Theories abound about the reasons for booming homelessness downtown but no one can explain exactly why it’s booming.

Since January alone, a business group’s monthly census has shown a 68 percent spike in street homelessness downtown. The count peaked at nearly 1,400 in August and has since hovered around 1,130. More tents line city blocks and more homeless people cluster near freeway on-ramps, businesses and homeless services.

Some local leaders have said Proposition 47, a state ballot initiative that downgraded some felonies to misdemeanors in an effort to reduce the state prison population, is a significant culprit. Others have speculated about the impact of high rents, an influx of homeless people from other areas and even the way the homeless population is counted.

Homeless service providers and data gurus aren’t so sure what’s driving the massive uptick.


Support Independent, Fact-Based Journalism Today

 Learn more about member benefits

“We need a really comprehensive, in-depth look at what’s going on,” said Amy Gonyeau, chief operating officer of nonprofit Alpha Project.

Here’s what we know and don’t know about street homelessness downtown.

The Numbers

Two groups track homelessness downtown.

The best-known annual census is conducted by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, which sends volunteers out countywide to count those living on the street and in shelters between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. one morning in late January.

This year’s point-in-time count revealed an 8 percent drop in overall homelessness citywide but a 21 percent increase in street homelessness in downtown census tracts. The group counted more than 1,000 people on downtown streets.

A monthly survey organized by the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a business group, has gotten more attention this year as the homeless population booms.

Homeless outreach workers with the Downtown Partnership fan out across 275 city blocks between midnight and 5 a.m. the last Thursday of the month.

Here are the totals they’ve recorded since they started taking counts in 2012.

street-homelessness-in-san-diegoClearly, something’s changed this year.

The Tent Factor

As street homelessness increases, so too has the number of homeless San Diegans with tents – and that affects the numbers.

Since 2012, the Downtown Partnership has assumed two people are sleeping in each tent outreach workers come across. But the group doesn’t report the number of tents they see, making it difficult to conclude how much tents could be increasing the monthly count.

Alonso Vivas, who supervises the Downtown Partnership’s homelessness efforts, admits the approach isn’t foolproof. He said one could argue it may also undercount the population.

The Downtown Partnership’s opted to stick with that method because it allows them to better compare data over time, Vivas said. “We want to stay consistent.”

This January, the Regional Task Force  counted more than 200 tents downtown, a 52 percent increase from last year. Then they assumed 1.72 people were sleeping in each one which translates into about a third of the more than 1,000 homeless counted on downtown streets this January.

San Diego’s Homeless Hub

Downtown San Diego has long been the regional headquarters for homeless services. It’s a place where homeless folks can get a meal, a shower or a shelter bed – resources that aren’t as plentiful elsewhere.

Many have told me they came downtown or have stayed there for that reason, even if they aren’t looking for shelter.

“All the resources are here,” said Thomas Easthope, 51, who I met last week near Fault Line Park in East Village.

Easthope and others stress that life downtown isn’t easy. They’re frustrated with police enforcement, weekly sidewalk clean-ups and an increasing population in a time of much construction and development that’s forcing homeless people into smaller areas.

“They’re jamming us in one place,” Easthope said.

Still, the draw endures – for now.

Dolores Diaz, who leads the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, said the data her group’s collected seems to show homeless San Diegans are migrating within the region, especially to downtown census tracts.

That might explain one seemingly contradictory takeaway from this year’s countywide count. Street homelessness actually fell nearly 1 percent citywide from 2015 to 2016 but rose downtown.

The Prop. 47 Effect

In Nov. 2014, California voters approved Prop. 47, reducing certain felonies to misdemeanors. It gave authorities less power to crack down on repeat drug and property crime offenders and to persuade them to enroll in treatment programs. It also led to the release of tens of thousands statewide from prisons and probation terms.

In the two years since, the downtown homeless population has more than doubled – and some local officials have been quick to note the circumstances.

City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf and a chief deputy city attorney wearied over the challenges the initiative has wrought at a recent town hall meeting.

“It is clear to everyone, even though the statistics are lagging, that since the implementation of Prop. 47, it correlates with the increase in these aggressive transients, with these thefts, with the crazy amount of drug use that we’re seeing out on the streets, like right out in the open, right now,” said Zapf, who is most focused on homelessness in the beach communities she represents.

