By Norma Damashek / NumbersRunner
Say what you want about the faraway White House. But watch what you say about City Hall and the people we elect to local government – they’re practically family.
They live in our neighborhoods. We have coffee with them when they’re running for office. We bump into them at the movies or supermarket. We could hop a trolley downtown and collar them at work. We elect them to work for us.
Their job is to pave the streets, limit what gets built on that empty lot around the corner, keep an eye on the police department, get the trash picked up, and make sure there are enough fire stations to keep us safe and good air-quality levels to keep us healthy and enough libraries and parks to help make us happy.
In sum, they’re public servants whose job is to create and enforce policies and laws that improve the daily lives of San Diegans. Their job is to take care of the city so we, the residents, families, taxpayers, students, and workers can get on with our personal pursuits and quotidian endeavors in safe and sound surroundings.
Sometimes they do a better job than they do at other times. But who can deny that – when it comes to issues of homelessness-related health, safety and welfare – the Mayor and City Council have flat-out failed.
Let’s say you’re out shopping in your local neighborhood. Or holding tickets for the downtown Civic Theater. Or inching around Sports Arena Boulevard and Rosecrans. Or stuck in the bottleneck at Torrey Pines Road. You’ll see clusters of homeless men and women (and occasionally little children) asleep on the sidewalks, or holding up cardboard signs soliciting funds (god bless), or hauling black plastic bags filled with personal goods, or rummaging through trash bins. Some are drunk. Some are arguing or mumbling or shouting at invisible foes. Some are reading yesterday’s newspaper.
And even after you’ve handed over some spare change or a couple of bucks you might wonder, what else can you do?
Who could you call if you want to do something more? You might think, there must be someone in charge who has a plan to alleviate this glaring calamity.
So you turn to the people we elect to city government, the ones whose job it is to take good care of the city.
You go to the city website but you find nothing on the home page. You try the link for InsideSan Diego and end up with a bunch of uplifting stories. You type “homeless” in the search box at the top of the main page and Eureka! You see a link for homeless services and another link for homeless providers and plenty more links to news releases and police responses and the Mayor’s press conferences.
You keep clicking, searching in vain to find out who is in charge. You try 2-1-1 San Diego, the city’s newest public resource. You try the homeless shelter directory link. The truth finally hits you: you have just entered the twilight zone.
Let’s say it for the record: there’s no one in charge. Not at our County, not in our City. There is no regional, local, or comprehensive policy to address the needs, impacts, and future of the homeless people living on our streets, along our riverbeds, and in our canyons.
For years we’ve relied on nonprofits like the Salvation Army, Episcopal Community Services, San Diego Rescue Mission, Alpha Project, Neil Good Day Center, YWCA, Feeding San Diego, and North County Solutions to pick up the pieces.
For three decades we’ve given lip service to the mission of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness to pull the pieces together into a utilitarian approach to ending homelessness.
Then someone masterminded the San Diego Regional Continuum of Care to take all the pieces and put them into a broad data framework.
And the United Way of San Diego County appointed their first “Commissioner” to place all the pieces in a coherent pattern that would meld housing and supportive services and permanently end chronic homelessness.
These regional efforts have been successful, indeed, in providing temporary subsidized shelter for unmoored politicians waiting for their next election gig to materialize. But they’ve utterly failed to facilitate, create, or implement the crucial missing piece: a comprehensive, publicly accountable policy and plan to address the size and scope of San Diego homelessness.
Dare we say it? Here at home, Mayor Faulconer has no plan. Instead, he offers us tentative wishes. He wishes to add some temporary shelter beds to the city’s anemic inventory. He wishes for a Housing Our Heroes program for 1000 homeless veterans. He wishes to reunite homeless people with their families. He wishes that voters would agree to increase the hotel tax (TOT) to pay for an ill-advised Convention Center expansion, street repairs, and homeless services (in that order).
Then he wishes that his newly appointed communications advisor would fabricate a central intake center to hook up homeless people on the streets with various services (however inadequate, it would be a more benign approach than his previous actions to clear homeless people from downtown streets, round up their meager belongings, and lay jagged rocks under sheltering overpasses to prevent reoccupation).
He goes on wishing, but so far the tooth fairy has failed to alight.
But don’t despair! There may be light at the end of this tunnel! As it turns out, the city already has what it takes to do the job!
- We’ve got elected officials who owe it to us to take better care of the city.
- We’ve got a Mayor who wants to look as good as possible to prepare for his rumored-run for governor.
- We’ve got large wads of cash stashed away (the Mayor and other insiders know where to find it) already legally earmarked for low-income and homeless housing needs.
- And we’ve got a longstanding, well-funded, fully-staffed public agency that could and should have been in charge of meeting the city’s low and moderate-income and homeless housing needs from the very beginning.
We could almost say we’re loaded for bear.
Train your sights on the San Diego Housing Commission, established almost 30 years ago to preserve and increase the city’s stock of affordable housing and be responsible for providing rental assistance and related housing services to low-income households.
