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Why Some Homeless Advocates Oppose the Mayor’s Shelter Plans

Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s plans to address homelessness are drawing jeers from some of the city’s most outspoken advocates. It’s the latest conflict amid a difficult shift toward quickly moving homeless folks into permanent, stable homes instead of shelters or short-term housing first.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s plans to address San Diego’s growing homeless problem are drawing jeers from some of the city’s most outspoken homeless advocates.

Faulconer pledged to add hundreds of shelter beds, build at least one central intake center for San Diego’s homeless, beef up a program to reunify homeless folks with their families and pitch a hotel-tax hike to throw more money at the cause during his State of the City address last month.

In the weeks since, some homeless advocates have publicly and privately worried about whether the mayor’s proposals could actually complicate local efforts to reduce homelessness.

It’s the latest conflict amid a difficult shift San Diego’s making toward a model that aims to address homelessness by quickly moving homeless folks into permanent, stable homes instead of shelters or short-term housing first.

This time, two homeless advocates have been outspoken on Twitter.

Michael McConnell, a La Jolla business owner who runs the Homelessness News San Diego accounts on Facebook and Twitter, has repeatedly posted blunt comments like this one:

And attorney Tom Theisen, until recently the board president of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, compared the mayor’s tax proposal unfavorably with much larger ballot measures elsewhere.

McConnell and Theisen have spent years volunteering, attending conferences and researching how other communities have reduced homelessness. Both worked long careers before shifting their focus to homelessness. Both have taken on leadership roles in homelessness-fighting initiatives in San Diego.

 Photos courtesy of Michael McConnell and Tom Theisen
Photos courtesy of Michael McConnell and Tom Theisen

To understand their concerns with the mayor’s plans, you have to understand some history.

McConnell and Theisen have for years worked with other local players to build up a regional system to route homeless folks through the process of getting off the street. Those efforts are now being overseen by a countywide group known as the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.

McConnell and Theisen have helped champion those regional conversations and are watching closely to see whether the mayor’s plans line up with them.

McConnell’s concluded they don’t, and has said as much on Twitter.

Enter Stacie Spector, who was hired by Faulconer last fall to coordinate the city’s approach to homelessness.

Photo courtesy of the city of San Diego
Photo courtesy of the city of San Diego

Spector, a political veteran who is new to homelessness issues, spent her initial weeks on the job meeting with experts and nonprofit leaders to learn about the situation on the ground.

She’s open about the fact that past efforts haven’t put a significant dent in the region’s homelessness problem and that the mayor’s increased attention to the issue is likely to spur some discomfort among those who’ve been working on it for years.

Indeed, Spector’s got some advocates nervous. Some, including McConnell and Theisen, are wondering whether the blueprint she’s presented to the mayor will complement or contradict regional efforts.

Part of that plan is to add hundreds of shelter beds and an intake center where homeless folks can show up and be connected with services that address their specific needs. But the facility could conflict with a regional policy to let San Diego’s homeless enter the system wherever they can – be it a shelter downtown, or a health clinic in East County – rather than push them to check into a particular location.

Spector is adamant the central intake centers will use the existing regional system, not conflict with it.

But advocates like McConnell and Theisen are on high alert following Faulconer’s State of the City speech.

Spector and McConnell have even tussled on Twitter about it.

McConnell, Theisen and others are watching closely to see if the city’s plan comports with regional plans and follows the so-called housing-first model the federal government and most advocates nationwide are pushing to end homelessness.

They’ve concluded the best way to end a person’s homelessness is to move him into a home.

Moving a person into a shelter or even transitional housing that comes with months of services doesn’t end his homelessness by definition. He’s just got a temporary bed.

To McConnell and Theisen, the mayor’s initial pitch to quickly add 300 shelter beds and an intake facility are only temporary solutions.

Problem is, San Diego has a dearth of affordable housing and lots of competition for what does exist. There’s not enough housing available to house all of San Diego’s homeless.

For that reason, Theisen likes to compare San Diego’s homeless-serving ecosystem to an overflowing tub with a clogged drain.

He points out that the most effective way to fix a clogged drain is to clear out the drain, not to use buckets to try to remove water.

Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

Indeed, outreach workers have assessed hundreds of homeless folks but don’t have homes or even shelter beds for them. Our tub is overflowing.

But moving folks into temporary homes won’t clear the clogged drain, Theisen says. Only permanent housing can.

He and McConnell fear the mayor’s shelter beds will only temporarily help folks without providing a clear destination to go next – and that focusing on both shelter beds and permanent housing solutions will divert money and energy from permanent housing solutions.

“I am deathly afraid that if we try to do both, we are going to do the emergency shelter and not the things we need to do to solve homelessness in this community,” Theisen said.

Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy, who has for years advocated for a homeless intake facility with hundreds of beds, sees things differently.

McElroy has helped homeless folks get off the street for more than 30 years, and he’s devastated by the suffering he now sees on San Diego streets, especially in East Village. There, tents line sidewalks and McElroy said homeless folks who recognize him when he walks down the street ask if Alpha Project can take them in.

McElroy, whose nonprofit once operated one of the city’s winter tents, said he’d like to take them to permanent homes. He just doesn’t have any more of them.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Just over a year ago, Alpha Project opened a 200-unit complex that provides homes and supportive services for formerly homeless clients. It took six years to develop and build.

Another facility like that won’t materialize overnight.

“We are a huge advocate of permanent supportive housing,” McElroy said. “That’s what we do. But what do we do in the meantime? Nobody answers that question.”

So he’s pushed his central intake concept, which high-powered business leaders and now the mayor have gotten behind. The city expects to accept more detailed information from McElroy and other nonprofit leaders who may want to operate it in coming weeks.

Spector said the mayor has also embraced the plan to add more shelter beds with the conviction that something must be done soon given the years it can take to build permanent homes. Spector said she’s also working on a broader plan to be rolled out soon that addresses the need for more permanent housing.

“You can’t work on the long-term [solution] without dealing with short-term or you’re ignoring humans who are suffering on the street,” Spector said.

McConnell and Theisen sympathize with the heart-wrenching stories. They just don’t think shelter beds will solve the problem.

“I understand this drive to get people under a roof no matter what kind of roof it is,” McConnell said. “If I thought that would lead more people to getting into permanent housing, I would be the biggest cheerleader of it.”

Experts outside San Diego are increasingly taking a nuanced view on the shelter bed debate.

Matthew Doherty, who leads the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told me last year that he believes shelter beds can serve as a key bridge to more permanent solutions if those solutions actually exist.

“For a community that right now has a large unsheltered population, we need to be thinking, what are the opportunities that we need to make available? Do we have those opportunities? But what are the opportunities after that so we can move them through those opportunities so bridge doesn’t become a dead end?” Doherty said.

Spector and McElroy believe those new shelter beds could serve as an important stop on the way to permanent housing, especially for the most vulnerable homeless folks living on the street.

Spector said she wouldn’t be pushing for additional temporary beds if she wasn’t confident about more permanent solutions that are in the works.

McConnell and Theisen are skeptical.

“I really see that we’re at a crossroads here, a really important time where we can really make progress on this issue if we can get behind real solutions and quit messing around with shelters,” McConnell said.

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