Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s plans to address San Diego’s growing homeless problem are drawing jeers from some of the city’s most outspoken homeless advocates.

Faulconer pledged to add hundreds of shelter beds, build at least one central intake center for San Diego’s homeless, beef up a program to reunify homeless folks with their families and pitch a hotel-tax hike to throw more money at the cause during his State of the City address last month.

In the weeks since, some homeless advocates have publicly and privately worried about whether the mayor’s proposals could actually complicate local efforts to reduce homelessness.

It’s the latest conflict amid a difficult shift San Diego’s making toward a model that aims to address homelessness by quickly moving homeless folks into permanent, stable homes instead of shelters or short-term housing first.

This time, two homeless advocates have been outspoken on Twitter.

Michael McConnell, a La Jolla business owner who runs the Homelessness News San Diego accounts on Facebook and Twitter, has repeatedly posted blunt comments like this one:

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

And attorney Tom Theisen, until recently the board president of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, compared the mayor’s tax proposal unfavorably with much larger ballot measures elsewhere.

McConnell and Theisen have spent years volunteering, attending conferences and researching how other communities have reduced homelessness. Both worked long careers before shifting their focus to homelessness. Both have taken on leadership roles in homelessness-fighting initiatives in San Diego.

 Photos courtesy of Michael McConnell and Tom Theisen
Photos courtesy of Michael McConnell and Tom Theisen
Michael McConnell (left) and Tom Theisen

To understand their concerns with the mayor’s plans, you have to understand some history.

McConnell and Theisen have for years worked with other local players to build up a regional system to route homeless folks through the process of getting off the street. Those efforts are now being overseen by a countywide group known as the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.

McConnell and Theisen have helped champion those regional conversations and are watching closely to see whether the mayor’s plans line up with them.

McConnell’s concluded they don’t, and has said as much on Twitter.

Enter Stacie Spector, who was hired by Faulconer last fall to coordinate the city’s approach to homelessness.

Photo courtesy of the city of San Diego
Photo courtesy of the city of San Diego
Stacie Spector

Spector, a political veteran who is new to homelessness issues, spent her initial weeks on the job meeting with experts and nonprofit leaders to learn about the situation on the ground.

She’s open about the fact that past efforts haven’t put a significant dent in the region’s homelessness problem and that the mayor’s increased attention to the issue is likely to spur some discomfort among those who’ve been working on it for years.

Indeed, Spector’s got some advocates nervous. Some, including McConnell and Theisen, are wondering whether the blueprint she’s presented to the mayor will complement or contradict regional efforts.

Part of that plan is to add hundreds of shelter beds and an intake center where homeless folks can show up and be connected with services that address their specific needs. But the facility could conflict with a regional policy to let San Diego’s homeless enter the system wherever they can – be it a shelter downtown, or a health clinic in East County – rather than push them to check into a particular location.

Spector is adamant the central intake centers will use the existing regional system, not conflict with it.

But advocates like McConnell and Theisen are on high alert following Faulconer’s State of the City speech.

Spector and McConnell have even tussled on Twitter about it.

McConnell, Theisen and others are watching closely to see if the city’s plan comports with regional plans and follows the so-called housing-first model the federal government and most advocates nationwide are pushing to end homelessness.

They’ve concluded the best way to end a person’s homelessness is to move him into a home.

Moving a person into a shelter or even transitional housing that comes with months of services doesn’t end his homelessness by definition. He’s just got a temporary bed.

To McConnell and Theisen, the mayor’s initial pitch to quickly add 300 shelter beds and an intake facility are only temporary solutions.

Problem is, San Diego has a dearth of affordable housing and lots of competition for what does exist. There’s not enough housing available to house all of San Diego’s homeless.

For that reason, Theisen likes to compare San Diego’s homeless-serving ecosystem to an overflowing tub with a clogged drain.

He points out that the most effective way to fix a clogged drain is to clear out the drain, not to use buckets to try to remove water.

Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

Indeed, outreach workers have assessed hundreds of homeless folks but don’t have homes or even shelter beds for them. Our tub is overflowing.

