Rapidly rising numbers of people are living—and dying—on the sidewalks, parks and canyons of San Diego County. San Diego has the fourth-largest homeless population in the country—behind New York, Los Angeles and Seattle–8,741 across the county and 1,162 living outdoors downtown—a 43 percent increase in a single year. In San Diego, 16% of the homeless
are veterans, more than any other city in the top 10.
Living on the street is deadly. One study puts the average life expectancy at 42 years for the chronic unsheltered homeless, compared to nearly 79 for the general population.
Seven people have died in the four months since the opening of Alpha Square, a new building in San Diego’s East Village with 203 permanent apartments for the most damaged people from the streets. None died from violence or overdose.
The Regional Task Force on the Homeless estimates 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. A 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.
And 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.
Why does San Diego have such an acute homelessness crisis? Something is deeply wrong. Unemployment has been falling since 2010. Public funding has poured into local homeless programs by the hundreds of millions each year. Government seems to have turned the problem over to private entities, and they appear to be struggling.
They problem is greatly enhanced because the city chooses to criminalize homelessness and send the police and other agencies to confiscate their tents, blankets and possessions while sweeping them from areas tourists will notice.
A caravan of police cars with flashing lights rolled up on 17th Street east of Petco Park on a recent Monday morning. Officers and city environmental service workers were conducting what’s become a weekly ritual: moving the homeless off the sidewalk. About 160 people live on the street there, and they knew the cops were coming. The city posted warning signs days in advance. The sweeps have occurred every Monday for months.
When the police and city workers moved in around 7 a.m., Shine and his homeless neighbors piled their blankets, tents, mattresses and clothes into carts. They pushed with one hand and used the other to balance buckets and containers on top of their overflowing loads. One woman wheeled a beige couch. A man lugged his gas barbecue. Some pulled pets on leashes.
The homeless headed to the Neil Good Day Center on 17th near K Street. The center operates during daytime hours and is partly funded by the city. It provides bathrooms, and has mail and laundry services for people who live on the streets. On Mondays, the center’s patio is filled with stuffed carts.
“We’re not roaches or ants. We’re human just like them,” said Steven Hillard, who has been homeless for 15 years. “Do they gotta come with five or six police cars with their lights on, like it was a crime scene?”
Advocates for the homeless say the weekly sweeps are an effort to hide the city’s downtown homeless problem before out-of-town tourists arrive. One says, “We know we need more permanent housing. We need more affordable housing. But we also need supportive services to match up with the housing, and we need a better way to connect people up with the resources available.”
Approximately 8,700 people experience homelessness, across San Diego County. Those who have continued exposure to outdoor elements like extreme heat, hypothermia, and frostbite, are at increased risk for developing health conditions, and such conditions can be life threatening. In an effort to lessen the health impacts of exposure during inclement weather, 2-1-1 San Diego provides emergency shelter information and referrals to partner agencies who can accommodate the immediate severe weather housing needs for the homeless.
Women Occupy San Diego is circulating a Change.org petition calling upon Mayor Faulconer to confront the nightmare of homelessness. They are demanding Emergency Humanitarian Action to stop criminalizing homeless people in San Diego. Over 500 people have signed the petition.
© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford