Photo by Michael McConnell
On Jan. 12, Mayor Kevin Faulconer delivered the annual State of the City address, in which he discussed the ongoing homelessness crisis in San Diego and the city’s plans to address it.
In his address the mayor said, “Being homeless is not a crime, but drug use, theft and other quality of life crimes cannot—and will not—be tolerated.”
Here’s the problem with that logic: “quality of life” crimes can include everything from sleeping on the sidewalk to public urination, which are life-sustaining behaviors that are often unavoidable for people who don’t have a place to call their own. So while the mayor says being homeless is not a crime, he immediately contradicts himself by including more serious crimes—such as drug use—with basic human needs, effectively demonizing people who are homeless and making it easier to promote stricter enforcement by the San Diego Police Department.
The most common complaints against the homeless are lodged by businesses and residents against an individual or encampment that is in the area. Police warn people to leave—with no appropriate alternative location being offered. If they return, they are often ticketed for encroachment. Those tickets often go unpaid, which then leads to a warrant being issued and eventually arrests. Upon release from jail, the process begins anew.
But, given the numerous challenges of his job, it’s perhaps understandable why the mayor would take an ineffectual approach. Real solutions take real effort, and the creation, coordination and implementation of resources that effectively address a person’s homelessness —like rental assistance and supportive services—require more than mouth service. It’s much easier to deploy criminal justice resources that already exist and give the appearance of progress than overhaul an uncoordinated, inefficient system.
Unfortunately, this solution only exacerbates the problem, as I saw firsthand a few weeks after the mayor’s address. On Jan. 25, the San Diego Housing Commission held its annual “Project Homeless Connect”—a one-day resource fair which provides all the services and assistance a homeless person would need to start the path out of homelessness. The event is highly touted by the mayor, who regularly attends.
During the two hours prior to opening, I mingled and spoke with some of the 200-plus people waiting in line and was surprised at how few I knew from my work on the streets of downtown.
Later, as I drove from downtown through East Village, I noticed the familiar signs signaling an encampment sweep—hordes of police accompanied by garbage trucks and convoys of people moving their belongings. I detoured to explore further and realized the city had been conducting encampment sweeps throughout the area that morning, hampering the ability of people to attend the resource fair happening just 12 blocks away.
During the sweeps—touted as cleanup and property removal by the city—people are asked to leave a given area with their belongings by 7 a.m. and are often ticketed if they’re still there when the police arrive to clear it. Given most people have a tent and some material possessions, they have to begin the process around 6 a.m., then stay away from the site until the sweeps are concluded. Failure to do so could result in the belongings being thrown away.
Previously, I witnessed this awful scenario when a young man returned to the site of a sweep, where he had neatly stored his belongings, just to watch the final few items he owned being thrown into a garbage truck. With tears in his eyes, he reached down to retrieve a small item that had fallen on the ground—the only belonging that escaped the sweep.
Cleaning up the area is obviously a good thing, but displacing people week after week and taking the few things they own—when they just come back again—is ineffective and cruel. What’s more, it wastes city resources that could be better spent on real solutions.
The result of the Jan. 25 encampment sweep was that many people—possibly hundreds—in need, did not receive the help that could start a path out of homelessness. In fact, only 1,016 people attended the event—significantly less than the 1,500 predicted by organizers and about 200 less than last year. Instead, their path was made more difficult, or possibly became a path to jail, thanks to the city and its complete lack of interest in truly helping people.
When I saw the encampment sweeps, my heart sank. It sank because of the darkness and ugliness our city was painted in in that moment. It sank because of all those who were denied the much-needed help that was being provided just across town. And what’s worse, this is just one example of many that show how the mayor and city’s lack of coordination in handling the issue is preventing people from receiving the assistance they need.
Since this event, the city has continued to increase the pressure on homeless people—issuing encroachment tickets and collecting shopping carts that people use for managing their belongings. Perhaps most detrimental to a person’s welfare is an increased effort to rid the city of tents—often the only home people have left and the last protection against both the elements and those who may want to harm them.
Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien, facing the same issues in his city, came to this conclusion last year: “By continuing to conduct sweeps in the same manner, we are expending valuable resources and energy on a strategy that only shifts the problem around and offers a false sense of security for a few people.”
I’m not the only one who takes issue with the mayor’s approach. Since his address, others have weighed in—“Along with being inadequate, much of the mayor’s plan so far is either naive or downright cynical,” said reporter Dan McSwain, who once was homeless himself, in his San Diego Union Tribune column. And Tom Theisen, attorney and former board president of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, compared the mayor’s tax proposal—which, in theory, would fight homelessness with housing and services—unfavorably to much larger ballot measures in five other cities across the state.
In an opinion piece early last year for Voice of San Diego, I explained some of the key changes needed to solve homelessness. High on the list is fully adopting a housing-first approach and increasing landlord and housing support. Through these system improvements, we can alleviate the dependence on criminalization and move toward lasting solutions that will leave us with a real sense of safety on our streets.
Whether or not Mayor Faulconer decides to lead us out of this crisis, I certainly hope that he and others will treat our homeless neighbors with more sympathy and generosity. This is the only path forward. People experiencing homelessness are in need of real, effective assistance. Ticketing and locking people up has never—and will never—solve this problem.