Before Prop. 47, Zapf said, drug offenders facing greater punishment had an incentive to enter rehabilitation programs that might help them move past addiction. Now, she argued, they’re increasingly ending up on the street without the help they need.

Meanwhile, homeless outreach workers and other downtown groups have noted increased drug and gang activity among the homeless population, especially in East Village. The Downtown San Diego Partnership has said workers who clean and watch over downtown streets as part of the group’s Clean and Safe Program are increasingly being assaulted on the job.

Data recently released by SANDAG, the regional planning agency, underlines the vulnerability of drug offenders and their risk of homelessness – and how that might be changing post-Prop. 47.

In 2013, 56 percent of drug arrestees interviewed by the agency as part of a years-long analysis reported they’d ever been homeless. Of those, 28 percent said they were homeless when they were arrested.

Two years later, with Prop. 47 in effect, 62 percent of arrestees reported they’d ever been homeless and 40 percent of those said they were currently homeless.

Yet many nonprofit leaders and other officials are hesitant to publicly claim cause and effect. They aren’t specifically tracking who’s moving onto downtown streets or monitoring folks who might otherwise be jailed or on probation.

What they do know is that 14 percent of unsheltered homeless folks surveyed by the task force reported they were on probation or parole and 62 percent countywide reported they’d served time in jail, prison or juvenile hall. Of those, 85 percent said they’d been released within the last five years.

Division Chief Gonzalo Mendez of the San Diego County Probation Department is familiar with those numbers and anecdotes about Prop. 47. He regularly attends monthly meetings focused on coordinating homeless-serving efforts countywide and is concerned drug offenders once easier to help push into treatment aren’t getting that treatment.

But he thinks more research is needed to draw a direct correlation between Prop. 47 and rising street homelessness.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” Mendez said. “I know we have 2,700 less offenders (on probation) but we can’t say all those people are homeless or don’t have a place to live.”

Diaz of the Regional Task Force also argued the data the homeless-serving community has now isn’t enough to conclude that Prop. 47 is driving increases in street homelessness downtown.

“I don’t think we should say that Prop. 47 has anything to do with it,” Diaz said.

Who’s Coming In

San Diego’s mild climate and stories about homeless folks being bused in feed a common notion that much of the region’s homeless population could be coming from elsewhere. That theory’s also been circulated as street homelessness grows downtown.

But the most reliable data indicates more than two-thirds of homeless San Diegans ended up on the streets while living in San Diego rather than move here after they became homeless.

Downtown San Diego Partnership CEO Kris Michell has often said many homeless folks who settle downtown aren’t from San Diego and that this may make it different than other parts of the county.

At a town hall last month, Michell said about 70 percent of homeless people her workers had surveyed reported they came from outside California.

But that statistic is based on reports from participants in the organization’s family reunification program, which helps homeless people reconnect with family members.

“We don’t extrapolate that to apply to the entire population of homeless people downtown,” spokeswoman Angela Wells said.

This detail matters. Someone who is seeking help to reunite with family members is more likely to have family outside California or at least San Diego County.

Other data, though imperfect, tells a different story.

This year, about 70 percent of unsheltered homeless folks countywide interviewed by the Regional Task Force said they’d become homeless in San Diego. About a quarter reported becoming homeless elsewhere.

A downtown-focused effort in 2014 drew similar conclusions. Two-thirds of the more than 2,200 homeless folks surveyed downtown reported they lived in San Diego County before they became homeless and nearly 70 percent said they hailed from Southern California. And again, just under a quarter reported living elsewhere before they ended up on the street.

Raul Palomino, executive director of homeless-serving Presbyterian Urban Ministries in Sherman Heights, said he believes the trend has shifted recently.

Palomino, whose organization that helps homeless folks secure IDs and birth certificates necessary for long-term aid, said he’s noticed an uptick in clients from outside San Diego. He acknowledged many of those clients come via a more recent partnership with a private prisons operator that uses his service to prepare clients to move out of halfway houses.

“Lately, it’s been more people who are brand new to San Diego,” he said.

Affordable Housing Shortage

San Diego’s rising rents and low vacancy rates are especially daunting for would-be tenants with past evictions, low credit scores and limited cash.

And there are now fewer than half as many units in downtown residential hotels that once served as a last-ditch option folks who might otherwise be homeless. Many have shuttered or started charging more.

A Housing Commission survey last fall concluded the city was home to just 3,872 single-room occupancy units – fewer than half of the citywide stock reported in 2003.

Homeless advocates are adamant the loss of those units, many of which were downtown, is contributing to the downtown homelessness crisis.

“The SROs were the safety net,” said Jim Lovell, who leads the downtown Third Avenue Charitable Organization.

Lovell, whose organization serves meals and connects homeless clients to other services, said the $750 to $800 monthly SRO rates he’s seen recently are out of reach for many seniors and people with disabilities.

Many SROs that remain aren’t inviting, either.

Lovell said one client who’d spent years on the street found work and nabbed an SRO for $650 a month only to be preyed upon by bed bugs. That lasted a couple months.

Now he’s back on the street.

Lovell suspects there are many stories like that – and even more stories of homeless folks who might have avoided that scenario years ago.

“People who typically, in years gone by, would just be not outside, just barely not outside, are back outside,” Lovell said.

    This article relates to: Homelessness, Nonprofits/Community

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

    15 comments
    Michael Schroyer
    Michael Schroyer

    I am currently a professional welder and do a lot of back and forth work from east to west coast.  I also used to live in San Diego for the 20 years I was in the Navy.   I was also a member of both the Homeless Coalition and The Alpha Project in San Diego, Ca. 


    A few things I did notice that the ever growing Homeless Population encountered was: 

    1. the lack of adequate housing, especially for the Disabled, Mentally Ill, and Veterans.  Most of the housing was either open bay, or SRO (single room occupancy) Hotels.  The rules where very strict and if you had pet's or partners you could not even share the same room nor where you allowed pet's

    2.the paper work difficult to fill out, and the wait times just to get a bed where very long sometimes months to a year of wait time

    3. There was virtually no where to put the mentally ill where they could be housed and properly treated.  If there was anything like for instance HUD housing the wait times are virtually unreachable!

    4. As for those that where capable, the job search was tireless to almost impossible due to the policies that many companies both small and large had on Homeless

    5. Although there where Drug and Alcohol Programs for those with such Habit's Re-habilitation Centers would release them but usaully Homeless would end up right back into the same addiction due to ending right back on the streets.

    6. The new laws and budget cut's have limited the City of San Diego and made it Impossible for Homeless to get things like A Social Security Checks...Food Stamps....WICK...Especially for the Mentally Ill, and or Veterans.

    7. I literrally watched Law Enforcement take blankets, Tents for temporary shelter, Personal Clothing, Personal Items and throw them into "locked Dumpsters" leaving Homeless to the eliments.  How this helps Homeless I do not know?  All I see it as a way to harrass and push and move the Homeless Population or corral them to a more undesirable spot where they are even more unsafe.

    8. Yes it is nice that Churches and Organizations have feedings, but that should not be limited to just feeding homeless but also to re-habilitate and re-enter them back into main stream society as upstanding citizens.


    Some Soluttions to the problems

    1. Our economy is getting better and both Able Homeless and the communities could benifit from Employing Able Homeless by getting them into a special temporary shelter to housing while employing their services.  For instance (A) Park and Recreation for I.E. the Bay Parks, and Balboa Park could benefit from employing the new "Ex-Homeless" doing park clean up, Trash removal even Lawn Maintenance.  (B). The City of San Diego Sanitation Department, Local Sherrif Departments Could Benefit by Employing Ex-Homeless with Police Car Clean Up and Trash Removal.

    2. Homeless Educational Programs designed to integrate Homeless back into Society through Free Education or Grant offered Educational Programs designed to not only take Homeless and transform them back into Working responsible Citizens.

    3. Drug Rehabilitation Programs...And I don't mean Jail...Rehabilitation programs designed to not only clean up drug abuse but to "build confidence and Re-Employ Homeless to Re- Integrate them into Society.  This also helps to stimulate our economy even more in a positive light.

    4. Housing and Hospitals for the Mentally Ill.  This is a Handicape How dare we allow the Handicap with disabilities and mental Illness to be Homeless...What Kind of Society Are Weto Allow this?

    5. Instead of Police Harrassing Homeless, Jailing and Fining them, taking their belongings, let's work on a more positive note and Help the Homeless.  If relocation is a must let's make sure we don't take their belongings, Identification Etc, that will displace them further, but instead let's help them back up.

    In Conclusion:

    Let's all do our part to help our fellow citizens of this "Great Country" I don't care if your Poor or Rich, Small Business Man, Civic Leader, Larg Corporation...We all need to help our fellow man.  I feel that not one person should think that they are above another person.  

    Chris Megison
    Chris Megison

    I work in a multi billion dollar industry that thrives and grows off of failing our customers. We have failed so bad that our investor will now give us billions more to move the carnage we created behind closed doors and try to convince you it's over.

    What industry do I work in and who is our largest investor?

    Randall Shimizu
    Randall Shimizu subscriber

    I personally believe that the city needs to find some empty land somewhere the homeless can set up their tents. The city needs to tell them that if they wish to set up tents they must go there. Doing so would help alleviate the neighborhood blight problem.. 


    I also believe the city should do more to encourage the developers to employ the homeless. There is lots of construction jobs downtown and some of the homeless skills could be used in some manner.

    Elaine Rosas
    Elaine Rosas

    The rents are too damn high! I have been assisting homeless clients find places to live. In the year and a half I've been here.. I've seen the same crappy studio go from $800 - $1200. It's so sad.. to see the elderly homeless clients.. it just breaks my heart. And the landlords are just 'following the market' but not updating the units. It's freaking SAD!!

    Lisa Halverstadt
    Lisa Halverstadt authormember

    @Elaine Rosas Hi Elaine, I'd be interested in chatting more about your experiences with those elderly clients. Can you please give me a call at 619-325-0528? 

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Lisa. FYI. 

    My wife and I were downtown yesterday on 16th street and there were quite a few more tents in this area.

    most of the tents were hot pink in color. Left overs from the Susan b. Komen walk? Drive through the area and you will see what I mean.

    If so I would say again Enabling is not a good strategy

    Elaine Rosas
    Elaine Rosas

    @Mark Giffin  Enabling? Where are these people suppose to go? Are they suppose to just lay on the streets exposed? At least in a tent they have enclosure. heartless

    Chris Megison
    Chris Megison

    @Mark Giffn @Elaine Rosas Mark nails it with his comments on enabling. There is a pervasive culture of enabling the Will Nots. When you treat a Will Not like a Can Not its lights out...you lose.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    @Elaine Rosas @Mark Giffin 

    Thats right Elaine. Enabling. And the tents are a good example. Do we, or do we not, want people living on the sidewalks in east village?

    Good intentions aside, providing them with tents says we do and further entrenches them. It looks like a third world country

    The county spends over 200 million and the city over ? million a year and what do we get? an expanding problem.

    Until there is the political will to solve this it will continue to get worse. Laws need to be passed on the city,county,state and federal levels to be able to remove the mentally ill from the streets and institutionalize them. Same goes for homeless drug abusers and chronic alcoholics.

    The funds that are available need to be used more efficiently. Appears from the stories on this subject show a fragmented,uncoordinated and dis-organized approach. the Homeless population has many categories and they need different and deliberate approaches.

    If tents are good enough for a step up then why for instance can't the city set up a temporary military stye camp on that open park land up by the city nursery/golf course to process the homeless population? Because you cannot force people to do what they do not want to do.

    This is why the political will needs to be there to change the laws to make that happen.

    Until then we continue to enable and the problem grows.

    As to your elderly homeless clients the county has a whole section devoted to their needs. have you used these resources? There are options for the elderly.

    Roy Benstead
    Roy Benstead subscribermember

    It is also very sad, that the Main Greyhound Bus Terminal, is right in the middle of this area. For the hundreds of visitors to San Diego, who arrive this way, it is their first sight of our city. Those lasting impressions, certainly give San Diego a bad name. We can and should do better.

    bgetzel
    bgetzel subscriber

    Five other California cities had iniatives on the ballot this November that addressed homelessness. Los Angeles passed a $1.2 Billion initiative! The leaders of the City of San Diego, which has one of the largest homeless populations per capita in the country, didn't even discuss putting such an measure on the ballot. It is time that we stop discussing tax payer money for new stadiums and convention center expansions, and start to discuss expanding the resources available to address homelessness.

