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A guide to what we’ve explored so far in our in-depth reporting on homelessness in San Diego, and where we’re going next.
Voice of San Diego launched a reporting series in December to better understand homelessness here. As part of that effort, we’re convening a discussion tonight at the downtown winter tent shelter. If you’ve not yet registered, we’re full for the event. But you can stay tuned here for more conversation afterward.
Meanwhile, if you’re catching up on our series, here’s a guide to what we’ve explored so far:
Sizing Up the Population
The most commonly used number shows close to 10,000 people are homeless in San Diego County, making the region the third-largest homeless population in the country last year, behind New York and Los Angeles.
The annual census count is not easy, especially in a place filled with canyons and huge rural areas. Last year, about two-thirds of the county’s homeless population was in the city of San Diego. About 3,600 of them were counted outside of formal homeless shelters. Hundreds of volunteers went out on a rainy morning count this January; the Regional Task Force on the Homeless will release the new numbers in the spring.
Downtown San Diego
Connections Housing, formally opening next month, is a new permanent center with a health clinic and offices for 30 homeless services agencies — and short-term beds for 134 homeless people. The 14-floor, $38 million center represents a big change in local homeless services. For one, it’s permanent. But even Connections leaders acknowledge this only makes a dent in the overall problem. They’re hoping other similar centers can be built in other neighborhoods, but funding additional centers will be tricky.
The city has committed the money it usually spends on the emergency winter tent — about $400,000 in federal grants — to the interim bed program at Connections. This year a private donor, United Healthcare, paid to fund the winter tent because the permanent shelter wasn’t yet open.
“Connections is a wonderful project and everyone’s really anxious for it to get going,” said Mathew Packard, director of housing innovations for the San Diego Housing Commission. “But it’s not going to solve homelessness for us. And next winter when it gets cold and rainy we’re still going to have homeless people.”
Here’s a video that helps put that new center in context:
Evaluating Political Emphasis
Mayor Bob Filner and City Council President Todd Gloria have both talked about trying to end homelessness in San Diego. Filner has so far not expanded on what he means by “ending homelessness” but he said he would like to be the first city in the country to do so. Gloria expressed a more focused goal — ending homelessness downtown.
Here are some videos about the faces and funds behind homelessness.
One Person’s Experience
A woman named Liz Hirsch wrote us an email in December, right before she stayed the night in the San Diego Rescue Mission shelter for the first time. Since then, Hirsch has written several dispatches from coffee shops, using a netbook she bought by pawning some belongings.
Hirsch has filed observations on the aesthetics of shelters — “why can’t a shelter look like the inside of [a coffee shop] instead of a psych ward?” — and on sickness. She developed a cold and struggled to get over it while staying in the Rescue Mission. She worked a few days for a realtor who’d read her story in Voice of San Diego. Hirsch earned enough money to sleep a few nights in an inexpensive motel. Others recognized her and shared Starbucks gift cards. Another Voice of San Diego reader paid for a few more nights in the motel as she continued to recover from her illness.
She’s expecting to enter a yearlong Catholic Charities program for senior adult women soon.
On ‘Drive-By Feedings’
A conversation with then-Assistant Police Chief Boyd Long revealed the former officer is not a fan of the groups that descend on local streets and offer food to homeless people.
If you keep giving them the sandwich, and you come down here every Wednesday, they’re going to keep coming like a cat comes to my back door for milk. You’re not helping them.
A group of churches and other service groups called a meeting in February to evaluate their methods and better coordinate their efforts.
Making an Impact
We’ve featured, and Thursday’s event highlights, some innovations and efforts making impacts on local homelessness. A one-day resource fair in January connected hundreds of people with haircuts, legal help, food, clothing and even housing in some cases.
Recovery and shelter programs refer dozens of homeless people every month to homeless court, an unconventional program begun here nearly 25 years ago that is now replicated across California and the nation. We visited the court proceedings this month. In order to have misdemeanor punishments deemed satisfied, participants must complete programs like working to get sober, training for jobs and mending family relationships.
Our quest is not over yet. Stay tuned for more coverage coming soon, including:
• Analyzing key homelessness funding sources and where San Diego fits nationwide
• Evaluating programs that place chronically homeless people in housing and match them with services
• Assessing the ways in which technology has changed what it means to be homeless
I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at email@example.com or 619.325.0531.