Over the decades the agency has strayed from its original mission. It sold off assets, engaged in property investment and development, favored market-rate (“workforce”) over low-income housing, artificially sweetened the pot for some in the nonprofit housing industry, snookered the city council about financial activities and intentions, failed to halt or even keep track of the destruction and non-replacement of affordable housing, and evaded public oversight.
A solid case could be made to dismantle the Housing Commission.
A more positive case should be made to reform and restructure the agency and transform it into the city’s one-stop-shop, a designated and responsible public-benefit city department with sufficient resources to create public housing and coordinate services and programs for the widest spectrum of San Diego’s lower-income and homeless population.
We can escape from the labyrinthian twilight zone by putting a renewed Housing Commission in charge. Run it by your elected representatives. Let’s see what these public servants – the ones who are so close they’re practically family – are really made of.
This would be an excellent piece of advise for local politicians to follow if the homelessness problem were about lack of affordable homes. Unfortunately, and paradoxically, that’s not the case in the large majority of cases.
Homeless residents in San Diego, by amd large, are in need of a comprehensive mental health services program com ones with shelter housing. Not – for initial triage – rent subsidies and additional housing development. These can come later, as assisted living homes and halfway houses help people reestablish their lives.
Greater San Diego absolutely needs unified focus on homelessness, and also does need an increase in affordable homes. But correlation is not causation.
Norma Damashek says
I think we all agree that “the homeless problem” has many moving parts. Most are interrelated.
That’s why we have to come at it from all angles and on many levels and simultaneously. That’s why serious planning and comprehensive proposals are indispensable. That’s why San Diego officials, year in and year out, have failed to make a dent. Let’s see what comes out of today’s special council hearing.
bob dorn says
Amikas has a demonstration plot of tiny kit homes in the 3200 block of 30th Street, up for another week or so at St. Luke’s church. Council members ought to visit it. You too could go there, and imagine what could be done.
Norma Damashek says
Right. There are good ideas out there that could be part of the remedy. If they fail, it’s often because they’re proposed as stand-alones and not integrated into a coordinated, comprehensive approach.
Joni Halpern says
There is a widespread notion that lots of people are on the streets because they are mentally ill. This was not the case before 1980. The dramatic increase in homeless adults and families took place as the federal government began reducing its income support for people who were forced to rely on some form of government assistance, whether it was SSI, welfare, Medicaid, food stamps. In a very low-income budget, the loss of any of these supports, or the reduction of them, will result in inability to pay rent. Before SSI was made so hard to get and so hard to keep, and before it so sorely lagged behind the cost of living, it actually kept mentally ill persons housed. And the same is true for families who were dependent on public assistance. Homelessness is the direct result of legislation designed to destroy these types of assistance by a thousand cuts. The first casualty of this legislative design is housing for low-income folks. If we admit this, we will understand why no amount of “homeless services” will resolve this problem, unless the service is subsidized housing.
Norma Damashek says
Joni, I couldn’t agree with you more. You’ve got a much deeper understanding of the overall, interlocking reality than the people we elect, the ones who make piecemeal and often destructive policy and financing decisions — not only at the national level but also here at home. San Diego would stand a better chance if we had a local agency with the responsibility and authority to move forward with 3-dimensional remedies.
Sort of ironic that the people who are the least empathetic and sympathetic (those who think the homeless deserve their fate and are not worthy of help) are also the most vocal about about the growing # of homeless congregating in their neighborhoods, places of work and places of leisure/entertainment. They demand no taxpayer money should be used to help but still demand something be done.
Michael Winn says
Norma, thank you, for bringing this up. I agree with the criticism but not the strategy.
A Housing Commission was needed and ordained to take advantage of money from state bonds and housing impact fees and a percentage of the increase in taxes following redevelopment, and to use this money in support of the Housing Element that state law requires as part of the city’s General Plan in return for the state granting the city the authority to permit urban development.
The Housing Commission is in consequence, a place that employs bureaucrats, charged with proposing and implementing ways to achieve the goals of the Housing Element. Since only a municipal agency has access to state funds and bonds, it’s also a profit center for the city and for private developers with political clout to be first at the trough, and it is also a conduit for money to the city’s nonprofit developers, money that provides the equity capital that lenders require for construction loans and take-out mortgages. Since, the City Council must approve every expense, and banks are at risk if there are problems, these transactions are not only vetted by independent attorneys, they are opined, which is as close to a guaranty that you can get from a lawyer–they’re on the hook for the opinion. But politics is involved in terms of what developers and contractors Commission proposes to fund. Supporting campaigns isn’t the only thing a developer or contractor does to win a favorable vote.
The Housing Commission’s involvement in development increases the profit to the city and rents paid to city-owned properties fund the Housing Commission operations but I’ve never asked how the city accounts for income and I’m sure it published in the annual audit.
Everything Norma said makes sense and it’s an approach we could take, as things stand presently, those seeking office must fund campaigns and those who have something to personally gain, finance these campaigns with an expectation. (They must also have a good relationship with the UT.) For these reasons, unless we revise the election code, our elected representatives will be somewhat compromised and worse than this, they will struggle with an entrenched bureaucracy–you know that one–the one that gave us the Pension Fund?