But moving folks into temporary homes won’t clear the clogged drain, Theisen says. Only permanent housing can.

He and McConnell fear the mayor’s shelter beds will only temporarily help folks without providing a clear destination to go next – and that focusing on both shelter beds and permanent housing solutions will divert money and energy from permanent housing solutions.

“I am deathly afraid that if we try to do both, we are going to do the emergency shelter and not the things we need to do to solve homelessness in this community,” Theisen said.

Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy, who has for years advocated for a homeless intake facility with hundreds of beds, sees things differently.

McElroy has helped homeless folks get off the street for more than 30 years, and he’s devastated by the suffering he now sees on San Diego streets, especially in East Village. There, tents line sidewalks and McElroy said homeless folks who recognize him when he walks down the street ask if Alpha Project can take them in.

McElroy, whose nonprofit once operated one of the city’s winter tents, said he’d like to take them to permanent homes. He just doesn’t have any more of them.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy

Just over a year ago, Alpha Project opened a 200-unit complex that provides homes and supportive services for formerly homeless clients. It took six years to develop and build.

Another facility like that won’t materialize overnight.

“We are a huge advocate of permanent supportive housing,” McElroy said. “That’s what we do. But what do we do in the meantime? Nobody answers that question.”

So he’s pushed his central intake concept, which high-powered business leaders and now the mayor have gotten behind. The city expects to accept more detailed information from McElroy and other nonprofit leaders who may want to operate it in coming weeks.

Spector said the mayor has also embraced the plan to add more shelter beds with the conviction that something must be done soon given the years it can take to build permanent homes. Spector said she’s also working on a broader plan to be rolled out soon that addresses the need for more permanent housing.

“You can’t work on the long-term [solution] without dealing with short-term or you’re ignoring humans who are suffering on the street,” Spector said.

McConnell and Theisen sympathize with the heart-wrenching stories. They just don’t think shelter beds will solve the problem.

“I understand this drive to get people under a roof no matter what kind of roof it is,” McConnell said. “If I thought that would lead more people to getting into permanent housing, I would be the biggest cheerleader of it.”

Experts outside San Diego are increasingly taking a nuanced view on the shelter bed debate.

Matthew Doherty, who leads the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told me last year that he believes shelter beds can serve as a key bridge to more permanent solutions if those solutions actually exist.

“For a community that right now has a large unsheltered population, we need to be thinking, what are the opportunities that we need to make available? Do we have those opportunities? But what are the opportunities after that so we can move them through those opportunities so bridge doesn’t become a dead end?” Doherty said.

Spector and McElroy believe those new shelter beds could serve as an important stop on the way to permanent housing, especially for the most vulnerable homeless folks living on the street.

Spector said she wouldn’t be pushing for additional temporary beds if she wasn’t confident about more permanent solutions that are in the works.

McConnell and Theisen are skeptical.

“I really see that we’re at a crossroads here, a really important time where we can really make progress on this issue if we can get behind real solutions and quit messing around with shelters,” McConnell said.

    This article relates to: Government, Homelessness

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about San Diego city and county governments. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

    Glenn Younger
    Glenn Younger subscribermember

    The answer seems to be that both temp and permanent housing is needed.  Trying to do one without the other makes no sense. 

    "Spector and McElroy believe those new shelter beds could serve as an important stop on the way to permanent housing, especially for the most vulnerable homeless folks living on the street."  "Matthew Doherty... believes shelter beds can serve as a key bridge to more permanent solutions"

    As someone with a front row seat on homelessness in Hillcrest, where our hospitals release new homeless every day, we see that there are two different types of homeless: 

    1) Those that will take the temporary housing and assistance, work toward a longer term solution for themselves.   2) Those that are unable or unwilling to stay in any structured environment.  To try and treat both the same will not work.

    For the former let’s get them any kind of shelter first, get them into the system, and then work hard to find permanent solutions.

