‘A tableau of suffering’: seaside city of San Diego faces a dark homelessness crisis

A “tableau of squalor and suffering” isn’t what comes to mind when people think of San Diego, a town with the motto “America’s finest city” and a reputation for its craft-beer culture and miles of beaches. But the pejorative is how Dan McSwain, a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, described the city’s homelessness crisis in a piece last year, the first in a series pillorying city leaders for not doing more to address the issue.

Since then the situation has, if anything, worsened.

Outside in America is a year-long series on homelessness in the western US. The project focuses on people on the frontline of a devastating crisis and enables readers to take action to help solve the problem.

More from this series

A recent count found a dramatic 104% increase in “tents and hand-built structures” located downtown,for a total of 418, compared to 2016. Driving through East Village, a gentrifying neighborhood on the edge of downtown, it’s tough to find a street that doesn’t have a tarp or tent – or dozens. People with neither tent nor tarp fashion makeshift shelters out of shopping carts, storage bins and blankets.

Helming the city during this crisis – and also the focus of criticism for what some onlookers call a failure to address it effectively – is San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer. A moderate Republican in a predominantly Democratic city, he acknowledges that homelessness may be the defining issue of his term.

“We cannot just do what we’ve always been doing. It’s not working,” he said recently from his downtown office. Just before his interview with the Guardian, he had attended one of multiple weekly meetings focused solely on homelessness.

The issue is not new in San Diego. Nearly three decades ago, then-mayor Maureen O’Connor spent two days sleeping on the street, incognito, to get a better sense of the problem. But ambiguity over who is responsible for providing the bulk of homeless services, namely the city or the county in which it is located, has resulted in years of finger-pointing and stagnation.

A homeless man pushed a grocery cart with his belongings in San Diego, California. The city has seen a 104% increase in tents downtown since last year. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

There has been a steady increase in the homeless population under Faulconer’s watch; about 5,600 homeless people were recently counted in the city, and the county’s numbers place it among the top five US metro regions. Still, it would be tough to argue this is Faulconer’s fault.

Other large west coast cities with high housing costs have seen similar increases; in San Diego, apartment rents average more than $1,700 a month. And since 2003, more than 5,000 residential hotel units, often considered the housing of last resort, have been demolished or converted into boutique hotels.

The situation has prompted frustration on all sides, and proposals that are a little off-the-wall: a pair of businessmen recently suggested banning camping downtown and restricting it to a site 13 miles outside the city. (They called it Camp Hope.) It may not be helping matters that the mayor’s point person on homelessness left her post last week without explanation.

A southern California native, Faulconer started off in 2006 as a city councilman who had an uneasy relationship with homelessness. He repeatedly opposed locating a temporary emergency shelter in his downtown district. And he voiced support for arresting or ticketing people who sleep in public overnight. But since his election as mayor in 2014, Faulconer, either by will or force, seems to have grasped the severity of the issue.

Critics says San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer has failed to address homelessness effectively. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

In 2016, for instance, he allocated $3.3m to homelessness programs on top of the federal funding the city receives. He has also proposed an increase in the city’s hotel-room tax, a portion of which would go to homeless programs. The tax would need to be approved by voters, but Faulconer says he has the support of hoteliers and the city’s tourism industry, who’ve complained that homelessness is impacting their bottom line. One hotel manager said he recently had to scrambleto stop the cancellation of an event worth $500,000 after a planner said she didn’t feel safe outside.

But while many San Diegans might wish for a quick fix, it is proving difficult to bring people off the streets.

Despite the rising homeless numbers, shelter usage is actually down, even on rainy nights when the city makes additional beds available. “Most folks out there, they think the best thing they have going is their tent,” said Bob McElroy, CEO of the Alpha Project, one of the city’s largest homeless services providers.

Alpha Project has submitted a proposal to the city for an intake center with a “sleeping courtyard” that would accommodate up to 150 people and a camping space with room for 25 tents. Over a three-year period, the project would expand to include 700 units of permanent housing.

The idea of a safe space to pitch her tent is appealing to Lawell Brooks, a 29-year-old who sleeps under a blue tarp. On a recent morning, it was one of more than two dozen tents and tarp structures pushed up against a fenced-in empty lot in East Village. “I could probably have gotten a job by now,” she said, “but I don’t want to leave my stuff.”

Volunteers check in hundreds of homeless people to a temporary downtown shelter in San Diego. Photograph: George Rose/Getty Images

The contours of her life are defined by her living situation. Each morning, she makes a quick trip two blocks over to a facility called Father Joe’s Villages,to take a shower and get dressed so she doesn’t appear to be residing outside. She’s been arrested simply for sleeping under her tarp, a violation of a city law banning “any vegetation or object” from being in the public right-of-way. Now she pays close attention to the signs on fences and light poles announcing when police and city workers will be conducting a clean-up.

Michael McConnell, a homeless advocate who lives downtown, regularly documents these sweeps on social media; his posts suggest their futility. They show that a street cleared by mid-morning will be full of tents again within hours.

Addressing homelessness means recognizing that one size doesn’t fit all, he said. McConnell supports the idea of giving people a safe place to sleep and having street outreach workers, not police, keep tabs on folks. Some might only need a few months of rental assistance, or help finding a landlord who’ll accept a housing voucher, he said. In other cases, it could take months before an outreach worker gains someone’s trust.

He is realistic about the city’s future.“People are not going to just disappear,” he said.

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