Homeless Lil Bill collects his thoughts.
Photo by Duncan Moore
If you believe any chain is only as strong as its weakest link then you should be concerned about the plight of our homeless population. There were more than 8,700 in San Diego at last count—a number that only includes those who surveyors could find on Jan. 29, 2016, for the official Point in Time Count. Not every local canyon could be combed; the men, women and children who are homeless and couch surfing with friends were not included. Our numbers could easily be double what was reported, maybe even more. Compared to similar official counting efforts, though, San Diego ranks fourth in in the country in number of homeless—behind New York, Los Angeles and Seattle.
Our homeless community is unquestionably the most vulnerable in the linked chain of human existence. And that’s a primary motivating force behind San Diego Homeless Awareness Day (Aug. 17). About two dozen media outlets in the city have allied to focus cameras, airwaves, newspaper pages and web space on the same issue on the same day. It’s unprecedented in San Diego and borrows from a similar effort implemented in June in San Francisco. CityBeat is proud to be an organizing sponsor of the local coalition.
So who are those people out there living in tents set up on city sidewalks? Contrary to one line of thought they’re not all lazy deadbeats and/or alcoholics and drug fiends. That’s not to say some don’t possess those traits or addictions. But who can judge with one glance whether a man or woman became homeless because they are drug addled, or became drug addled because they are homeless?
If you think high standing in society offers immunity to homelessness, think again. Ask Laurie Black. Her late husband was a successful developer; she was the daughter-in-law of the owner of the Hotel del Coronado. Black was a port commissioner, aide to a Congresswoman and head of the Downtown San Diego Partnership. Her late brother, Brian, was a paranoid schizophrenic who heard voices in his head and went homeless for stretches of time.
Here’s a previously unreported personal note: Several years ago I found myself on the precipice. It culminated after a series of events relating to job loss, bad economy, the end of a relationship and a previous financial obligation. I moved into an East Village single-room-occupancy apartment. No, I never slept outdoors. From my SRO window, however, I could gaze out onto the street and plainly see the next rung down on the ladder of descent.
By happenstance, I recently drove through East Village on the same day Pastor James Merino made his return to doing street feedings. Recall he previously reported the San Diego Police Department threatened to “bring the hammer down” on his San Diego Dream Center organization if it carried out its ministerial mission downtown in July, while Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game was going on.
Fearful the SDPD might harass or even arrest his volunteers, The Dream Center sat out the whole month of July. Merino claims the stoppage caused his ministry to lose a major funder.
But on Aug. 10, here is Merino once again. He and his team set up tables on Island Avenue between 15th and 16th streets and are giving out wrapped sandwiches and other dinner foods, as well as clothes, shoes and printed materials advertising counseling and services that can help lead to permanent housing.
Merino tells me his lawyer, Scott Dreher, prepared a lawsuit against the city for threatening to shut them down. Dreher later confirms he met with Assistant City Attorney Dan Bamberg. Dreher says the two hashed out a resolution in an “adult conversation” that did not lead to filing the lawsuit.
Merino says he wanted reassurance that feeding people on the street is legal. He wants it in writing, but Dreher says he and Bamberg shook hands and settled the suit.
The following statement, though, was emailed to CityBeat from City Attorney Spokesperson Gerry Braun: “San Diego does not have an ordinance prohibiting the distribution of food to the needy. It did so until 2014, but no prosecutions under it were brought by this office.”
Braun adds: “The City Attorney’s Office has received two [San Diego Municipal Code section] 54.0122 cases from SDPD since the current city attorney took office in 2008, and neither involved free food distribution.... SDMC 54.0122 was amended in 2014 to address issues concerning food trucks. As a result of those changes it no longer prohibits free distribution of food.”
That’s welcome news to caring individuals like Merino, and to other faith-based and do-gooder groups. But giving out food is a temporary solution— not a long-range cure. A plan to build and distribute tiny homes made of wood, for example, is also a well-intentioned but temporary solution. The argument is that tiny homes are a distraction from the long-range solution.
But the long-range solutions from local government are a long time coming.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” says Alpha Project founder and CEO Bob McElroy. He has indeed been a longtime and oftentimes brash fixture in the homeless community. McElroy has a football player’s build and recently underwent a knee replacement surgery. But that hasn’t slowed him from having a hand in nearly every outreach program run by Alpha Project. The newest, crowning achievement is Alpha Square, a 204-unit permanent supportive housing high-rise on Market Street in East Village.
“I started running this all out of my pocket,” McElroy says of Alpha Project. “I’ve been on every task force and every mayor’s subcommittee. I’ve worked with every mayor and city councilperson—for 30 years. I’m still here in the street because that’s what I love to do. And everything that’s encapsulated in the housing-first system is right here in Alpha Square. We have a psychiatric case manager and a full-time nurse from the county. We have computer labs. And a nurturing environment.”
McElroy pivots to note that what the city has done to manage homelessness for at least the past 30 years has not changed. He calls it herding. “What the city is doing doesn’t work. The cops are mandated to respond to calls,” he says. “So they get a bunch of calls and move everybody over to Imperial [Ave.]. Then when everybody over at Imperial gets pissed off, then they move ’em over to National [Ave.]. We herd people from one neighborhood to another because there’s no place for people to go.”
McElroy wants to build a large Central Intake facility where people can get access to services while they wait for permanent housing (homeless advocate Michael McConnell, who shares a passion for solving homelessness, disagrees with this approach).
But despite suggestions and solutions offered by concerned advocates and activists, there exists a fundamental disconnect with local government.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s spokesperson has long insisted the mayor is spending more money on homelessness than ever and is committed to the housing-first approach.
“I’ve know Kevin forever,” says McElroy. “He doesn’t call me and I’m not calling anybody. They know where I am. And they’ve know what our plan has been for 15 years…I’ve told all the power brokers, the big shot money guys downtown that they need to stop funding [political] campaigns of people that aren’t going to do something about this.”
Who are the power brokers McElroy is referring to? “Big-time property owners. Tourism industry. Chamber industry.”
Lacking voice and an ability to make campaign contributions to candidates who would push for affordable and low-cost housing, the homeless continue to just be bounced from place to place. McElroy calls it herding, McConnell refers to it as “Whack-AMole” enforcement.
Sherman Heights got a taste of the Whack-A-Mole effect after the city installed sharp rocks under a bridge bordering downtown. It was intended to discourage people from sleeping there, but led to a decision by some homeless folks to move into Sherman Heights. Hillcrest believes it is now seeing a surge of homeless individuals who have been displaced by downtown encampment sweeps.
Sigh . Ignoring the fixes already on the table for drastically reducing homelessness is maddening.
The wildly successful results of Project 25 (which is still in practice at Father Joe’s St Vincent de Paul Villages) show that if you take the repeat offenders off the street—those who are continually picked up and processed by the police and for ambulance and hospital service—and give them housing and attend to their individual health and mental needs… they stay off the street at a significantly higher rate. And housing them costs taxpayers substantially less than continually plucking them off the street.
These are the dots that need to be connected in political circles. Awareness isn’t enough; action has to be taken. If not, the chain will break. And someone you know could easily slip through the cracks while the herd is senselessly being marched from one corner to the next.