- Voice of San Diego - https://www.voiceofsandiego.org -

Downtown Homelessness Is ‘Nearing the Crisis Level’

homeless surging san diego
Homeless residents’ tents line 16th Street and Island Avenue in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Homelessness is surging downtown and the areas just outside it.

As businesses and residents try to recover from a pandemic that hammered the local economy, tents and tarps have increasingly gone up downtown. Makeshift structures now also pack sidewalks just outside downtown borders and line state-owned properties along freeways.

A downtown business group’s monthly census of homeless residents documented a 22 percent spike in the population within its 275-block boundaries from April to May alone – and a nearly 62 percent increase in downtown’s outskirts. All told, the Downtown San Diego Partnership counted 1,157 homeless San Diegans and 389 tents during its monthly tally late last month.

Residents, business leaders and homeless San Diegans report that open drug use and erratic behavior among some of the homeless population has also risen in the last year as the pandemic led to reduced service offerings and forced police to reduce enforcement and jail bookings.

San Diego police data shows a 21 percent increase in dispatch calls to respond to people considered to be in crisis in downtown police beats from 2019 to 2020. In the initial five months of 2021, calls about people in distress were up 5 percent compared with the first five months of 2020.

Mayor Todd Gloria speaks at a press conference announcing a new collaboration between the city and the county on efforts to reduce homelessness in San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Mayor Todd Gloria, County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher and other officials have pledged that addressing homelessness plus rising mental health and substance abuse challenges are among their top priorities. They have emphasized new initiatives and nearly $100 million in new investments that the city and county plan to make to reduce homelessness in the budget year that begins next month.

On Friday, Gloria and Fletcher also announced [1] that the city and county will later this month kick off a bolstered month-long outreach effort focused on aiding homeless San Diegans living on downtown streets.

“What is happening in downtown is wholly unacceptable for the residents, for the businesses, for this community, but most especially, for the people who are living unsheltered in encampments along our sidewalks,” Gloria said. “The current situation creates a real public health and public safety concern.”

The mayor said the city in coming weeks will reopen about 300 city-funded shelter beds that had been unavailable during the pandemic due to social distancing concerns. The city and county said they expect to jointly roll out a new initiative to connect dozens of homeless residents in the city struggling with substance abuse and mental health challenges to services and temporary low-barrier housing later this summer. The latter approach is meant to accommodate a population of chronically homeless San Diegans who are often left behind by current programs – and who are typically reluctant to enter traditional shelters.

Gloria told Voice of San Diego he thinks the additional beds and outreach will make a difference on downtown streets.

“I’m hopeful that we can see a marked change in downtown San Diego,” Gloria said.

He and Fletcher promised the city and county are committed to rapid and longer-term actions to continue to improve conditions downtown and regionwide. Among their commitments are crisis teams the county has promised will be deployed [2] to respond to mental health calls in the city by the end of the summer and expanded homeless outreach and shelter options.

Gloria and Fletcher have also rallied state lawmakers to direct more resources to local governments to address homelessness in the new budget year, including in the form of funds to purchase hotels to house homeless San Diegans.

homeless surging san diego
Homeless residents eat lunch and talk in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For downtown business owners and residents, including some who live on the street, help can’t come soon enough.

“It’s gotten worse, and it gets worse every day,” said 68-year-old Dean Thompson, who has recently slept outside the county Hall of Justice.

Thompson is among the homeless San Diegans who told VOSD that he has been concerned by the growing number of people with mental health and addiction challenges on the street – and the open drug use that has been rampant during the pandemic.

“Don’t no one seem to want to do anything about that,” said Thompson, who said he worries what might have to happen to spur police and local leaders to crack down or provide more help.

Ruben Delgado, who has slept on downtown streets for years, said he is also concerned about the increasing danger on the streets. He now goes to sleep each night hoping he won’t be attacked.

“It’s getting bad out here,” Delgado said. “It’s getting more violent, more drugs.”

Also fearing what could come next, advocates and leaders of the Downtown San Diego Partnership have for the past few months implored city and county officials to take rapid action to stem a crisis that four years ago incited a hepatitis A outbreak [3] fueled by unsanitary conditions in downtown homeless camps.

The Downtown Partnership has urged Gloria and other city leaders to open up city properties that could serve as sanctioned campgrounds with onsite services, including at a city operations yard at 20th and B streets [4], where the city allowed dozens of homeless people during the 2017 outbreak. They have also urged the city and county to target aid and housing resources for homeless San Diegans who have inspired hundreds of 911 calls and to scale up homeless outreach in areas with significant need.

Downtown Partnership CEO Betsy Brennan cheered the plans unveiled Friday but said she hopes there is much more to come.

“I think we have to have a menu of options,” Brennan said. “This is a really good start on short-, medium- and long-term solutions.”

After all, Brennan and others have said, homeless San Diegans are especially in peril while they await city and county action.

A homeless encampment near Market Street in downtown San Diego overlooks the I-5 freeway. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Downtown residents and businesses are also concerned about what could come next for public health and safety.

They have looked on as downtown camps grow, along with piles of trash and debris. They describe blatant drug use that seemingly goes unpunished, skyrocketing overdoses [5] and increasing tense and uncomfortable interactions with homeless San Diegans.

Gloria has continued the controversial homeless camp clean-ups that surged during and after the hepatitis A outbreak but directed city workers to take a more compassionate, strategic approach [6] a few months after he took office.

For years, homeless San Diegans have complained about the unpredictability of those clean-ups and described instances where they lost belongings, such as bicycles and tents.

Gloria has said he’s tried to strike a balance between compassion and public health.

“If we do not persistently clean our sidewalks where people are living without adequate sanitation or personal hygiene, we know the consequences will be deadly,” Gloria said Friday.

