Through March 15, Oscar Bo has a bed at San Diego's winter homeless shelter, located this year in a Petco Park parking lot, where for $35 on game day—almost the same amount it costs to put a person up at the shelter for two nights, meals included—you can park your car and have a tailgate party.
When the shelter closes, two weeks earlier this year than in recent years because of the location, Bo will try for one of the roughly 900 downtown shelter beds available through various social-services agencies. While there are different ways to claim a bed, he'll go the route he knows best—he'll pick up a numbered voucher at the Neil Good Day Center on 17th Street and show up the next morning at 8 a.m. at St. Vincent de Paul, located around the corner, and hope his number's called. “Neanderthal,” he calls the process. “Eight a.m. conflicts if you're trying to find employment.”
According to a count taken Jan. 31 by 250 volunteers working for the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless, there are at least 1,025 people sleeping on the street in San Diego. That number doesn't include Balboa Park, Ocean Beach or Presidio Park, and, even then, some say it seems low. When the city's winter shelters close, the number of unsheltered homeless individuals will increase by roughly 400.
Two years ago, attorneys Scott Dreher and Tim Cohelan sued the city on behalf of nine homeless people who'd been ticketed for sleeping in public. Dreher and Cohelan argued in court papers that “sleep is a necessity, not a choice” and the shortage of shelter beds forces a person who's homeless to choose between sleeping on the street and possibly getting a ticket or, essentially, not sleeping at all. Forcing a person to make that choice violates the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment, the lawsuit argued.
Last March, the San Diego City Council agreed to settle the lawsuit by modifying the San Diego Police Department's procedural guidelines to say that police can't “normally” ticket anyone sleeping on public property between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. If a person's intoxicated, using drugs or being a nuisance, police can enforce applicable laws.
Los Angeles faced a similar lawsuit that was settled in October. The difference in L.A. is that folks get an extra half-hour to sleep (until 6 a.m.) and police can start ticketing again once the city builds 1,250 units of supportive housing (housing coupled with social services). The San Diego lawsuit has no such end provision, but since it was the lack of shelter beds that brought on the lawsuit, it's generally understood that only when the number of beds matches the number of people who need one would settlement terms be met.
In January, Dreher got a call from a city attorney, telling him that the lawsuit was on the agenda for the first meeting of the city's Permanent Homeless Facility Task Force. The task force was formed last October by the City Council's Land Use and Housing Committee in response to months and months of advocates for the homeless pressuring the city to make its temporary winter shelter permanent and, ideally, find a site for a central intake facility. The intake facility would, under one roof, house services that are currently spread out among various social-services providers—from showers to employment assistance to substance-abuse treatment referrals. The task force comprises citizens and city officials, including three City Council members whose districts have large homeless populations: Kevin Faulconer, Toni Atkins and Ben Hueso.
Tina Victory, a downtown homeowner who represents the Centre City Advisory Council on the task force, thought Dreher came to the Jan. 17 meeting to talk to the group about the lawsuit and settlement.
“I assumed it was to better educate the task force in regards to proper protocol,” she said, “but [the] meeting seemed to build on the minimum number of beds needed, and no longer on our quest to end chronic homelessness.”Dreher said he was surprised when Faulconer, the task-force chair, asked him to come up with a number that would satisfy the settlement.
“Faulconer kept pressing me on ‘Well, how many beds can we provide and meet that?'” There's “no magic number,” Dreher replied. “Technically speaking, that seems to mean 100 percent or at least substantially all,” he said. “What they want from us is to be able to go before [the judge] and say that these beds make such an impact that there is no need for the ticket moratorium.”
When the task force met in February, Faulconer opened by summing up his position on the settlement. The primary purpose of the task force, he said, was to recommend a location for a facility and what it should include. But, he added, “I wanted to reiterate my comments on the city's future ability to enforce illegal-lodging laws as [being] part of any agreement that we have with a homeless facility…. I view that as a necessary component in terms of what we are doing here.”
In an interview, Faulconer said he was looking to make all sides happy.
“What is the balance between getting the people the help they need and insuring that we're going to see a difference in our neighborhoods, in terms of enforcing existing laws and regulations? But our primary objective is… let's take a real look at this issue, and let's not be afraid to get in there and try to find a solution and a location.”
Last month, Fr. Joe Carroll, president of St. Vincent de Paul, one of San Diego's larger homeless-services providers, along with St. Vincent vice president Matt Packard and board member Charles Black, met with Dreher, who said the trio told him that a project with enough beds to meet the terms of the settlement would be more likely to get city approval. Dreher stressed that there was no back-room dealmaking going on. “He'd like to get his project through,” Dreher said of Carroll. And, as Carroll told CityBeat last week, a developer will be more likely to sign on to the project if there's a guarantee that police can begin enforcing illegal-lodging laws unrestricted.
“Our argument will be, if we build enough beds and believe they will cover everybody on the streets of downtown, then we can approach a developer saying, ‘If you help this happen, then the police can begin enforcing the vagrancy laws to remove people from your property if there's a place to send them'—that's the basic concept,” Carroll said. The ticket moratorium isn't an issue for the cops, said Chris Ball, captain of the San Diego Police Department's Central Division. If anything, it's given the department a chance to educate officers about how to interact with the homeless, he said.
“A lot of the people we run into need help. They need the help of county services; they need the help of mental health professionals…. A lot of the people we're dealing with have some pretty significant issues in addition to the fact that they're homeless.
“I'm not saying they need help from the police department, but sometimes we're the vehicle that gets them where they need to be,” Ball added.
Downtown developers are the ones who aren't happy about the ticket moratorium, Carroll said.
“If I'm selling a million-dollar apartment to somebody, and they've got to walk past a row of homeless people, that's not an easy sell. It's one thing to have the cops chase them from block to block, it's another thing to say we now have enough beds in downtown that we can say [to a homeless person], ‘You've got to move because there's a place for you to live; there's no excuse for you to be sleeping in the middle of a doorway.'”
Dreher and Cohelan's lawsuit put the city's unmet need for beds at around 2,000. The January count has it at roughly 1,400. Yet, somehow, the number 500 came up at the January task-force meeting and stuck. At that meeting, Sharon Johnson, who retired in late February from her job as the city's director of homeless services, said 500 is the number of people she's counted sleeping on the streets of San Diego's downtown core. Police counts have come up with roughly the same, she said.
Carroll's proposed “Village Multi Service Center” initially included a 250-bed shelter, but talk of the ticket settlement seems to have pushed that number to 500. Carroll doesn't think more than 500 is possible. “That's about the maximum you're ever going to be able to build, and I think that's all you need,” he said.
“I can't say that 500 beds is enough,” Dreher said. Ultimately, it's the judge who signed off on the settlement who will decide whether or not the terms have been met, he added.
So far, Carroll's plan seems like the city's best bet. St. Vincent de Paul Villages already owns a parcel of land on which the facility could be located—1402 Commercial St.—and Carroll has the fundraising power to come up with the money needed to build the facility—around $40 million, he estimates.
The task force will hold its third meeting on Thursday, March 13. For her part, Johnson hopes the focus is on long-term solutions—rather than short-stay beds—and less punitive measures.
“It's a matter of how you want to spend money on the homeless,” she said. “Jail at $90 per night, permanent housing with services for about the same or a [single-room] hotel for $27 [a night] without services?”