    For the latter we need to take a different approach.   For those with mental health issues we may need to stop allowing the health care system to dump them back onto the street.  Salt Lake City has done some great work in this area.  Requiring Doctors to sign off that people are well enough, mentally and physically, to take care of themselves after discharge could be a best practice we could adopt. That would force the issue of getting housing (both temp and perm)  for the homeless who are mentaly ill.      

    Dean Cunliffe
    Dean Cunliffe

    Each month I attend community meetings to talk about various issues. Without exception the conversation is dominated with homeless issues.

    I live two blocks away from the bottoms, and the population is growing daily as in, we also have a sidewalk shortage.

    There's no one size fits all solution. Like the problem, the solution must be multifaceted, comprehensive, and individual at the same time. Ultimately the goal is permanent housing for those who are disabled, elderly, and the mentally ill, and I fault the state government for not stepping up to own a problem that they created by the policy of Deinstitutionalisation started by then governor Edmund Brown.

    For those not familiar with this term, it's the process of replacing state hospitals ( One flew over the Cookoos nest) with community mental health services and housing to save money in the state budget. The policy was a complete failure as nearly half of the former patients ended up homeless, or in jail , since local communities were not prepared this, it gave rise to the for-profit homes that were just as bad or worse than the hospitals.

    Learning from that experience, what ever systems that are put into place, independent oversight to insure that the project is being run properly and most importantly that people are being cared for.

    For those who just need temporary help, a aftercare and follow up component, so help can be at the ready when needed.

    This won't be easy, it will be expensive, so get ready...

    Jay Berman
    Jay Berman

    The private sector can provide innovative housing solutions, government and excessive regulation make it almost impossible.  I have an idea for new types of housing for both homeless or at-risk people as well as low-cost housing for those that would rather live a more communal life like the millennials.  Both types of housing would require government to dramatically reduce the cost and time to build as well as variances because of the added density and new unit sizes.  To be clear, we CAN provide nice housing for the homeless while giving them the resources they need to change their circumstances.  This would be a for-profit enterprise.  Government solutions never work, its time to give the private sector a crack at it and it won't cost the taxpayer a thing . 

    lorisaldana subscriber

    Based on the recent increase in sweeps and "storage" (actually- more likely disposal) of people's property, Mayor Kevin Faulconer has apparently assigned the SDPD and San Diego Environmental Services Department to take the lead on homelessness in San Diego. Normally these departments deal with criminals (SDPD) and violations of the municipal code in terms of managing trash, pollution, wastewater etc.- they are not adept or designed to be on the streets assisting human beings in distress. In fact, many homeless people in East Village now harbor a deep distrust of SDPD, even as they increasingly become targets of violent crimes.

    That's why this is perhaps the most disheartening thing about these most recent homeless sweeps in downtown San Diego: they are the most visible sign of the city taking any action. Perhaps others are at work in City Hall, but their actions are off the radar. 

    Instead of providing services, access to housing, counseling, first aid and other healthcare and support, this program treats families & their belongings like trash in need of disposal.

    City aside- Where is the County of San Diego on this matter? They are sitting on nearly $200 million in funding from Prop. 63 that can be used for housing to assist homeless people with mental illness/addictve disorders. 

    After the SOTC address last month, the newest County Supervisor- Kirstin Gaspar- told me she would make homelessness her personal priority. I hope she shows some results soon- lives are on the line as she and her colleagues delay action.

    Pat Seaborg
    Pat Seaborg subscribermember

    Expanding shelter beds in San Diego is a little bit like giving antibiotics to everyone who comes to an Urgent Care clinic.  

    Sure, it will clear your waiting room out quickly (get visible homeless off the street), but you end up providing a treatment that will work for only a few people, but not for most.  Some will be harmed (leading to help resistance by homeless who didn't get needed services at the shelter.) 

    And those most in need of serious medical care (permanent housing with supportive services) will end up as repeated users of emergency health care, and will possibly die on the streets.

    lorisaldana subscriber

    @Pat Seaborg The thing about shelters and encampments is that they are most likely to succeed if seen as a first step in a  pathway towards a more comprehensive approach.

    But they also require Mayors/Councils/County Supervisors to develop a regional housing plan to prevent future homelessness.

