As the Nov. 8 election approaches, San Diego is engaged in a debate over whether to raise the hotel tax in order to pay for a new Chargers football stadium in downtown’s East Village. I’ve been asked many times for my thoughts on how a new stadium would affect homelessness downtown—and particularly East Village, an area in which more than 1,000 people live on the streets and many more live in shelters and transitional housing.
It’s important to remember that only one thing will help resolve chronic homelessness—getting people into the kind of permanent housing that comes with supportive services. Over that, there is no debate. Permanent supportive housing has been proven to work; it gets people off the street and saves taxpayers money.
That said, we can look at potential negative and positive effects of a new stadium in East Village.
Historically, as San Diego has developed in the urban core and new residents, business owners and visitors have poured into downtown, civic leaders have simply hoped that people living on the streets would somehow just disappear.
When Petco Park was built in East Village, there was still room to the east for displaced homeless people to go, such as the area around 15th and 16th streets. But no longer is there a buffer before homeless people begin to enter the residential neighborhoods to the east of downtown—Sherman Heights, Logan Heights, Barrio Logan—especially if the blocks just north of the stadium site are further gentrified, as has been promised by stadium supporters.
There is also a large presence of homeless services in the area. Father Joe’s St. Vincent de Paul Village is located right across Imperial Avenue, just to the south of the stadium site, and the Neil Good Day Center—where people can get temporary respite from the streets, send and receive mail, take a hot shower and do laundry—is a block east of the site on 17th Street. In the future, the Neil Good Day Center will be relocated to the St. Vincent de Paul Village.
Unless the St. Vincent de Paul Village moves, which is highly unlikely, homeless people will still need to access the area around the stadium, but it will be harder for them if they’re dispersed into neighborhoods such as Barrio Logan, Logan Heights, Sherman Heights, Golden Hill, Bankers Hill, Hillcrest, Little Italy and points beyond. And those who are able to reach these services will find an altered landscape that is much less friendly to them.
Meanwhile, tensions between residents and businesses and homeless people in those nearby communities—which already exist—will intensify.
So, unless we want to encourage all of that displacement and the messes that result, we’re left with the challenge of dealing with the issue where it sits. It would be a huge positive if that were the direction the city takes: Let’s finally deal with this issue head-on.
If voters approve a stadium, it will be a few years before it’s built—plenty of time to resolve homelessness in the area if we can get all the interested parties on board. We know what to do: create the needed permanent supportive housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness, rapid rehousing for those with lessor needs and outreach teams to connect the people in need to the resources. This approach should have happened long ago, but our city has failed to deliver, and instead, has invested heavily in Band-Aid approaches such as shelters and transitional housing that have left so many of our neighbors on the street. Our leaders just need to muster the will to make the right investments.
A new stadium in East Village could be that catalyst. It would have been nice if a comprehensive plan to end homelessness had been included in Measure C, the stadium proposition. That sort of added public benefit might have even improved the Chargers’ odds of winning on Election Day.
I was recently in Denver learning about the efforts there to move homeless people out of the downtown area. But instead of solving the problem in a humane, meaningful way, the city has merely spread people out—with many of them moving into the shopping districts and parks during the day and hiding out by the river at night.
Denver is a good example of what not to do.
If voters approve Measure C, San Diego must explicitly attach “solutions to homelessness” to the plan to build a new stadium—real solutions that balance quality of life for housed residents with pathways out of homelessness for those who are on the street.
When we implement effective pathways out of homelessness for many of our most vulnerable neighbors, we can also balance with law enforcement policies that are good for everyone. That means eliminating the current ongoing practice in San Diego of criminalizing homelessness.
The San Diego Police Department, with the implicit backing of Mayor Kevin Faulconer, essentially finds reasons to issue citations to people with no choice but to live on the street, such as blocking the sidewalk with a tent. Those citations come with court dates, which homeless people often miss, leading to arrest warrants for failure to appear in court, and jail time.
When people are enmeshed in that criminal-justice cycle, it becomes much harder to escape homelessness.
It’s too bad that the severe problem of homelessness in East Village hasn’t been a larger part of the discussion surrounding Measure C. But it isn’t too late to make it so.
Michael McConnell is a philanthropist and advocate who serves on multiple local and regional homelessness advisory committees. He can be found on Facebook at Homelessness News San Diego and Twitter at @HomelessnessSD.