The latest annual homeless census revealed two seemingly contradictory trends: Street homelessness is up countywide and surging downtown, yet fewer people are sleeping in shelters.

Those data points shed light on a major problem for San Diego’s homeless-serving system to address: Many folks living on the street – particularly those who have been there for years – are choosing to stay in tents and makeshift structures instead of shelters.

The numbers released by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless on Thursday showed a 14 percent year-over-year increase in street homelessness countywide and an even more acute 27 percent spike in downtown San Diego. At the same time, the group reported a 6 percent decrease in those who slept in shelters the night of the January census.

Many of San Diego’s most vulnerable homeless people either have concerns with shelters or have another reason keeping them from moving in.

This isn’t a new problem.

Here’s a five-year look at unsheltered homelessness in San Diego County.

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


The number of folks staying in shelter has gone down the past couple years while street homelessness has gone up.

More of those on the streets are staying in tents. This year alone, the task force reported a 58 percent countywide spike in tents and other hand-built structures.

The task force decided this January to ask the more than 1,300 unsheltered San Diegans they surveyed what services they were using.

Here’s what they shared.


Note the large shares of people seeking free meals or health care.

And then note the much smaller percentage checking into emergency shelter – and the 16 percent who told surveyors they weren’t using any services.

Task force volunteers asked those living on the street this question: What is preventing you from staying in a shelter?

Here’s an overall breakdown of their answers.


Many of these responses are familiar to homeless outreach workers. I’ve heard them, too.

Many homeless folks develop bonds with pets or friends they make living on the streets and don’t want to abandon them. Many imagine packed shelters and fear they could be molested or robbed. Many also detest the curfews, smoking bans and other rules they might encounter in a shelter. Then there are the wait lists.

Last year, two of the region’s largest shelter operators told me clients could wait weeks to get in.

Dolores Diaz, executive director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, said some people described overcrowding, the inability to bring all their belongings into the shelter and confusion about how to check in, among other barriers.

National experts urge communities like San Diego to do whatever they can to address those fears. They emphasize the need to cater services to those who need them to ensure the most people are actually served even as some local power players push for more legal authority to compel folks to get help.

Matthew Doherty, who leads the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told me last year that San Diego and other regions with large unsheltered populations should focus on easing the burden on those who need help.

Doherty and others advocate that folks most resistant to shelter should be moved quickly into permanent housing, something San Diego’s struggled to do.

Rules and requirements can be especially overwhelming to folks who’ve been on the streets for years.

“We should be trying to help people exactly as they are,” said Doherty, whose agency coordinates the federal response to homelessness.

San Diego’s chronically homeless population – which includes folks who are disabled and have been homeless for at least a year or experienced multiple stints of homelessness in a single year – rose 61 percent this year.

Lowering the barriers to entry into services has been a hallmark of dramatic success stories in other communities, including Houston, which saw a 75 percent drop in street homelessness over five years.

That city has focused resources on serving those labeled most resistant to help and catered their programs to their needs.

San Diego nonprofits including Father Joe’s Villages, the region’s largest shelter provider, have taken steps to make their programs more accessible.

But Thursday’s data dump showed there’s more to be done.

Stacie Spector, Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s special adviser for housing solutions, appealed for change at a Thursday task force meeting.

The group needs to push for more low-barrier shelter options or to lessen the strings attached to those that already exist, she said.

“The truth of the matter is we need to make it easier,” Spector said.

    This article relates to: Homelessness, Nonprofits/Community

    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.

    Kenneth Gardner
    Kenneth Gardner

    Great article. Excellent summary of the facts without editorial.  I suppose the homeless "problem" comes down to defining the word "problem."  As you can see from the numbers, many of the homeless people don't think they have a problem.  And obviously, many of the liberal sympathizers don't have a problem with these people being on the street.  There is a big soft band of overlap, between letting the city become a dumping ground for the population explosion, and ruthlessly enforcing the vagrancy and loitering laws.  In the meantime, it's all just jawboning.

