Photo by Duncan Moore
Let's just start calling it what it is: San Diego's skid row.
It's a rather ugly and outdated name for an impoverished area of town where, more often than not, a city's most impoverished population lives. However crass and whatever images the phrase evokes, there's no getting around that parts of the East Village—with its growing homeless encampments and makeshift tents—are now easy to consider San Diego's version of skid row.
In January of 2016, Mayor Faulconer stood in front of a packed audience at the Balboa Theatre and spoke eloquently and believably about the Housing Our Heroes initiative and his commitment to a "housing first" approach to homelessness. CityBeat wondered then whether he was turning a corner on the issue, but given the city's already swelling lack of affordable housing and the fact that the overall downtown homeless population is up 70 percent, it may be time for the mayor to turn another corner.
As Scott Lewis put it on Voice of San Diego's podcast this past week, the tents in the East Village "have started a conversation" and Voice rightly declared the downtown homeless population as their "Voice of the Year." However, the mayor has been touting the success of his Housing Our Heroes initiative, claiming that 700 of the over 1000 homeless military veterans had now received housing vouchers. Problem is, only a little over 400 of those vets actually found a home. At the pace at which the initiative is moving, it seems unlikely that the city will be able to deliver on the promise of ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2017.
Honestly, I'm not sure what else is needed for a wake-up call. One would think that the series of brutal homeless killings earlier this year would have been enough. That when someone kills three innocent people by driving railroad spikes into their heads and then sets fire to two more, that perhaps that would be enough to have the issue jump to the top of the agenda.
But it wasn't. The mayor responded by hiring a PR person, Stacie Spector, to advise him on housing solutions with an emphasis on addressing homelessness. However, the mayor's office was quick to point out that Spector was not a "homeless czar," but rather just an advisor. Since her hiring in October, it's not exactly clear what advice the mayor has received or if and when that advise will be formulated into a cohesive plan.
Given Spector's political background (that is, she's a Democrat), I had confidence at the time that she would really turn the mayor around on this issue. That, instead of photo ops shoveling potholes and planting trees, I'd see the mayor touring East Village's skid row to meet the men, women and children who are now making their home there. Instead, we ended the year with images of city workers throwing a homeless person's tent into a garbage truck (thanks to a video taken by homeless advocate and CityBeat columnist Michael McConnell), as well as news of closures at emergency shelters during the cold and wet holiday season. This resulted in more pictures of rain-soaked encampments under the very same underpass that the city installed jagged rocks to deter the homeless from camping there. That project cost the city $60,000 and was part of an effort to clean up the area before the MLB All-Star Game in July. These days, the homeless just camp on the adjacent sidewalk.
There may have been an initial reluctance on Faulconer's part for such a skid row tour given his endorsement, however belated, of Measure C (aka the Chargers stadium measure), but that ship has sunk. The prospect of a stadium in the East Village is all but dead and the Chargers, in all likelihood, are moving. The time to move on to more pressing matters has never been more needed.
CityBeat was one of the first publications to call for the hiring of a city employee directly responsible for addressing the swelling homeless population. Call that person a czar, call them whatever you want, but there needs to be someone in a position of power to work directly with the community, neighboring businesses and the homeless themselves in order to find tangible solutions to the issue.
I, for one, look forward to what Faulconer will say about the issue at the State of the City address this January. I just hope that another tragic incident doesn't happen between now and then, as if the overall situation wasn't tragic enough.