    From this report:

    "Encampments are increasingly recognized as a pathway to ending homelessness. An emergency taskforce convened by the City of Seattle found that “[e]ncampments can be a first step in the Housing First model, providing a safe place for people to go and a stable base from which to move on.”121 
    Encampments can provide some degree of stability, helping to make it easier for people experiencing homelessness to find housing and jobs. Many people in encampments, particularly organized camps, have successfully been able to find employment and housing as a result of the respite that comes from living at an encampment.122 

    E. Visibility

    Encampments can also play a larger role in finding permanent solutions to homelessness. Simply by being visible, encampments bring the issue of homelessness to the attention of the community and policymakers.123 

    Encampments are a form of advocacy for increased action on issues of homelessness.124 The visibility of large, self-governing encampments draws media attention, which can lead, and has led, to increased funding and services for homeless individuals and legally recognized homeless encampments.125

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Here's why Stacie Spector is focused on a short term solution: Mayor Faulconer plans to run for Governor. In the short term, a major homeless problem will hurt his candidacy. The long term doesn't really matter. 

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Ms. Kern: Yes. The optics will be bad. The gubernatorial election is in just a couple of years (2018). Thus a short term focus.

    Sharon Parks
    Sharon Parks

    @Chris Brewster bingo, with the 4th largest homeless population in the COUNTRY, this Mayor and his wife, who recently took a over-night shopping trip to Newport Beach, using left over campaign funds, have been on a nice ride, since he all of a "sudden" became Mayor. A lot of shuffling money insued, I'm sure..... I love how these _City Folks" are wrapped up in their titles, Nothing gets done ever, for the native San Diegans. I'm for patience with this new "Homeless Czar. But I have my doubts, as everyone here seems to have. This is a Social disaster, based on a lot of GREED folks. You have to get rid of all the corruption in City Hall. I like how the District Attorney;s are going off silently in the San Diego sunset. [with very large pensions,prime Real Estate deals Some of the most corrupt officials. The police and City powers have bullied, murdered mentally ill human beings, while us normal human beings are shocked at the calliousness and response of people who are supposed to be taking care of the city as a WHOLE, not just the greedy developers and govt. agencies, that have been ripping off the homeless funding for years, including the city Fat;Cats who have their hands in the till. It has always made me ill to see how greedy, land developers and commissioners with personal agendas San Diego live off the misery of the poor and sick, and now dying souls on the streets. We need to sweep them all out.........

    bgetzel subscriber

    It is unfortunate that our Mayor has come late to the dance. He should have been proposing aggressive solutions to the homeless problem several years ago. As Mr. Thiesen points out, L.A. and other cities in CA are doing so much more on this issue than we are.  in addition, hiring a pr person, with no experience in affordable housing, as the "homeless Czar" does not bode well. 

    Mayor Faulconer needs to abandon his efforts on behalf of stadiums and convention center expansions and focus on putting resources where they are desperately needed. The proceeds from the floated increase in the hotel tax should be leveraged into a bond issue that is 100% devoted to housing the homeless. 

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    I agree that the best solution for the homeless is permanent supportive housing.  Having said that, what do we do to get the homeless off the streets now?  Due to the mess in our approval process, it can take years to get a project approved.  What do we do in the meantime?  Can we do both and have a bridge to housing?  A central intake would be great if all of the providers were on the same system and could share data.  Has that happened yet?  It was supposed to be done years ago.  Lastly, I live in City Heights, are the homeless here going to be required to go downtown to get services?  What about Lemon Grove, Chula Vista, Encinitas, San Ysidro?

    All of this points to the need to stop the endless years of squabbling, as HUD pointed out, and have a coordinated county wide plan for dealing with homeless.  We are willing to spend $ Millions on a palace for the rich to play, but can't deal with the young man I saw sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the Sprouts on Park Ave. yesterday.  

    Let us become an example of what is possible when a community works together and cares for its citizens.

