Mayor, Advocates Agree It's Time for Him to Lead on Homelessness - Voice of San Diego

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Mayor, Advocates Agree It's Time for Him to Lead on Homelessness

Political leadership has been key to alleviating homelessness in other major cities. Virtually everyone agrees it’s been missing in San Diego. Now Mayor Kevin Faulconer says homelessness will be a top priority in 2017.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer says homelessness will be a priority in 2017. It will be a focus of his Jan. 12 state of the city address, and he plans to roll out a housing affordability initiative this month.

Homelessness “is one of the biggest issues we’re going to be tackling in the coming year,” he said in a recent interview, “because we have to.”

It’s something homeless advocates, who’ve long criticized the mayor for not doing enough on the issue, have been waiting to hear.

“There’s no doubt that the mayor’s not stepped up to the level we need him to step up to,” said Michael McConnell, who runs the Homelessness News San Diego Facebook page and has been active in local initiatives to address homelessness.

In 2016 alone, bad news on homelessness in the city piled up: A mid-year count revealed a 70 percent increase in San Diego’s downtown homeless population, while a January 2016 count showed the number of homeless senior citizens doubled from 2015 to 2016. Recent data showed that between October 2015 and September 2016, more people became homeless than were helped off the street. And the San Diego Police Department continues to draw criticism for aggressive ticketing of people sleeping on the street.

And while San Diego elected leaders spent 2016 debating a new Chargers stadium, their counterparts in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties all passed ballot measures that will provide funding to house the homeless. In March, L.A. County voters will weigh in on a quarter-cent sales tax increase to boost homeless services and provide rent subsidies.

If there’s been a key theme among successful efforts to address homelessness, it’s strong political leadership and the accountability that comes with it, said Tom Theisen, chair of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.

“Unless you have a very prominent political leader who is willing to take ownership of efforts to end homelessness — and accept responsibility for the success or failure of those efforts — it is going to be extremely difficult to end homelessness,” he said.

Faulconer seems to agree — at least in theory.

“In the past people would say, ‘Oh, it’s a county issue,’ or ‘Let’s let the Housing Commission handle it,’” he said. “I’ve said, ‘No, this has to come directly from me and my office to give the strength, the support, the finances, the political support sometimes to push policy initiatives through.’”

It sounds good. And for some longtime homelessness advocates, there’s even hope that those words will turn into real leadership in 2017.

♦♦♦

On homelessness, Mayor Faulconer’s come a long way from Councilman Faulconer.

As a Council member, Faulconer was the reluctant leader of a district that included downtown and was home to the city’s highest concentration of homeless people. He opposed locating a temporary emergency shelter in East Village and, in 2010, as chair of the city’s Permanent Homeless Facility task force, tied his support of the project that would ultimately become Connections Housing to lifting a court-ordered ban on police ticketing or arresting people for sleeping in public overnight.

But as mayor, Faulconer has evolved. He extended and enhanced a homelessness-services funding plan introduced by interim mayor Todd Gloria. And at his 2016 State of the City address, Faulconer announced Housing Our Heroes, a plan to get 1,000 military vets off the streets by March 2017. The crux of the program is for city leadership to persuade reluctant landlords to accept housing vouchers or formerly homeless tenants.

“He is a long way from where he was when he was on the City Council, voting against the winter tents or bottling up the Connections Housing project,” Gloria said.

Faulconer agreed that he’s evolved on homelessness since his Council days.

“As mayor, you have a much more acute window into so many different issues than you had as a Council member,” he said. “That’s just reality.”

Still, as Gloria heads to Sacramento as an assemblyman, he wants to see more from Faulconer. He says greater involvement by the mayor could be “transformative.”

“He could bring the business community and law enforcement to the table in a more meaningful way,” Gloria said. “He could expand services beyond downtown to places like Mission Valley and the beaches where there’s so much need. He could urge his fellow local mayors to act in their own cities. What are Chula Vista, El Cajon, etc., doing on homelessness?”

Both Gloria and McConnell praised Falconer’s recent hiring of Stacie Spector as his senior adviser on housing solutions. Though Spector comes from a PR background, she’s proven adept at “bureaucratic untangling,” as Gloria put it.

Spector praised Faulconer’s leadership on homelessness and touted the need for a “nimble” system that can respond to individual needs, rather than pushing homeless folks through a one-size-fits-all system.

“I don’t think we’re short on plans,” she said. “I think we’re a little short on what are the most nimble moves we can make to help people as quickly as possible.”

Faulconer’s Housing Our Heroes program underscores the challenges the city faces when it comes to housing folks quickly: Despite homeless vets being a relatively sympathetic population, as of Dec. 20, only 450 had found housing. San Diego’s tight rental market has left roughly 250 other vets with a voucher but no apartment.

Still, McConnell, one of the mayor’s toughest critics on homelessness, considers the program a success.

“Not that this is perfect by any means,” he said, “but it’s a really aggressive program that in the face of a really tough rental market has actually succeeded pretty well in bringing landlords into the system.”

More attention to homelessness from the mayor, better data collection and an overhaul to the regional group that oversees efforts to reduce homelessness have left McConnell hopeful.

“You’re never going to get a city that does exactly what they really need to do, because that’s really hard,” he said. “But you’ve got to do more of the right stuff than the wrong stuff. If we jump off [in 2017] and start doing more of the right stuff and less of the wrong stuff, then I’m going to feel pretty positive about it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post said Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties all passed bond measures that will provide funding to house the homeless. Voters in Santa Clara and Alameda counties and the city of Los Angeles passed bond measures. San Mateo County voters approved a sales-tax increase and San Francisco voters approved a measure that will funnel additional general-fund money to homelessness services.

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