On Monday, Oct. 23, homelessness will be the focus of an evening City Council meeting in-of all places-Point Loma (reportedly a coincidence in scheduling as the City Council planned to hold four off-site meetings this year).
On the agenda are three matters:
* The city's winter shelter is going to open one month early this year and stay open one month extra through private funding that hasn't yet been totally secured.
* City Attorney Mike Aguirre wants a public hearing on the federal lawsuit seeking to stop police from issuing illegal-lodging tickets to the homeless.
* Also up for discussion is a region-wide Plan to End Chronic Homelessness that, after two years in the making, will get its first full legislative airing. The City Council is expected to approve the plan, which aims over the next 10 years to get longtime homeless people-particularly those with mental illness and substance-abuse problems-into so-called supportive housing where a bevy of social services would focus on keeping that person off the street, housed and, ideally, employed. The key to the plan's success, though, is money to build that housing, an issue that the plan's authors say will be addressed in time.
Probably not since the San Diego Rescue Mission tried to get a permit to move its operations from East Village to Bankers Hill almost four years ago has the plight of this city's least fortunate gotten such attention.
San Diego's had a tenuous relationship with the issue of homelessness. While technically it's up to the county to provide social services, roughly 45 percent of the county's homeless population, or 4,300 individuals, are homeless in the city of San Diego. The city provides some funding for two homeless programs: the Neil Good Day Center downtown and a temporary winter shelter. Both programs are contracted out to the Alpha Project. But some advocates for the homeless want the city to do more. "Homelessness is very low on the mayor's agenda," said Bob McElroy, CEO of the Alpha Project.
"It's not our job," countered Fred Sainz, spokesperson for Mayor Jerry Sanders. "The city does not have a social-services mission. We fund these services out of the goodness of our heart, and we're going to have to reexamine whether or not we continue to perform these kinds of services.
"We probably should not be in the business of doing it at all," he added. "We should be running park-and-rec programs; we should be providing police services; we should be providing fire services; we should be providing permit services so people can build their homes. Social services are something that counties in the state of California provide. We've been doing it simply as a result of kind of what's always been done around here, but the mayor's said many times that we can't be all things to all people, and when we try to be, we will fail miserably."
Under its comprehensive homeless policy, the county puts the burden of providing adequate shelter on individual cities and takes responsibility for providing services like mental-health care and drug treatment (interestingly, the city of San Diego has a designated director of homeless services, Sharon Johnson, while the county has no such position). Advocates for the homeless don't dispute that the city lacks the money to subsidize housing-Mayor Jerry Sanders is in no position to do as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg did last year: promise to build 12,000 units of housing for the homeless and individuals at risk of becoming homeless. Still, some folks wish that the wildly popular Sanders would leverage some of his political capital to raise the profile of homelessness and even put a little pressure on the county Board of Supervisors, which has a history of being conservative, even stingy, when it comes to funding social services.
Tony Phillips, the former chief operating officer for the Alpha Project who's also worked for other homeless-services providers in San Diego (disclaimer: Phillips is a CityBeat columnist), agrees with Sainz that the city shoulders an "unfair burden" when it comes to providing homeless services. "Homelessness, at least in terms of root causes, is more a health-and-human-services issue than a sheer housing issue," Phillips said. "To that extent, it should be the county's problem. What we have never had in San Diego is a mayor who is willing to confront the county publicly over their abrogation of responsibility."
Indeed, former Mayor Pete Wilson set a business-focused agenda for San Diego's redevelopment. Mayor Maureen O'Connor went to the point of going undercover as a homeless person to get a better understanding of the issue, but her successors haven't shared the interest. And how has that influenced Sanders?
"The inner circle [of Sanders' administration] is the recycled Golding-Murphy crowd," said Steve Erie, professor of political science at UCSD, "and did you find great social initiatives under Dick Murphy or Susan Golding?"
Scott Dreher, one of the attorneys suing the city over the illegal-lodging tickets, describes Sanders as "aggressively ignoring" the homeless.