    Pat Seaborg
    Pat Seaborg subscribermember

    @Bruce Higgins Providers who get federal funding for homeless services are part of a regional data system which is managed by the Regional Task for on the Homeless.  About two years ago, a universal assessment called the VISPDAT was instituted. Used in other cities that have made great strides in reducing their homelessness, it distinguishes which homeless will need only a little help, versus intensive but short term help, versus those with multiple disabilities and long term homelessness who will need ongoing services and housing first to get out of homelessness.  

    Cities which have reduced homelessness have focused on retooling their service provision based on what level of help was needed.

    Shelters are most effective for short term stays as a bridge to something else.  Those with the least health impairment and short term homeless are more likely to benefit from a shelter as a short term bridge to housing.

    There is ample evidence that for that highest risk group, shelters are both a waste of money and ineffective, as compared with the proven success of providing real housing with ongoing support services.  Since the long term homeless are more likely to fall into this third category, a focus on increasing shelter beds won't work for the long term homeless.

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    @Pat Seaborg @Bruce Higgins If we had sufficient housing stocks to house the homeless, I would be right beside you saying we should not waste our money on temporary shelters.  Unfortunately, we do not have sufficient housing.  According to recent media reports, even those with approved vouchers cannot find an apartment that will take their voucher.  So what do we do in the meantime, leave them on the streets?  Appoint ANOTHER commission to study the issue?  We need action now.

    Pat Seaborg
    Pat Seaborg subscribermember

    @Bruce HigginsThen why not let people camp in the Qualcomm parking lot with portapotties and devote the shelter construction and staffing money to permanent supportive housing instead?  I've heard that a third of building costs come from permitting.  The mayor and city council could do something radical with a 3 year pilot project for eliminating all permitting costs for building affordable microapartment studios on city owned land, and exempting such projects from NIMBY reviews as long as the projects fell within community plan guidelines.

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    @Pat Seaborg @Bruce Higgins I agree with fast tracking homeless housing projects, and you are right that the mayor and the county supervisors should enact measures to make that happen.  All of that will take time however, possibly a year or more to final approval.

    It is going to rain Friday, do we tell the young man I saw sleeping on the sidewalk that "Studies have shown that shelters are both a waste of money and ineffective?"  Spend a day sitting in the rain and THEN tell me they are ineffective.

    It does not have to be either / or, it could be both.  We have the funding, we were after all willing to spend $350 million on a stadium, we just CHOOSE not to spend it on our homelessness.  We would rather spend it on a palace for millionaires.  It is time to take a long hard look in the mirror, we are better than this.  It is time to wake up and look at what is really important.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    Michael McConnell, the work you have done to expose the persecution of homeless people on the streets of San Diego has been REMARKABLE. I can't square this with your insistence on permanent housing as the only solution to easing the suffering of these people.

    "Matthew Doherty, who leads the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told me last year that he believes shelter beds can serve as a key bridge to more permanent solutions if those solutions actually exist.

    “'For a community that right now has a large unsheltered population, we need to be thinking, what are the opportunities that we need to make available? Do we have those opportunities? But what are the opportunities after that so we can move them through those opportunities so bridge doesn’t become a dead end?' Doherty said."

    We need a SAFE place for people to live until we can get them into permanent housing. If your position is intended to force a commitment to providing permanent housing before agreeing to more temporary shelter -- I'm with you.

    The 300 beds being talked about by Mayor Faulconer IS a bandaid. We can implement the Qualcomm Stadium Emergency Shelter Plan in less than a week -- as we did in 2007 for the thiusands of people made homeless by the wildfires.

    Sharon Parks
    Sharon Parks

    @Martha Sullivan I agree with you Martha, and we shouldn't ban comments because they might be deal with. Change takes courage The truth will prevail, and must be looked at, if we are ever to understand the human suffering on the streets, I personally was homeless with a newly adopted grandson ,and it took nearly 10 years to say comfortably, we got into a stable living situation, after waiting 10 years for section 8 . We slept on Saint Vinnys overflow kitchen floor in January, for weeks. My grandson got deafly ill,and spent 4 weeks at Children's hospital, That's just the beginning of our story......