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The Year the City Was Forced to Go Beyond Memos and Meetings to Solve Homelessness

Going into 2017, city leaders vowed, as they have for years, to take action on San Diego’s homelessness problem. But it wasn’t until a deadly health crisis swept the city that they suddenly dispensed with usual order and took drastic action.

A man gets a hepatitis A vaccine shot amid a deadly outbreak of the disease in San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Going into 2017, city leaders vowed, as they have for years, to take action on San Diego’s homelessness problem. Until this fall, they were still talking about – rather than implementing – solutions.

But the homelessness crisis that grew on the city’s watch had fueled another crisis: a deadly hepatitis A outbreak fueled at least in part by poor sanitation in entrenched homeless camps. Homeless San Diegans were disproportionately battered by the outbreak. National headlines put the city’s struggle to cope with homelessness and an illness spread by fecal matter in an embarrassing spotlight.

City officials who had for years known about homeless San Diegans’ inadequate access to shelter and restrooms suddenly dispensed with usual order and took drastic action.

They rushed to approve shelter contracts, add restrooms and clear long-standing camps.

Before the devastating impacts of the hepatitis A crisis became clear, few seemed to feel a sense of urgency to address the desperation on San Diego streets. They spoke endlessly about the need for solutions and sat through long meetings on the topic, leaving with little more than verbal commitments. They also stood by and in some cases directed city policies aimed at keeping homeless San Diegans from getting too comfortable on the street, policies that came under fire when the hepatitis A outbreak erupted.

At his State of the City address in January, Mayor Kevin Faulconer declared homelessness his No. 1 social service priority.

He pledged to swiftly add hundreds of shelter beds and to pursue a center where homeless San Diegans could be connected to more help. He also championed a controversial hotel-tax hike that would throw more money at homelessness and street repairs while funding a Convention Center expansion.

He had little to show for those promises by the summer.

City Council Democrats dashed his ballot measure plans. The shelter and homeless center plans stagnated. At the time, Faulconer said it was important to get stakeholders’ consensus before moving forward.

City Council President Myrtle Cole made a similar commitment to prioritize homelessness solutions after she was elected to lead the City Council last December.

“This is something that affects everyone, from residents to business owners, and of course to those forced to seek shelter under bridges and in canyons,” Cole wrote in a San Diego Union-Tribune op-ed published shortly after the vote. “In order to begin truly addressing the situation, we must have a dialogue then work together to take action.”

Cole’s new post gave her the power to place items on the Council agenda and thus, the ability to prioritize issues she cared about.

So Cole called a special meeting in March that consisted of hearing a series of reports about initiatives already in the works. That day, she called for the creation of a select committee she later said could “discuss and revisit city policies” on homelessness.

The committee could recommend solutions and then bring them to the full City Council, Cole said.

City Councilman Chris Ward, who represents the central city neighborhoods most impacted by rising street homelessness, became chair of the homelessness committee. He issued memos in March and July calling for more immediate solutions, including using city properties for shelter, safe haven parking lots and places where unsheltered people could stay without fear of police enforcement.

Those efforts seemed likely to get caught up bureaucratic processes too.

Ward discussed his ideas at a homelessness committee meeting the week after his July memo. Then the committee voted to have Ward and the mayor’s office team work on yet another report.

Under the best circumstances, that would have meant Ward’s suggestions would have returned to the committee nearly two months later and then gone to the full City Council for a vote.

Then news coverage about the hepatitis A outbreak, which had by then already been battering San Diego’s homeless community, exploded. Fifteen people had died and more than 260 had been hospitalized. The Guardian published a story about the growing outbreak on Aug. 28 and three days later, Voice of San Diego revealed officials’ fumbling, bureaucratic response. National news outlets swooped in.

Suddenly, the solutions that Faulconer had said would require more stakeholder buy-in – and that would have had to make their way through city bureaucracy – came quickly.

Faulconer made a handful of big announcements over the next month: The city would open three shelter tents by the end of the year and a temporary city-sanctioned camp at 20th and B streets in October, and it would immediately help expand a safe parking program.

In each case, Faulconer and other city officials set aside their usual processes. They decided they needed to act immediately.

During the same period, Faulconer directed city staff to install Port-a-Potties at a handful of locations and expand hours at other city-owned restrooms. He also proceeded with a request for homeless service center bids.

“San Diegans are a compassionate people. They want to help and their government must channel that compassion into action,” Faulconer said as he announced plans to open the three tents. “The people of San Diego are ready for solutions. And I am not going to accept anything less.”

The mayor acknowledged the city could have moved on the issue sooner. Officials had looked for perfect solutions and came up empty. It was time to move forward anyway, he said.

Now, the hepatitis A outbreak that mobilized Faulconer and others is on the decline. San Diego’s homelessness crisis, however, hasn’t waned.

The question is whether San Diego leaders and perhaps voters will continue to demand results and make the tough decisions they’ve resisted for years.

The hundreds who move into the city’s three new shelter tents need permanent homes. The thousands more who remain on the street need them too.

There’s talk of a handful of potential ballot measures to pay for housing and services, and a new regional strategy to try to tackle the seemingly intractable problem.

City officials, including Faulconer and Cole, are again promising action in the new year.

Moments after she was re-elected Council president, Cole said she’d be focused on long-term homelessness fixes in 2018.

“We have to start building and that’s my commitment is to start building units so we can house people,” Cole said.

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