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Mayor Kevin Faulconer said Thursday he’s determined to take major steps to reduce homelessness this year.
But some of what he proposed is controversial.
Here’s a guide to the most significant proposals – and the questions that come with them.
The usually tax-averse Faulconer surprised City Hall watchers and homeless advocates Thursday with an announcement that he’ll propose a ballot measure to increase hotel taxes to bankroll a waterfront Convention Center expansion, street repairs and homeless services.
“My plan will start restoring the homeless funding we’ve lost – and put more revenue behind our efforts to house San Diego’s homeless,” Faulconer said.
After the speech, a mayor’s office spokesman said the 2018 measure could more than triple the city’s current general fund spending on homelessness and create the first dedicated revenue stream for that purpose.
But many details need to be sorted out.
The mayor’s staff was not sure of the exact share of increased tax revenues that would go to homelessness. Nor did anyone know how large the tax hike will be or exactly how the city will spend the new cash for homeless services. (Matt Awbrey, Faulconer’s deputy chief of staff, said some of that is by design: They want to keep things flexible to allow for changes as needed.)
Then there’s the question of whether Faulconer’s proposed tax increase passes. It’ll require support from a two-thirds majority of city voters.
If it does pass, it’s likely to pull in far less cash to address homelessness than a wave of measures approved elsewhere in California this year.
It’s also unclear how Faulconer’s proposal would impact a growing local movement to pursue a large bond or revenue initiative region-wide.
Housing Commission CEO Rick Gentry, who leads the regional group overseeing efforts to address homelessness, cheered Faulconer’s announcement.
“We need to look at a way to radically increase the volume of people with problems on the street that we deal with, it’s a matter of increasing our capacity to deal with an increasing volume of problem,” Gentry said.
For more than a decade, advocates have circulated an idea to build a central intake center where homeless San Diegans could have their needs assessed and be connected with services.
Faulconer says he wants to bring that idea to life.
“Next month I’m going to formally ask homeless service providers for their proposals to make it a reality,” Faulconer said. “It’s about creating a central hub where any man or woman on the street can go to start the path to a better life and be directed to one of our region’s service providers, which will give them care that’s tailored to their unique situation.”
The plan, the mayor’s office said, is to ask homeless service providers to provide proposals next month.
Alpha Project, which for years operated the city’s winter tents, has been pushing a proposal to build a 600-bed intake center. Its idea has gotten significant traction with key business community leaders in the past year amid an explosion in street homelessness downtown and it’s been pushing Faulconer to make it happen.
At a regional level, the group Gentry chairs has advocated a series of assessment points countywide and throughout the city rather than in one place – meaning leaders countywide will be watching closely to see whether the central intake proposal aligns with that goal.
Once nonprofits submit their ideas for the city project, the conversation will turn to where the city will put the hub or hubs, which may cause concern for nearby residents.
The public process to follow will dictate whether those projects match what the mayor envisions.
Pat Leslie, a Point Loma Nazarene University professor who’s long been involved in regional homelessness discussions, emphasized the challenges homeless-serving projects can face as they go through the public process.
Community input for a needed permit can translate into a different project than was initially conceived, she said. “For any of the major 24/7 providers in the downtown area, the visions for the centers and the reality of what can happen there go through a community process – that changes the ability to implement.”
The mayor wants to quickly add 300 emergency shelter beds to give the hundreds living on city streets another option to stay inside.
“My office is working to identify a new facility to meet this immediate need and shelter those on the streets,” he said.
Stacie Spector, the mayor’s senior adviser for housing solutions, said after the speech that the city’s looking at multiple locations and hopes to find a single place for them in the near future.
But the mayor’s description of hundreds of new shelter beds concerned some advocates.
One of them was Tom Theisen, board chair of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.
“We do not need another warehouse to store our citizens,” Theisen said. “Like the interim housing at St. Vincent’s or the winter shelter before, it will temporarily reduce homelessness but do nothing to end homelessness.”
San Diego should focus on connecting homeless folks with permanent housing that ends their homelessness, Theisen said.
Michael McConnell, another outspoken advocate, has raised similar concerns. He thinks San Diego should focus on cultivating landlords and building housing projects to get homeless folks permanently off the street to ensure there’s a place for a homeless person to go after he leaves a shelter.
“The problem still is not the front end,” McConnell has said. “It’s the back end.”
Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy, strongly disagrees.
He said he’s heartbroken about the massive uptick in street homelessness and the lack of shelter available to house those in need.
“I’ve got no place to take them,” McElroy said. “That’s what’s killing me.”
He’s awaiting the mayor’s next steps.
“I hear the words,” McElroy said. “I need to see the action.”
Right now, if you’re homeless or encounter someone in need, you’re encouraged to call 2-1-1 for help. But 2-1-1 San Diego doesn’t always have up-to-date information about available shelter beds and isn’t always available in a crisis.
Faulconer wants to create a 24/7 hotline in coming months to change that.
“Finally, we will know – in real-time – which beds are available each night,” he said.
That will save homeless folks time calling or visiting various shelters that may be full.
But it doesn’t address the fact that those shelters often have no open beds and long waiting lists.