock garden: "This is heartbreaking," says Ward. "It's inhuman. For the $57,000 this cost we could have housed six people for a year. As the councilmember I would send the message, 'Mr. Mayor, next time you're going to do something 'creative' in my district, I'd like to be consulted." Gloria's office says it wasn't consulted. Bernal says: "That's not how I would handle that particular situation."

A housing czar in the mayor's office: "The city should create a position to guide efforts to curb or reduce homeless individuals on our streets," says Bernal. Ward concurs. "It should become a funded position," says Ward. "It's the mayor's administration. Whether he chooses to fund such a position is his call, but I want to make it clear from a council standpoint that we give him the authority to make it a reality."

The "tiny houses" option: "Definitely not," says Bernal. "Introducing inferior and inhumane alternatives like tiny houses does not get us any closer to ending homelessness." Ward is for the idea: "Yes, but it's a short-term solution."

Declaring a Homeless State of Emergency in San Diego: "Yes, we should—it sends a message that this is a priority," says Ward. "We declared one in advance of El Niño, why can't we call attention to something that is more ongoing and present?" Bernal says no—the mayor's housing initiative still needs to be built upon. "We're not there yet," he says.

Ward and Bernal have sought to differentiate themselves from each other. Bernal was recently broadsided by media focus on donations to his campaign by Republican developer Doug Manchester, and by other right-leaning individuals.

Zeroing in on the homelessness issue, Bernal is right about tiny houses being a nonstarter. The backers of tiny houses are well intentioned, but it's a distractive, temporary solution. Solid muscle needs to be flexed for San Diego's community that has no voice. Declaring a state of emergency is a start. Neither candidate has any proven cred, yet. But in recognizing a need for beyond-the-norm actions, the edge on this point goes to Ward.

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