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    San Diego is rich but has been suckered by the City of San Diego into believing that no local government funds exist to end Homelessness immediately.  Today.  


    The Hoarding of Successor Agency,  Low Moderate Income Housing Asset Funds (LMIHAF), and Housing Trust Fund (HTF) assets and revenues has to be understood by local media through independent investigation. 


    Purposeful default and sabotage by Civic San Diego, Oversight Board, San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC), City Attorney Goldsmith, Strong Mayor Kevin Faulconer, and the City Council for the  Successor Agency (SA) to the former Redevelopment Agency (RDA) have liquidated $0.5 BILLION in Redevelopment Property Tax Trust Funds (RPTTF) into Residual Distributions for the General Funds of the City/County/Schools/Special Districts.  All Outside of the annual Budget process.  Also the $500,967,008 RPTTF Residual Distributions are not documented as part of monthly Budget Monitoring Reports.  Shady. Plus several violations of City Council Policies, Municipal Code, and the City Charter.


    Civic San Diego has also diverted ROP-9 and ROPS-10 distributions for Line Items 626 and 628 to the City of San Diego's General Fund instead of to pay off the $215 Million in approved HUD OIG Audit Debt Repayment to CDBG Program Income.  City staff is literally stealing from the poor to pay off extra Pension debts.  Including Pensionable Pay Raises during the supposed 5-years Freeze (2013-2018).  


    The end of Redevelopment in 2011 was for justice for the Homeless and poor, by paying off the $1.6 Billion in SA Debts. And use of Housing and Non-Housing Bonds hoarded for decades (1995-2010).  Instead of Justice, the end of Redevelopment was, and still is, an opportunity for the City to pad its Administration Budgets. While funding Pensionable Pay Raises during the 5-year Freeze, that never happened.  Sad. 

    lorisaldana
    lorisaldana subscriber

    @La Playa Heritage what you are describing is not simply sad. It is heartless, and illustrates why people are both discouraged and outraged by the lack of a coordinated response to homelessness in San Diego.


    This is a humanitarian crisis. The people living on the streets are families: seniors, children, veterans, parents who are the working poor, trying to get back on track after a job loss or illness or other set-back. 


    One organization not mentioned: County of San Diego. They are sitting on nearly $200 million of Prop. 63 money, intended to assist people with mental illness. Many of the people described in this article as using drugs are self-medicating, using street drugs/alcohol to manage diagnosis of bipolar, depression, chronic pain and other ailments. (for how Prop. 63 funds may be accessed for supportive housing, see: https://www.mendovoice.com/2016/10/strategies-for-accessing-2-billion-revealed-at-forum/


    The streets near the County's Rosecrans Ave. Health & Human Services office are filled with many people seeking help.  Prop. 63 funding could be used to treat many of these cases. 


    So the question needs to be raised; where are the Supervisors in this, providing treatment and support to help people get off street drugs & alcohol, better manage their mental illness, and be able to seek and maintain work? 

    Jennifer Spencer
    Jennifer Spencer subscriber

    Lisa, 

    Great article.  I'm sharing on my FB page to make my friends and family more aware of this increased homelessness in San Diego.

    If someone wants to help the homeless in San Diego, who do they contact?  There are such a wide variety of services offered downtown, but not much focus on how individuals can help out.  Thanks again for a well written article.

    Jennifer

    Lisa Halverstadt
    Lisa Halverstadt authormember

    @Jennifer Spencer Thanks, Jennifer. Here's a document the Regional Continuum of Care Council created to share with folks who are homeless: http://nebula.wsimg.com/2298dba42d41749817e2c41949794fe0?AccessKeyId=84F4D43D27BED21A7BD2&disposition=0&alloworigin=1   That regional group suggests calling 2-1-1 for details on immediate shelter options and that homeless folks report to one of several locations in the county to take a housing assessment meant to connect them with the service that's best for them.