By Jeeni Criscenzo
The numbers of homeless person in our region counted during the annual Point in Time Count (PITC) conducted January 29, 2017 were recently released. This is the data that will be sent to HUD to determine how much funding will be provided to the County of San Diego for homeless issues, including emergency shelter and efforts to get people into permanent housing. Last year that amounted to $18 million but under the Trump administration those funds could be significantly reduced.
Despite their best efforts to highlight the sliver of good news (veteran homelessness is down by 9%) the numbers reported were a testament to failure. Despite considerable resources being expended this past year to remove the most visible evidence of homelessness – the tent and tarp encampments lining our streets downtown – by making life so miserable for homeless people that some assumed they would go elsewhere, the numbers of homeless people downtown rose by 27% and the number of tents and hand-built structures increased by 104%!
With such unquestionable proof that weekly sweeps, removing trash receptacles and portable toilets and installing human-deterrent landscaping, such as beds of sharp rocks and prickly plants, is counter-productive, how long will it take for these activities to stop?
Also obvious is that this is primarily a City of San Diego problem. The percentage of homeless people who call the City “home” has increased from 58.6% last year to 61.6% this year. As much as it’s encouraging to hear Supervisor Ron Roberts acknowledge that “Everyone deserves to be in housing,” the City owns two thirds of the problem and the blame starts here.
According to the 2017 PITC, in the City of San Diego, 2,388 homeless individuals were reported by service providers as sheltered on that night, including: 1,234 in Emergency Shelters; 1,118 in Transitional Housing; and 30 in Safe Havens. But an additional 3,231 people were reported as unsheltered, meaning they were either in a hand-built structure or tent (1,180), in a vehicle (817) or just out there in the elements unprotected (1,234), like the family with six children Amikas encountered in North Park Community Park last August. One has to wonder how many of the people without even a tent for shelter, had their tents trashed by city workers during their weekly sweeps.
As bad as these number seem, we know that it is actually much worse.
Missing from those numbers are thousands of women and families with children, unaccompanied youth and other vulnerable persons who self-shelter in places unsuitable for habitation, couch-surf, and rotate from motels to anyplace where they are less vulnerable to being robbed, beaten, murdered, raped or kidnapped into human trafficking.
We know this because schools are required to report the number of students who are homeless to the U.S. Census. Fortunately, unlike HUD’s very narrow definition of homelessness, schools count families who are couch surfing or living in hotels/motels using the McKinney-Vento Act which defines homeless children and youths as individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.
In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, San Diego Unified School District reported that 7,340 students were homeless at some point in the year. The figures showed that 5, 307 (72%) of those students were doubled up with friends or relatives or staying in motels – and so were probably not included in the PITC that year. These numbers would double the 5,213 homeless persons counted in the City this year.
Since the families who are doubled-up or staying in motels for part of the month do not qualify as homeless under HUD, there is not much motivation to identify or count them – why would the City want to add to their already dismal numbers if there is no funding for it?
This year a separate effort was made to count unaccompanied youth and children, including 200 unstably housed youth who would not be considered homeless by HUD standards. Not surprisingly, the number of unaccompanied youth increased by 39%. It would be beneficial if a similar effort, extraneous of HUD would be conducted for families.
While we can conclude that the actual numbers of homeless persons is at least double those reported in the PITC, the data is useful for identifying trends, since the parameters are relatively consistent every year.
Are homeless people being picky about going into shelter beds?
The PITC shows that we had 1,736 emergency shelter beds available in the County of San Diego on the night of the PITC, and 90% of those beds were occupied (up from 75% in 2016). If 173 shelter beds were vacant on that night, some people might conclude that homeless people are being picky about shelter. While the number of vacant beds specifically in the City of San Diego wasn’t available, we do know there is an effort to keep some beds open so that the police can offer a bed to someone when a complaint has been made, and if the homeless person refuses the bed they can legally be cited or arrested for illegal lodging.
There are several reasons why a bed might be unoccupied: a grant may stipulate that the shelter is only for a specific population, such as persons who are HIV positive or domestic violence victims. Or sometimes a family unit listed as having 6 beds is being occupied by a family of 4, leaving 2 beds unoccupied.
But let us assume that all 173 of those unoccupied emergency shelter beds were in the City, and they were actually available and 173 people who were on the street happily went into those beds. That would mean that we still have over 3,000 people in the City who are visibly homeless and have no place to go.
Over 1,200 of those people have a housing voucher folded up in their pockets that they waited years to get, that would pay for most of their rent, if they could find someplace to use it. When they write the book of the most cruel things ever done to people, giving them a Section 8 voucher with a 30 day time limit and sending them on a wild goose chase to find the safe home they have been dreaming of for years – that’s got to top the list.
Concurrent with the lack of very affordable housing, particularly rentals that accept subsidy vouchers, is the dramatic loss of transitional housing beds this year. Nearly 1,500 transitional beds were eliminated in 2016 as a result of HUD’s decision to stop funding for transitional housing programs based on the assessment that people were cycling through the various transition programs without going into permanent housing. Instead of fixing one of the major obstacles to transitioning – the unavailability of permanent supportive housing – Washington bureaucrats just killed the program.
In a similar argument against emergency shelter, the fiercest proponents of the Housing First model insist that we expend no more on funding or resources on anything except permanent housing. Yes, it’s proven that if you put people into permanent housing with no barriers to entry, most of them become stabilized and stay housed. But for Housing First to work we need the Housing First! Is it reasonable or humane to hold destitute people hostage while forcing the City to start creating that housing?
Likewise, is it fair for Mayor Faulconer to hold homeless people hostage to force voters to approve his Convention Center Expansion? Taxpayers shouldn’t have to approve discretionary capital expenses, which many voters think are unnecessary, just so we can finally have a dedicated funding stream for addressing homelessness.
Maybe we should turn the tables and hold the Convention Center Expansion hostage. We need a ballot measure that says that no more taxpayer dollars will be allowed for any discretionary projects until we have sufficient inventory of very affordable housing for every one of the 5,619 people counted as homeless in the PITC and the 5,000 who were not counted and the low-wage workers the project is touted to employ.
Anyone driving to the press conference last week atop the MTS parking garage at the 12th and Imperial Transit Station couldn’t miss the hundreds of tents on the surrounding sidewalks. But the view from the top was quite different. I had difficulty hearing because of the all of the construction noise coming from below.
Daniel Beeman, a local advocate for people experiencing homelessness, noted the irony. Just behind the public officials who were trying to minimize the failure of leadership represented in the dismal numbers they were reporting, cranes and workers were noisily building multiple towers of condos and luxury apartments. Not a single low income unit was in sight.