When it comes to unsheltered citizens, San Diego serves as the poster child for what not to do in responding to a crisis. The City Without Pity has now attracted international attention for its failure to serve its homeless humans.
Hundreds of people have contracted Hepatitis A and sixteen are dead from the highly contagious disease. Handwashing stations have been set up after months of delay, sidewalks are being power washed with bleach, and the City has presented the press with a list of places where it thinks homeless humans should go if they need to use the toilet.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer held a press conference on Wednesday to announce he would accept $1.5 million raised by local businessmen. Three tents with services will offer a few hundred people the opportunity to get off the streets. In three months. Maybe.
This latest pitch was supposed to be ‘bold action’ by the City of San Diego, which has been studying the problem for months, but apparently didn’t have time to even speak to business and community leaders near the proposed sites.
By my count, this is the third major display of concern via media events by the Mayor this year. Each was in response to negative publicity.
Back in January, according to an article in the Union-Tribune:
Officials across the region have taken heat for the relentless homeless problem, and none more than Faulconer. The city’s ticketing of the homeless was protested this past week by advocates for those living on the street.
They brought their case to City Hall and the mayor. A petition with more than 1,000 signatures was submitted to the mayor’s office Tuesday urging a halt to such actions against the homeless.
Among the petition leaders was Steph Johnson, a musician who has organized a choir of homeless people. Some of the folks who had been camping outside the church where the choir rehearses were cited by police last month, triggering criticism of the city’s policies.
Stacie Spector, the mayor’s senior adviser on housing solutions, acknowledged the support for the homeless, suggesting positive action was on its way.
Lo and behold, Mayor Faulconer used the State of the City address to call homelessness the number one “social services” priority. The ticketing and harassment of unsheltered San Diegans continued, unabated.
In May, the high profile ‘Homeless Czar’ left abruptly, deflecting questions about the reasons for her departure by saying it had been an honor to serve… Local homeless advocates have told me the exit was prompted by frustration about so little actually being done.
In July, Mayor Faulconer’s director of public safety and neighborhood services was named to be the point person on the city’s response to homelessness.
Days later Faulconer’s office called a press conference to announce an $80 million plan to address San Diego’s expanding homeless problem.
It’s a plan, all right. As opposed to a solution.
From NBC San Diego:
The latest numbers show more than 9,100 homeless individuals reside in San Diego County, with nearly 30 percent more people sleeping on downtown streets over the past year.
“But now it’s just blatant, all over the streets, all over the sidewalks. Because we don’t have a central intake facility. We don’t have a place for people to go. There’s no alternative right now to being homeless,” said [CEO of Alpha Project, Bob] McElroy.
Nearly six months after calling homelessness his administration’s top priority, Faulconer unveiled his three-year strategic plan.
Come September, and a trickle of stories noting the epidemic of hepatitis in San Diego turned into a gusher, thanks to the relentless efforts of Lori Saldaña, Martha Sullivan, and other advocates.
Here’s a snip from the Union-Tribune coverage of the latest Mayoral media event:
Faulconer said at least one tent will be up and running by December, but he didn’t know which of the three would be first. He also said the plans calls for adding more tents in other locations, but he could not say how many the city ultimately would erect.
Councilman David Alvarez did not attend the news conference but later issued a statement saying the city should find faster solutions to helping people on the street.
“Three months is too long to wait,” he said. “San Diego is facing the deadliest outbreak of hepatitis A in the country. The city must act now to stop it. We must end street camping by bringing the homeless indoors to public buildings such as the old downtown library, Golden Hall and the old County Courthouse.”
The Mayor’s latest pronouncement was preceded by a well-covered press conference condemning City and County public officials for months of intentionally ignoring the sanitary problems associated with homelessness.
The Voices of the City Choir performed, along with the sharing of personal stories from unsheltered.
An attorney representing ten homeless people who filed a federal class-action lawsuit in July challenging the City of San Diego‘s enforcement of its encroachment ordinance as unconstitutional spoke to the assembled crowd on the concourse outside City Hall.
The group then ventured up to the Kevin Faulconer’s office, demanding immediate accessible public bathrooms, and asking the City to halt the practice of ticketing, harassing, and arresting homeless individuals. The Mayor was not available to see them.
Then it was off to the first City Council Meeting after the summer recess to express concerns and disgust about the way local government is handling the homeless crisis, speaking during the Non-Agenda Public Comment section. They told the council, as they have many times before, that general shelters and large tents are not safe for women, children, transgendered, and other vulnerable individuals.
The Mayor’s announcement about erecting three tents, one of which might be open by the rainy season, elicited nothing but scorn from homeless advocates, who took to social media to express their frustrations.
The Union-Tribune’s editorial board was also less than impressed, calling the plan “half-baked”:
Finally, Wednesday, Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced he would accept the business leaders’ $1.5 million — and erect three tents, maybe more, each capable of sheltering and keeping safe 100 to 250 of San Diego’s thousands of unsheltered. The first may open by December. Government is often lambasted for moving at a snail’s pace, but this is glacial.
In an interview with an editorial writer, Faulconer said city officials explored the possibility of indoor shelters for months leading up to Tuesday’s announcement. But couldn’t the options have been pursued simultaneously? Instead, San Diegans have a well-meaning mayor discussing a half-baked plan. He has three sites but no idea how much this will cost, how many tents the city may require, when the first might open or even where the first will be.
The lack of details and urgency would be laughable if the outbreak wasn’t so deadly serious.
On Wednesday, a City Council committee directed City Attorney’s office to draft an emergency declaration over a lack of shelter space, citing the hepatitis outbreak, primarily affecting unsheltered persons. The full council will have to approve the final draft of the declaration.
From the Times of San Diego: (Emphasis mine)
The City Attorney’s office said an updated declaration would also provide legal protections to certain projects meant to alleviate homelessness, and allow for certain regulations — such as building codes — to be set aside if they hamper progress toward a solution.
The declaration, if later approved by the full City Council, comes amid an outbreak of hepatitis A, which has had a heavy impact on the homeless. County health officials said 421 people became ill and 16 have died.
Councilman David Alvarez proposed the declaration nearly two weeks ago, calling for immediate action because of the fatalities. In response, the office of Mayor Kevin Faulconer said the declaration was unnecessary, since the city was taking steps to combat the illness.
Former Assemblywoman (& County Supervisor candidate) Lori Saldaña put together an excellent post, complete with charts and links at Medium, entitled A Chronology of Cruelty in “America’s Finest City.”
Here’s an excerpt (read it all, it’s smokin hot!):
With a mortality rate of nearly 4%, people are dying at twice the national mortality rate as reported by CDC for hepatitis, reflecting the wretched living conditions for homeless San Diegans.
What these charts and media reports show is a chronology of cruelty: Kevin Faulconer and the County Board of Supervisors have made homelessness a death sentence in San Diego. People have been homeless, cited for “encroachment,” and jailed or fined for petty charges- and now they are dying of hepatitis.
It required international media reports of hepatitis to finally push the Mayor’s Office to act. This reminds us what motivates Kevin Faulconer: Not compassion. Not good public policy. Faulconer lives/dies/acts based on good/bad press coverage.
To be sure: he’s not alone in this inaction. The five-member County Board of Supervisors and nine-member San Diego City Council’s tepid non-response has been “Politics as usual” for this city.
Make no mistake about it. The resources needed for a substantive response to the homeless crisis have been there all along. Homeless advocates have been trying to point to solutions for years now. What’s been missing is the political will.
(Thank you to Martha Sullivan and Suzanne Morse for your Facebook posts. They were invaluable in writing this story.)
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