By Murtaza Baxamusa / SanDiegoUrbDeZine
San Diego does not have a homeless problem, it has a housing bed inventory problem in comparison to other large cities. The region’s homeless as a percentage of the total population is 12th in the nation, and the five-year trend is relatively flat when including both sheltered and unsheltered homeless. Yet, despite the public outcry, there are still about five thousand unsheltered homeless sleeping on our streets, sidewalks, canyons, riverbeds, parks and open spaces.
One can prognosticate on the individual causes of homelessness, but its pervasive existence suggests that as a society we have failed the most vulnerable amongst us. The homeless crisis across American cities originated with the Reagan cuts to federal housing budgets, and rental housing continued to be underfunded in subsequent administrations. An inadequate patchwork of tax credits and housing vouchers replaced the safety-net provided by now-defunct public housing. It was left to cities and counties to deal with the issue. Compounding the problem was the emergence of family homelessness, as families with children were caught between poverty and lack of affordable housing. To illustrate, evictions rose eightfold during the early 1980s, pushing many families onto the street.
In San Diego, about a hundred families with children spend the night unsheltered. Research shows that the children in these families will likely have developmental difficulties, and will need mental health services even after they are no longer homeless. The roots of family homelessness (which consist evenly of both genders) lie primarily in poverty and loss of a job. When accounting for the cost of living, one in four children in San Diego live in poverty, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, of which 6 percent live in deep poverty (when families are making below half of the poverty level) that is associated with homelessness. Schools are broadly impacted by homelessness too. Last year, 23,800 students in San Diego’s schools were either unsheltered, or were in unstable living arrangements, such as shelters, couch surfing, or doubled up with another family.
In order to benchmark how San Diego is doing relative to other large cities, it is instructive to look at the analysis by the San Francisco Controller’s Office. The analysis took data from the federal housing inventory count and normalized it by the total population within each region’s Continuum of Care (CoC) boundaries. The number of beds is categorized by the type of housing and adjusted for population size within each CoC jurisdiction defined by census tracts.
San Diego CoC ranks the lowest among all other major CoCs in the nation, in terms of the total number of beds per capita. There were 238 housing beds for each 100 thousand people in San Diego, which is a third of 760 housing beds that an average peer city provides. In other words, there are the least number of housing beds for the homeless in San Diego relative to the population size of the region. One of the contributing factors is that our county has the lowest per capita number of Permanent Supportive Housing beds among peer metros in the nation.
(It should be noted that the utilization rate in San Diego for the approximately 10 thousand beds–both temporary and permanent–is 85 percent, according to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless San Diego.)
The solution to the housing bed inventory problem is to increase the stock of both temporary and permanent beds, especially the latter to bring stability to individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Baltimore, San Francisco, and Portland have considerably increased their proportional stock of Permanent Supportive Housing, which is a proven solution to ending chronic homelessness by pairing housing with case management and supportive services. Another approach is to adopt a “Right to Shelter” law which guarantees shelter with varying degrees of regulations similar to those in the state of Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and New York City and has resulted in a considerable stock of temporary accommodations.
Shelter is a human right: we must explore public options to provide affordable homes for all. We cannot wait for the private sector lured by government subsidies to solve this problem alone. San Diego County needs 143,800 more affordable rental homes to meet current demand from low-income households, according to the California Housing Partnership Corporation. One example of a successful program to end homelessness is Finland’s Housing First and targeted housing that works in conjunction with social housing. The People’s Policy Project suggests constructing a large number of government-owned municipal housing developments. Unlike traditional American public housing, all city residents will be eligible to live there.
It is apt to question whether we are willing to do what it takes to solve the housing bed inventory problem in San Diego. In the words of a British psychiatrist reflecting on the prevalence of homelessness in large American cities:
“How we respond to homeless people can be seen as a reflection of how we respond to injustice generally.”
Murtaza H. Baxamusa, Ph.D., AICP is a certified planner, writer, and thinker. He develops affordable housing for the San Diego Building Trades Family Housing Corporation and teaches urban planning at the University of Southern California (USC). He has more than 12 years’ experience in economic development and sustainable urban planning and has previously worked for the USC Center for Economic Development as well as the Center on Policy Initiatives. He has doctoral and master’s degrees in Planning from USC, and a bachelor’s degree with honors from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.