City data shows the number of postings and so-called abatements have decreased in recent months as the number of camps downtown has grown.

From July through December of last year, the city posted an average of 1,607 notices at homeless camps each month and proceeded with an average of 234 clean-ups. From March through May, the city posted an average of 915 notices per month and proceeded with an average of 123 clean-ups.

It’s unclear what impact Gloria’s directives may have had on the increasing visibility of homelessness downtown.

But police have said pandemic-tied restrictions and demands have complicated their ability to crack down on crime and disorder.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has for months halted jail bookings for a number of misdemeanor offenses. Until April 14, people police deemed to be under the influence of a controlled substance were not eligible to be booked. The Sheriff’s Department said earlier this week it planned to evaluate additional changes in the wake of a statewide reopening.

Detoxification beds that police had considered another option for people who were under the influence have also been less available during the pandemic due to social distancing concerns and a canceled county contract with nonprofit Volunteers of America [7].

Capt. Scott Wahl, who until recently led the police division focused on homelessness and quality-of-life issues, said those dynamics have stymied police efforts.

“Jail for the most part has not been an option, we’ve had extremely limited detox beds, and so we’re seeing open drug use, particularly in areas of downtown where people are strung out all day, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Wahl said last month.

Police Chief David Nisleit said Thursday that police have remained committed to combating drug crimes.

“We’ve never stopped addressing that and we’ll continue to address that,” Nisleit said.

San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Some residents and advocates have also been rattled by alarming incidents they fear point to a rise in crime and danger on downtown streets. Among them are a seemingly random April shooting in the Gaslamp [8] that left a valet dead and four others injured, a March car crash under a downtown bridge [9] that left three homeless San Diegans dead and others injured and the death of a 29-year-old woman who passed away after a man jumped from an East Village parking garage [10] in an apparent suicide attempt and landed on her. That man also died.

And early last month, Brennan said a longtime Downtown Partnership maintenance worker was stabbed in the hand during his lunch break early last month as he tried to help a bystander accosted by another person.

It’s unclear whether any of the perpetrators in those cases were homeless. In fact, homeless San Diegans were victims in the crash. But these incidents, and other cases where homeless San Diegans were victimized [11], have helped foster a growing uneasiness.

Crime data reviewed by VOSD doesn’t show a dramatic increase in violent crime in the city’s Central Division, which includes downtown – at least through the initial months of 2021.

But burglaries have spiked during the pandemic and police data separately showed more San Diegans have called on police to respond to people they consider a danger to themselves or others downtown last year and so far this year.

Nisleit said Thursday that the city has seen increased violence and shootings citywide so far this year, but he said could not immediately say whether more recent data shows downtown has seen the disproportionate spikes that residents have perceived.

Both Nisleit and Gloria noted that cities across the country have faced rising violent crime [12] and homelessness [13] – two dynamics the mayor said should not be conflated – in 2021.

For now, Brennan said Gloria has told the Downtown Partnership that the safe camps it considers a possible solution to help the growing number of homeless people living downtown are “not a national best practice.”

Gloria told VOSD that he wasn’t sure local nonprofits would have the capacity to stand up such a project again – and that after-action reviews of the 2017 pilot program at 20th and B streets showed they were “not particularly successful or national best practices.”

A 2018 policy guide [14] from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates the federal response to homelessness, urged cities considering safe camps to proceed with caution.

“Creating these environments may make it look and feel like the community is taking action to end homelessness on the surface — but, by themselves, they have little impact on reducing homelessness,” the agency wrote in the 2018 paper. “Ultimately, access to stable housing that people can afford, with the right level of services to help them succeed, is what ends homelessness.”

Gloria earlier this year hired consultant Matthew Doherty [15], who led the Interagency Council on Homelessness at the time the policy guide was released, to advise the city on best practices and solutions to address its homelessness problem.

Brennan hopes the mayor or other city leaders might still give the concept a closer look. In recent weeks, Downtown Partnership board members Bill Geppert and Steve Cushman have pitched the idea to other city officials and community leaders in hopes they might advocate for it too.

“We’re nearing the crisis level and we need to have a step on how to get folks off sidewalks – in unhealthy, unsafe conditions – into some better environment where they’re secure, they’re safe and they have services available to them,” Geppert said. “This is something that we’ve done before. It’s worked. And it could happen next week.”

A homeless encampment near Market Street in downtown San Diego / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy, whose nonprofit operated the sanctioned camp in 2017, said he wasn’t necessarily committed to overseeing a safe campground again due to the challenges that come with such an operation. For example, Alpha Project had to take greater pains to monitor the safety of those who were staying in tents rather than open-air shelter beds.

“We could do it again. Do I want to do it?” McElroy said.  “I don’t think so.”

McElroy and Gloria said they were both more interested in the sort of campus-style approach complete with various services and permanent housing that Alpha Project has long pitched [16] at 20th and B streets.

Yet homeless advocate Michael McConnell, who has been critical of some past city investments that prioritize temporary solutions over permanent housing [17], said the tragedy playing out on the street and feedback from homeless San Diegans who stayed at the safe camp in 2017 convinced him that it shouldn’t be off the table.

Fellow advocate John Brady, who once lived on downtown streets and serves on the leadership council overseeing progress on the city’s homelessness plan, said he thinks the city should consider trying it again too.

Each emphasized that the details matter. For example, both McConnell and Brady said new shelter beds or other options shouldn’t be part of a strategy to cite those who won’t use them. In recent years, police have offered homeless San Diegans shelter beds and cited or even arrested those who don’t accept them after multiple encounters.

But Brady said the city needs to consider more options to relieve the suffering on the street.

“It’s not a really ideal situation to have a bunch of people camping in a parking lot, but it’s better to provide better options,” Brady said.