So, even if we change the election code and do elect people to office who are committed to solving problems like homelessness, the difficulty is that every dollar we take from the Commission’s budget is money some developer or social welfare agency or other is praying for or counting on and in many cases, leveraging ten times that amount in private capital.
Everything that Norma says is true but there’s an easier solution and we needn’t invent the wheel. Each community needs to be involved in solving the problem. Ocean Beach streets are populated by people who have never been asked to take responsibility. For instance, we’ve never asked people, especially young people, who populate our bars, to help with this so it’s understandable that we don’t know how to ask, nor what to ask for. The problem can be solved–the question is how to solve it in the domain of community, without outside help.
Martha Sullivan says
Thank you, Norma, for this incisive analysis! Particularly the shelter for politicians! I’m skeptical about retooling the Housing Commission — you’d have to replace the entire leadership, not to mention the Mayor who directs it. The City Council must step into the leadership vacuum and say NO MORE to Faulconer and his shadow government of Big Money Business Interests.
Ellis Rose says
Thank you, Norma, for a spot-on analysis. And your analogy of the Twilight Zone is so accurate that it is almost no analogy. But once the players are identified, it also begins to resemble “Gaslight”. Thank you for your excellent effort.
Mark E. Smith says
It’s easy to get the wrong impression of the homeless population because the majority, 52%, are seniors who have access to senior services and are less visible. They don’t hold a sign or ask for money, they go to the senior center for a free meal or whatever they might need. Most of them don’t want to stay in shelters where they could be victimized by young predators. And many, having grown up before the smoking bans, cannot be housed because people who have been smoking for 50, 60, or 70 years, often don’t want to quit. Alcoholics and drug abusers can be housed, but there is no longer any housing in San Diego for smokers. When they are housed, they still have to spend most of their time outside, exposed to the elements as if they were still homeless, because they aren’t allowed to smoke indoors.
Remember when Hearst tried to hide behind his corporation and his daughter, Patty Hearst, said the famous words, “But Daddy, you ARE the corporation?” Well, when you talk about the Housing Commission, you’re talking about Richard C. “Rick” Gentry, an older man in a wheelchair who can appear benign, talks a good game, and is an expert at public relations, but has been personally responsible for the decrease of low-income housing and the increase of homelessness in San Diego for decades. He is associated in some way with every housing and homelessness initiative, committee, organization, or planning body in San Diego. His focus is on increasing property values and ensuring profits to investors.
Mister Gentry (I always think of him as Mr. Gentrification) claims to have housed 6,500 new low-income, elderly, and vulnerable tenants in San Diego, but admits that fewer than 650 new units of low-income housing were constructed. Obviously he didn’t put ten people into each unit, so where did he put them? The average senior building turnover or vacancy rate is 50% according to HUD. But in subsidized housing, the kind that Gentry oversees, it is only 35%. That can’t sustain his need to be able to rent their units to new tenants, which appears to constitute approximately 90% of the housing he provides. So he and his associates have found clever ways to displace or hasten the deaths of low-income, elderly, and vulnerable tenants.
This can include “renovating” buildings with the tenants still in them, bringing in management companies from hell to impose harsh new rules and regulations and treat tenants more like inmates than residents, and increasing the stress until existing tenants become ill and have to go into nursing homes or hospices, are driven crazy and can be evicted as unsuitable for unassisted housing, or simply die because their immune systems were so weakened by the stress and by the toxic materials used in renovations.
I sent an email to Chris Ward, but have yet to receive a reply. My subject line read, “Accounting for homelessness.” We cannot continue to allow Mr. Gentry to displace more low-income, elderly, and vulnerable tenants than he creates housing for, by forcing out existing low-income, elderly, and vulnerable tenants, and call it “providing housing.” Only newly constructed low-income housing should be counted as new housing, not making elderly people homeless or hastening their deaths, renting their units to new tenants, and counting that as providing housing.
If I transfer money from my savings account to my checking account, I can’t call it new income and neither can the IRS, Social Security, or anyone else. When somebody buys a used car, it is a new driver, not a new car. Existing housing is not new housing even if it is rented to a new tenant. If you put a new tenant into an existing apartment, somebody had to vacate that apartment, and most of the time, since subsidized housing is housing of last resort, the previous tenant is forced out and becomes homeless. For 90% of the homeless persons Gentry houses, one or more housed persons are displaced and become homeless. And since renovations increase property values, they not only don’t provide new housing (and often decrease it), they make San Diego rents higher and force more low-income people into homelessness. As long as Gentry remains de facto housing czar, that will not change. Even when somebody dies a natural death, renting their unit to a new tenant does not create new housing and must not be counted as if it did.
It’s a simple accounting error that must be corrected immediately if we ever want to tackle the homelessness crisis in San Diego. Only NEW low-income housing should count as new low income housing. How hard is that?