Some San Diego business leaders are finally figuring out what local homeless advocates have been saying for a long time: The majority of the region’s homeless population could be sheltered in a matter of months for a shockingly trivial price.

The mega-tent solution recently proposed at a symposium on homelessness at the University of San Diego by restaurateur Dan Shea and Padres managing partner Pete Seidler, however, has proven to be highly unsafe for women, families and other vulnerable people.

Commentary - in-story logoThe reality is that homeless people are a microcosm of our society, where violence against women, children, seniors, disabled people and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is far too common. And when violence is a contributing factor leading to the loss of safe housing, survivors often avoid traditional shelters and become the hidden homeless who are under-counted in the annual census of homeless San Diegans.

There are many other challenges with mega-tents and temporary homeless shelters. They often lack secure storage space, which puts valuables at risk of theft or vandalism. Many operate on restricted hours to accommodate food service and other activities. And most do not welcome pets. And there are other barriers to entry, such as requiring sobriety.

A coalition of homeless advocates of which we’re part, Voices of the City Coalition, has been advocating for the implementation of a campground where people can safely park and sleep in their vehicles, tents and small cabins. The campground could be housed in the parking lot at Qualcomm Stadium, or at the Chargers Park training facility.

The city of Seattle has been operating group campgrounds since 2015. The city estimates costs at just $17 per day, per person. Incidentally, that’s the same amount Shea quoted for the cost to house homeless people in mega-tents.

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

Seattle’s model of transitional housing also helps people develop a sense of community. It provides supportive services, to encourage healing, accountability and independence: From a homeless person’s perspective, living in a legal encampment with food, water, toilets, a kitchen, security and case management services is a far cry from trying to survive alone on the street.

Each campground in Seattle has a city-mandated Community Advisory Committee composed of neighbors, businesses and church groups that monitor progress, give feedback and lend support. Each site has social workers helping families and individuals connect quickly to housing, employment and education so that living in a tent or a tiny house is not a dead end.

Everyone has duties and chores at Seattle’s camps, they must follow a code of conduct and they are accountable to the community.

These kinds of campgrounds work better than mega-tent and brick-and-mortar shelters.

Currently, homeless people are not having their most basic physical and safety needs met in San Diego. They struggle with hepatitis, mental illness, exposure to heat and other hazards.

There’s been a national move toward doing away with transitional housing and getting homeless people in permanent housing instead. While that may be the best long-term solution, it will take years for San Diego to get to a place where it can immediately house all the people living on our streets right now. In the short term, city and county leaders should take steps to get homeless people as many resources as they can as quickly as possible.

It’s time for San Diego to follow Seattle’s example.

Lori Saldaña is a former state Assembly member who chaired the Committee on Housing and Community Development. She’s also a professor of business information technology for the San Diego Community College District. Martha Sullivan is a small business owner and a volunteer with Women Occupy San Diego.

    This article relates to: Homelessness, Housing, Opinion

    Written by Opinion

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    Nancy Witt
    Nancy Witt subscribermember

    Thank you both, Lori and Martha, for what you are doing to help our homeless here in SD.  

    lorisaldana subscriber

    Yes, I've been to Seattle. 

    The people you describe are likely those NOT living in these controlled encampments.

    We based our recommendations on actual research.

    According to a Seattle City Council report released this week that evaluated these encampments:

    "...SPD [Seattle Police Department]  has been collecting data and information about the levels of crime that occur around the permitted encampment. This data shows that there is no significant increase in crime because of the encampment."

    Key Findings

    • The City permitted encampments have met and exceeded the contracted performance


    • The model is successfully serving people who have been living outside in greenbelts, on the

    streets, in cars and in hazardous situations.

    • Overall, the neighboring communities have responded positively and, there is no significant

    increase in crime when the permitted encampment moves in.

    • The encampment self-managed governance structure offers residents a way to positively

    contribute to day-to-day operations and community engagement efforts while building

    individual confidence and leadership skills.

    • The success of the first two years of the permitted encampment validates the value of adding

    case management and services to the self-managed encampments.

    • More research is needed to provide insight into any detrimental racial equity practices or

    program barriers that may exist at the permitted encampments for Black/African American,

    American Indian or Alaska Native and Hispanic Latino people experiencing homelessness.

    • It would be beneficial to evaluate the potential changes needed for the level of case

    management, staffing and supportive services offered as the make-up of the permitted encampment shifts to serve more people who have been living without shelter for long periods of time.

    For full report see: 2017 permitted encampment evaluation.pdf

    craig Nelson
    craig Nelson

    I just returned from Seattle and there could not possibly be a worse template. There are homeless all over the streets, in doorways, shooting up in Pikes market and living in tents under the freeways. Clearly this is not the model to follow, it's awful and it is impacting their tourism industry. Makes me wonder if Saldana has even been to Seattle - clueless if she hasn't , even worse if she has. 

