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Three Myths About San Diego’s Homeless Population

We’ve all heard tales of the homeless migrating to San Diego or heard someone suggest most homeless people don’t want to leave the streets. None of that is entirely true.

As more tents go up across San Diego, more San Diegans are talking about homelessness – and many of the same myths keep circulating.

We’ve all heard them: Most homeless folks are mentally ill. They don’t want our help. They’re moving here in droves.

None of those statements is entirely true.

But perhaps they serve a purpose. All are convenient crutches that make it easier to avoid confronting the hard work necessary to aid the homeless, especially those who seem hardest to reach.

Some of them involve placing blame or making excuses, which are easier to do than having the tougher, solutions-oriented conversations about whether we’re doing enough to help the homeless and whether the resources we’re offering them are working.

Here are the facts on three of the most persistent and distracting myths about the homeless in San Diego.

Myth: Most homeless people have serious mental illnesses.

The most memorable encounters many of us have with the homeless are with those who seem to be mentally ill and that can lead to some faulty conclusions.

For that reason, there’s a tendency to link homelessness and mental illness – and to suggest it’s a major roadblock to eradicating an overwhelming social problem.

In recent interviews with political candidates, the Union-Tribune’s editorial board repeatedly suggested it wouldn’t be possible to end homelessness in San Diego because that “would mean ending mental illness.”

Yet only a fraction of San Diegans who live on the street report having serious mental illnesses.

This January, volunteers surveyed hundreds who live on the street and used the responses they received to gauge the likely percentage of the unsheltered population considered mentally ill.

The Regional Task Force on the Homeless, which conducts the count, estimated just 14 percent of the unsheltered homeless in San Diego have a mental illness.

Since those stats do rely on self-reporting, I did more research and found this conclusion by University of Pennsylvania professor Dennis Culhane, who’s done extensive data-crunching on mental illness among the homeless.

Here’s what he wrote in a 2010 op-ed for The Washington Post:

In my own research, I have calculated that the rate of severe mental illness among the homeless (including families and children) is 13 to 15 percent. Among the much smaller group of single adults who are chronically homeless, however, the rate reaches 30 to 40 percent.

(The Task Force estimates 22 percent of the county’s homeless population is chronically homeless, which means they’ve been homeless for more than a year or had multiple stints of homelessness.)

Culhane told me he stands by that national estimate today, though he believes the percentage of chronically homeless adults with serious mental illness is probably closer to 30 percent.

Iain De Jong, a Canadian consultant who helped create a survey used in regions across the country to pair the homeless with services, also rejected the mental illness myth – and wanted to clarify another thing.

“To say mental illness is a cause of homelessness is a gross overstatement,” De Jong said. “It’s not borne out with the facts that most homelessness is a confluence of events, not one event.”

Myth: Most of San Diego’s homeless moved here from elsewhere.

Anyone who lives in San Diego knows we’ve got a mild climate with fewer cold nights than other parts of the country. This helps fuel the assumption that much of San Diego’s homeless population came here from one of those less comfortable places.

This Business Insider piece, for example, chronicled nomadic folks who “seek refuge from colder climates on the warm beaches and bays of southern California. Here, they regroup, reconnect, and plan ahead for their next move” – reinforcing the idea that outsiders comprise a large share of San Diego’s homeless population.

Even Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy, whose nonprofit aims to combat homelessness locally, has sometimes seemed to imply San Diego’s weather could be drawing the homeless here.

“Smart homeless people are in San Diego, dummies are on 12-foot snow drifts back east somewhere,” McElroy told KUSI last year.

But data that’s been collected about such movements doesn’t support the theory that there’s massive migration to San Diego.

The latest point-in-time count survey included a question that aimed to address whether homeless folks were migrating to San Diego.

The Regional Task Force on the Homeless has since estimated that 70 percent of San Diego’s unsheltered homeless population became homeless in San Diego and that just 24 percent became homeless elsewhere before coming here.

Dolores Diaz, who leads the Task Force, has noted that migration within San Diego – particularly, to downtown San Diego – is far more common.

Tales of the homeless folks migrating aren’t unique to San Diego, so the Veteran Affairs’ National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans took a look at such movements for a national analysis published last fall.

The VA think tank tracked more than 113,000 veterans who accessed the agency’s homeless services and found just 15 percent moved across large geographic areas during a two-year period.

“The converse of this is that over five-sixths of this study group were stationary or moved only in a local context,” the analysis says. “Even when looking only at those veterans who were homeless for extended episodes, migration is more the exception than the norm.”

The net result for the VA region that includes San Diego, other parts of Southern California and southern Nevada further drives home the insignificance of homeless migration.

Researcher Stephen Metraux found 14 percent of those who utilized VA homeless services in the region moved out and 13 percent moved in – meaning there was actually a net loss of 107 veterans in the region.

Metraux also emphasized that there wasn’t a massive movement to warmer weather cities like San Diego during the winter months.

“There was a modest seasonal migration effect from colder climates to warmer regions,” he wrote.

Myth: Many of San Diego’s homeless aren’t interested in getting off the streets.

It’s a comment often expressed in exasperation when the conversation turns to ending homelessness in San Diego, a goal that can seem insurmountable after years of effort.

Many homeless people in San Diego don’t want help. They prefer life on the street, they say.

San Diego authorities do face big challenges as they try to get the homeless into shelter but the truth is far more complicated than this myth implies.

For one, many people do want to get in shelter but can face weeks-long waits and seemingly complex sign-up processes to get into those beds. The latter can be enough to discourage some people.

More crucially, shelters aren’t always inviting places for the homeless. Many are uncertain the resources being offered will work for them.

Some shelters have rules that frustrate homeless people. They can’t drink or must abide by a curfew. Or they can’t sleep beside their partners or bring their pets. Forced to choose between a roof and their closest companions, many choose their companions.

Then there’s the fact that many of the folks who seem most resistant to getting off the street aren’t apt to quickly trust those who offer them a path. They may not view life on the street as the ideal option but they do see it as a safer option.

When I’ve pressed homeless folks who seem disinterested in shelter, most have told me they haven’t found an option that works for them, or at least acknowledged they’d like to get off the street eventually. The right scenario might change their minds. They just haven’t been convinced that an existing option could work for them.

Experts say it often takes weeks or months to persuade a person who’s been on the streets for years to take up the offer of housing, let alone shelter.

“People need to understand that we’re dealing with people that have experienced the trauma of homelessness and other life traumas,” Diaz said. “Something has to happen to establish trust and open the lines of communication.”

When that happens, lives can change.

Exhibit A is Project 25, the collaboration between Father Joe’s Villages and a handful of other entities. Father Joe’s initially targeted 34 homeless San Diegans racking up significant emergency service bills and put them in permanent housing with access to around-the-clock medical care and case workers, saving more than $2 million in 2013 alone.

But getting folks to enter the program wasn’t always easy.

Project 25 director Marc Stevenson often talks about Douglas “Hutch” Hutchinson, who struggled with alcoholism and health issues on the street.

Before they could help Hutchinson, case managers had to find him. Then they had to earn his trust.

“It took us four months to really engage with him and get him on board with what we were trying to do,” Stevenson has said.

Hutchinson was dubbed a Project 25 success story before his death in 2014.

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