    Molly Cook
    Molly Cook

    San Diego's problem with homelessness comes down to a basic premise:  "You broke it, you buy it."

    San Diego's powers that be or were gave - and continue to give - free rein to developers who have closed/are closing out options for lower income residents of the city when it comes to housing.   Now those powers that be own the problem. 

    A man came to the building in which I live last week to inquire if this building takes Section 8.  It doesn't, although the rents here are relatively low by San Diego standards.  The fellow shook his head and told me he'd waited years to get his voucher, finally has it, but cannot find a place to live.  Giving him a piece of paper has not changed a thing.  He's still homeless after that long and fruitless wait. 

    This is not an unusual story in San Diego.  How the leaders of this city who make these conditions possible can hold up their heads and smile for the cameras is beyond me.  And no, we don't need one more study or committee or breakfast meeting.  The answers are already available.  We need action.

    Thomas Theisen
    Thomas Theisen subscribermember

    Building more shelter beds will not move people off the streets. Only 13% cite the waiting list as the reason preventing them from entering shelters.  That is the only reason linked to the shortage of shelter beds.  

    87% cite other reasons (rule, pets, safety, possessions, etc.) as the reason preventing them from entering shelters.  Unless we want to turn our shelters into internment camps where we compel the homeless to stay, building more shelter beds will not move these people off the street.

    In contrast, 97% of San Diego homeless stated that they would move into actual housing if available (Survey of 3000+ homeless as part of 25 Cities).  That is why communities like Houston, Orlando, Fresno and other cities nationwide that have focused on housing have reduced street homelessness by 50% or more, while San Diego has seen a 23% increase in the same period.

    Maybe it is time to take proven effective action rather than reinvesting more resources in programs that have been proven not to work.

    Pat Seaborg
    Pat Seaborg subscribermember

    Couple of things to mention on this subject.

    First off, part of the reason for the two year drop in sheltered homeless is that the City of San Diego no longer funds the two winter tents, which provided about 475 shelter beds.  Instead, the money went to Father Joe's for "year round" shelter beds.  That sounds good, except those "year round" beds were not new beds, but rather shelter beds that had been there before.  Just a different source of funding.  So a net loss of 475 shelter beds.

    But the most important reason I hear from homeless people why they don't like shelters is that most return to homelessness shortly after shelter discharge.  Two big reasons are lack of housing for low income people, and lack of ongoing case management to help them solve ongoing problems in housing.

    That's what is needed in San Diego: more low cost housing options and more permanent supportive housing.  That is far more effective than shelters in getting people off the streets.  Cities who do this have experienced dramatic drops in homelessness.

    For people saying it costs too much, or that it's not the government's responsibility to make plans for that, I like to point out that the loss of thousands of low cost Single Residential Occupancy ("SRO") hotel rooms came about because of city facilitated redevelopment.  The city has reaped the rewards of redevelopment - expanding the tax base - but has done little to mitigate the predictable consequences.

    Jeeni Criscenzo
    Jeeni Criscenzo subscriber

    Oh really? Out of everything that one could derive from the awful numbers revealed on Thursday, this is what Ms Halverstadt chose to focus on? Blame the victims some more? I've spent the entire day pouring over that data, looking for some sense to it, and this column is so far from what we need to be talking about - why people don't want to go in shelters? How about asking why we have so many people who can't get into real housing instead of implying they are being picky about going into human warehouses, that first don't exist and second are not going to solve anything except make it seem like the problem has been fixed. Do the math, even if everyone on the street suddenly decided that having a roof over their head was worth giving up their last shred of autonomy and self-respect, we would be short a few thousand beds. And that is just in the city of San Diego.

    Pat Seaborg
    Pat Seaborg subscribermember

    @Jeeni Criscenzo Imagine if you ran a restaurant where many people wanted to get in, but you had only a small space to seat diners.  Do you expand the restaurant dining area, or make the waiting room bigger?  As long as San Diego focuses on making the waiting room bigger (shelters), it avoids dealing with the real problem, which is not enough low income housing and not enough permanent supportive housing units for those with ongoing difficulties staying in housing.

