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In the short term, city and county leaders should take steps to get homeless people as many resources as they can as quickly as possible.
Some San Diego business leaders are finally figuring out what local homeless advocates have been saying for a long time: The majority of the region’s homeless population could be sheltered in a matter of months for a shockingly trivial price.
The mega-tent solution recently proposed at a symposium on homelessness at the University of San Diego by restaurateur Dan Shea and Padres managing partner Pete Seidler, however, has proven to be highly unsafe for women, families and other vulnerable people.
The reality is that homeless people are a microcosm of our society, where violence against women, children, seniors, disabled people and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is far too common. And when violence is a contributing factor leading to the loss of safe housing, survivors often avoid traditional shelters and become the hidden homeless who are under-counted in the annual census of homeless San Diegans.
There are many other challenges with mega-tents and temporary homeless shelters. They often lack secure storage space, which puts valuables at risk of theft or vandalism. Many operate on restricted hours to accommodate food service and other activities. And most do not welcome pets. And there are other barriers to entry, such as requiring sobriety.
A coalition of homeless advocates of which we’re part, Voices of the City Coalition, has been advocating for the implementation of a campground where people can safely park and sleep in their vehicles, tents and small cabins. The campground could be housed in the parking lot at Qualcomm Stadium, or at the Chargers Park training facility.
The city of Seattle has been operating group campgrounds since 2015. The city estimates costs at just $17 per day, per person. Incidentally, that’s the same amount Shea quoted for the cost to house homeless people in mega-tents.
Seattle’s model of transitional housing also helps people develop a sense of community. It provides supportive services, to encourage healing, accountability and independence: From a homeless person’s perspective, living in a legal encampment with food, water, toilets, a kitchen, security and case management services is a far cry from trying to survive alone on the street.
Each campground in Seattle has a city-mandated Community Advisory Committee composed of neighbors, businesses and church groups that monitor progress, give feedback and lend support. Each site has social workers helping families and individuals connect quickly to housing, employment and education so that living in a tent or a tiny house is not a dead end.
Everyone has duties and chores at Seattle’s camps, they must follow a code of conduct and they are accountable to the community.
These kinds of campgrounds work better than mega-tent and brick-and-mortar shelters.
Currently, homeless people are not having their most basic physical and safety needs met in San Diego. They struggle with hepatitis, mental illness, exposure to heat and other hazards.
There’s been a national move toward doing away with transitional housing and getting homeless people in permanent housing instead. While that may be the best long-term solution, it will take years for San Diego to get to a place where it can immediately house all the people living on our streets right now. In the short term, city and county leaders should take steps to get homeless people as many resources as they can as quickly as possible.
It’s time for San Diego to follow Seattle’s example.
Lori Saldaña is a former state Assembly member who chaired the Committee on Housing and Community Development. She’s also a professor of business information technology for the San Diego Community College District. Martha Sullivan is a small business owner and a volunteer with Women Occupy San Diego.