Nov. 16 2016 12:26 AM

Politicians show little interest in addressing the spike of homeless deaths

    San Diego Rescue Mission's Interfaith candlelight vigil
    Photo courtesy of Mission Focused

    More than twice as many homeless people died alone on San Diego streets this year as compared to two years ago. Think about that for a second—the number has doubled in two years. It’s a sobering thought as some national advocacy organizations commemorate an annual Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week (Nov. 12 to 20).

    The San Diego Rescue Mission disclosed in its 2014 report that 56 people who were homeless died that year, according to records from the County Medical Examiner’s Office. There was major concern last year when that number increased to 90; now the annual report shows that 115 deaths occurred in 2016.

    To balloon from 56 to 115 in just two years is significant. “I wish I had an answer for why this is happening,” said San Diego Rescue Mission President and CEO Herb Johnson. “I don’t know what’s going on—but I do know the Regional Task Force [on the Homeless in San Diego Country] reported that the unsheltered homeless population went up 20 percent last year while the sheltered number went down about that same amount.”

    The 2016 count of homeless people in the county found 8,692 people living in the streets or in shelters here. Long-time observers believe the annual Point-In-Time Count does not find all the local homeless individuals, making the actual number, in all likelihood, significantly higher. The official count pegs San Diego as the United States city with the fourth highest homeless population, following New York City, Los Angeles and Seattle.

    Johnson has been at the Rescue Mission for a decade, and it’s believed the faith-based service provider has marked the annual death count for 16 years with an Interfaith Candlelight Vigil.

    This year, as in year’s past, concerned citizens gathered at the Rescue Mission on the border of Bankers Hill for a silent march that makes two stops at downtown churches and ends up at the San Diego County Administration Building. During this year’s march people carried 115 sets of shoes—toe-tagged the way dead bodies are identified at a morgue—to represent each homeless person who died during the past year.

    It’s a sobering event and a humbling experience,” said Johnson. He noted that 58 deaths this year were listed as “accidental,” which could include anything from being hit by a car to blunt force trauma to the head, a fall or an altercation. This category does not include deaths due to health reasons or homicide.

    There are four homicides listed among this year’s 115 deaths, according to Johnson. Recall that three homicides were committed this past summer by a serial killer who terrorized the city. Police arrested a suspect with a history of mental health issues who reportedly killed homeless individuals with railroad spikes and lit some of his victims on fire.

    Reaction from different corners of San Diego to the annual silent vigil is mixed, according to Johnson. He said the media responds and reports stories. “But we’ve thrown in the towel on asking politicians to attend,” he said. “We’ve not received a lot of interest.”

    San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer recently tapped Stacie Spector to be his senior advisor for housing solutions, a position that essentially gives her primary city oversight of homelessness. Spector did not attend the march, though Johnson credits her with touring the Rescue Mission and listening to his concerns.

    “Even one unnecessary death is too many,” Spector said via email, regarding the two-year jump. “Our focus is to help people get the services and shelter they need working with our county, housing commission, service providers and RCCC [Regional Continuum of Care Council] partners to vastly reduce the number of people living and sleeping on the streets.”

    If you’re wondering how the recent presidential election may affect how the federal government spends money on homelessness, you’re not alone.

    “The policy outcomes of the election remain to be seen,” said Spector. “What we know is that the current federal allocation of funding from the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Department via their supportive housing formula is extremely unbalanced. San Diego is a very low priority in the funding formula. We rank 28th in the country for priority in funding to deal with homelessness issues, yet we are fourth in the nation for the highest number of unsheltered people living and sleeping on the streets. That funding formula is unacceptable.”

    Johnson agrees with Spector on the point of HUD funding imperatives. And he is correct—to my observation—that amid all the scary rhetoric flung during the presidential campaigns, one marginalized set of the population was never even mentioned.

    “I didn’t hear the term ‘homeless’ brought up once by any candidate,” Johnson said.


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