    Jeeni Criscenzo
    Jeeni Criscenzo subscriber

    @Pat Seaborg @Jeeni Criscenzo I agree with you completely Pat. The sleeping cabins communities Amikas is proposing are a very short term bridge toward permanent housing. They give a break to the victims of the city's failure for decades to address the housing crisis and they give the residents and businesses that  are dealing with this failure some relief, and the give the city an ultimatum: start creating this housing now because in 5 years this respite will be gone. Every one of the 18 communities we are proposing has a 2 year lifespan and a monthly commitment to move people into permanent housing.

    Stephen Hon
    Stephen Hon subscribermember

    I would have to disagree with Don's assessment of police drop offs. I was the Program Monitor of the Alcohol Service Center for County Alcohol Services for approximately 5 years in the early 1980s. I once did an analysis of police drop off based upon intake logs at the Inebriate Reception Center (IRC) for an entire month. You could draw concentric circles with the IRC as the center and the further you got away from the IRC (then at 11th and Island) the less the police people brought people in. The amount of travel time and the amount of time a drop off would take a cop away from his beat were the important variable. In 1981 our Research Analyst did a report on the impact of the large reduction of single room occupancy (SROs) hotels was having on public inebriate issues. The number of SROs in 1981 was a golden era compared to the current situation where the option is either the street or a shelter and a certain % do not like shelters for many of the reasons listed. 

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    One key contributor to the East Village homeless situation is the fact that the county's detox center is located there. Cops all over the county pick up drunks on DUI charges, then transport them to the detox center in East Village. They never return to take the drunks back to where they were arrested. Thus we are importing winos from all over the county, taking them to the detox center, and then releasing them onto the streets in East Village when they sober up. The city council once debated the idea of setting up decentralized detox centers around the city. Then councilwoman Valerie Stalling volunteered to look into setting one up in her district and was run out of office. Nobody wants a detox center in their neighborhood, so East Village gets them. The County Board of Supervisors could develop a distributed network of detox centers that could take some of the pressure off of East Village, if they wanted to. But so far, nobody has gotten serious about solving East Village's problem.

    Molly Cook
    Molly Cook

    San Diego has received solid advice from many places but continues to arrogantly - or foolishly - pursue its own pitiful course when it comes to housing the homeless.  And let's just start right there with the term "homeless."  That's what these folks are needing - HOMES.  Even the word "shelter" is so off-putting and deceptive as to turn people away.  At least if you have your tent, you can call it your home.  Don't the powers that be get this?  You don't have strangers and their crap in your home.  You don't have to be in bed at a certain time in your home.  And if you have a pet, you can share your home with it.  HOME is a big, big word and everybody (except some of the homeless advocates) knows what it means.  Stop wasting resources on more Shelters (which are definitely not homes) and get busy on fixing the real problem. 

    Faulconer, Spector and the rest of the people who express interest in solving the problems like their jobs, get paid well, and do nothing but exacerbate the situation for people in real need because they don't like seeing them on San Diego Streets.  This city is rapidly becoming a city with no heart thanks to the miserable leadership on this problem.  Jesus didn't say every city should have a sports arena or fancy restaurants or million dollar homes, but he did say that caring for the poor was our responsibility.  Let's start there and become the better people we can be in San Diego.

    Sharon Parks
    Sharon Parks

    well,it's getting better, the honesty anyway. You start with the truth. The money that has been allocated from Hud for years to address this has been spent by the very authorative powers that slam s anyone's character who is homeless. Yet they have been enjoying the funding that Todd Gloria and Francis Riley from Hud ensured year after year, in the name of helping the homeless. [32 million a year]That didn't mean expensive Real Estate ventures for our Commissioners.....The original l Fat-Cats that are always meeting behind closed doors discussing their raises and pensions. Their reward for selling the city to China........prove me wrong.....