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    Seattle has a comparable number of Unsheltered people as San Diego (5600) -- Seattle still has many Unsheltered people, but at least they are working harder and more effectively to provide safe places for people to,stay until they can be housed, and to the extent needed, treated. San Diego keeps doing the same things that haven't worked.

    Watch this video for more about Seattle's innovation:

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    This report came out the day we had Sharon Lee, head of the fiscal agent for permitted encampments in Seattle, speak to us here about this program. Terrific to have this documented experience as we advocate for a similar program here in San Diego! Seattle has the 3rd-largest homeless population in our nation (behind NYC and L.A.), and San Diego is #4.

    "The goals of this report are to, a) determine the extent that City of Seattle temporary, permitted encampments are an effective homelessness response strategy and, b) identify successes and areas of improvement for the permitted encampment model. The majority of the data and financial findings in this report reflect the experiences and results of the Ballard, Interbay

    and Othello permitted encampments between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2016.


    The City of Seattle is the first in the country to offer public land and funding to support permitted encampments. As of today, the City of Seattle (the City) invests in six permitted homeless encampment programs1. Based on the most recent HMIS (Homeless Management Information System) data, from September 2015 through May 2017, 759 people have been served through those programs and, 121 people have transitioned into a safe, permanent place to live. These temporary, permitted encampments contribute to the City’s efforts to address homelessness."

    The cost to operate the permitted encampments per person per day was $6.33! And the programmatic cost per day, per person who exited the program to permanent housing was $24! (P. 8) 2017 permitted encampment evaluation.pdf

    We have a blueprint on how to do this and experience upon which to draw to enable us to scale it up.

    We have vacant/unused or largely unused City-owned and controlled properties on which we can do this.

    Most notably, the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot adjacent to a Trolley Station, where 10s of thousands of wildfire victims were allowed to camp in their vehicles and tents, and given food, medical care, clothing and access to services.

    The vacant Chargers Park training facility nearby would be another excellent candidate.

    The vacant Downtown Johnny Brown bar/grill in the Civic Concourse by City Hall would be a GREAT symbol of the City's determination to aid its homeless residents. It has a fenced outdoor area for a wheelchair access portapotty and hand wash station, and tents or sleeping cabins; a large indoor seating space for case management, meals, and other activities; a commercial kitchen for food storage and prep, and 2 indoor toilets. A mobile shower trailer could be brought onsite 2x weekly, with sewer drains available.

    Let's DO this!

    David Stroup
    David Stroup subscriber

    I have friends in Seattle and they are nearly in revolt because of the continuing homeless problems, especially those from the camps.  The homeless in Seattle may be safe now, but apparently the neighborhoods they now live in aren't.  They are thrilled that Mayor Murray has chosen not to run again, after his disaster-filled first term.  Before leaping into the Seattle model, find out what the residents of Seattle think of Murray's solutions instead of the grant-writing bureaucrats who are just looking to cover their behinds for the mess they've created.

    Many homeless choose to stay homeless because of the rules they'd need to follow in a facility.  What makes anyone think someone with that attitude will adhere to "a code of conduct and [be] accountable to the community"?  Yes, there are homeless people who are there simply because of circumstances, but some choose to follow a different path with few, if any, rules.  How does the Seattle model deal with them?  Throw them out of the camps?  Isn't that what they started with?  How would that be different than what we have now?

    We shouldn't jump into the Seattle model just because, being over 1000 miles away, we haven't heard all of the problems the citizens of Seattle now face.  Simply passing a law similar to someone else's, without bothering to investigate their results, will simply spread the new problems to San Diego.  Learn from the Seattle model, then find a better way -- don't copy a proven disaster.

    lorisaldana subscriber

    I welcome the hiring of Gordon Walker, the former "homeless czar" from Utah, who came out of retirement to tackle our local homelessness crisis. I hope he will consider these short term/immediate housing options while working towards permanent housing for homeless individuals. 

    The sad fact is: We have reached critical tipping points in San Diego's homeless population in the areas of basic safety and public health. 

    Violent assaults are increasing- in 2016, over 10% of all of San Diego's REPORTED rapes and sexual assaults occurred in East Village/Core-Columbia areas, where the highest concentration of homeless San Diegans are clustered. And actual numbers are likely much higher, since these are the most under-reported crimes.

    In terms of public health: hepatitis is now spreading in the homeless community at an alarming and deadly rate. Anyone who has been following the lack of basic sanitation in East Village and surrounding downtown areas could have predicted the hepatitis outbreak that has claimed at least 4 lives, and sickened nearly 200 people. 

    So welcome Mr. Walker- and best wishes for success.