"Since O'Connor, the policy's been simply to ignore homeless people and pretend they aren't there," he said.
"We don't have a strong constituency for the homeless," Erie said. "The problem in San Diego is that people think that with Joan Kroc money and Father [Joe] Carroll [of St. Vincent de Paul], the private sector is taking care of the problem."
But, Erie added, "the city obviously is not in a position where there's a lot of money for new initiatives because of the pension crisis, so, in other words, you've already got two strikes against you in terms of really pushing this to fruition or success in San Diego."
Indeed, the Plan to End Chronic Homelessness has been steered largely by the private sector-real-estate developer Dene Oliver headed the committee that drew up the plan, and Hannah Cohen, a longtime consultant on homelessness issues for various nonprofits, was hired by the United Way to author the plan. Cohen said the county and 17 of its cities signed agreements early on to support the plan (the 18th city, Santee, claimed not to have any homeless citizens). San Diego's regional plan is part of a larger federal mandate that says cities and counties must find comprehensive ways to get people off the street and into permanent supportive housing, as opposed to temporary shelters. Cities and counties without a plan will be locked out of competing for certain federal housing grants.
Oliver said he's gotten nothing but support from Sanders. "There's no question political will is behind [the plan]," he said. Perhaps the mayor's following Oliver's lead-the developer is becoming an increasingly powerful force for the homeless. Downtown, next to his offices, he built what he hopes will be a model for the kind of housing the plan advocates, Rachel's Women's Center for homeless women and children. And on Monday evening, he appeared at a press conference with the Alpha Project to drum up financial support for an extended winter shelter, for which he's pledged $15,000.
Like Oliver, Cohen's confident Sanders will provide necessary leadership. "The best thing is to have the mayor making [the plan] a priority along with a strong volunteer chairperson" overseeing the plan's implementation.
Both Cohen and Oliver said it's been a little more difficult to get the Board of Supervisors' support; granted, they haven't yet seen the final plan, though they did sign a pledge to support it. "I hope that they come on board as things move on," she said. "Social services are their responsibility." Funding to build and staff supportive housing could require elected officials to lobby for their region's share.
"Whether the supervisors in San Diego step up and lead like the supervisors in L.A. and San Francisco, we'll have to wait and see," Oliver added.
Bedtime for the homeless?
Shortly after a federal appeals court ruled that the city of L.A. could no longer ticket its Skid Row homeless for sleeping in public, arguing that it's cruel and unusual punishment to ticket people when a city lacks an adequate number of shelter beds, the San Diego City Attorney's office quietly changed its policy.
Chris Morris, who heads the city attorney's criminal division, said the city attorney is no longer seeking jail time for repeat offenders. Instead, a person is held for no more than 24 hours until the police department's Homeless Outreach Team shows up. "The HOT team goes into jail and assesses them and gets them into the right programs, finds whatever aid may be available to their particular condition," Morris said.
Scott Dreher, one of the attorneys who, in 2004, filed a federal lawsuit similar to L.A.'s against the city of San Diego, called this policy "a bit like musical chairs." Still, it takes some of the bite out of the tickets.
Aguirre hoped a public hearing before the City Council would "illuminate the problem" and get the council thinking about how to settle the case lest a judge hand down a ruling similar to L.A. (L.A. cops, who initially weren't ticketing at all, have recently begun writing tickets only during the day).
Last month, Aguirre got flak from Mayor Jerry Sanders, Police Chief William Lansdowne and the Union-Tribune editorial page for telling a reporter he supported a settlement proposed by Dreher and attorney Tim Cohelan, under which the city would create "sleep zones" where homeless people couldn't be ticketed between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.
While both the mayor and police officials called the idea of creating such zones bad policy that exacerbates, rather than addresses, homelessness, a spokesperson for the mayor said that as of Friday, police have stopped ticketing homeless people at night. Lansdowne was out of town, and a spokesperson was unable to confirm this.
Aguirre said he hadn't heard that, but if it was true, "it's a good thing."
Dreher hadn't heard anything, either, but said he and Cohelan would drop the lawsuit if the practice becomes policy.