Homeless Crisis Is Solvable, But Won't Yield To Political Timidity

She hired a special assistant, Mandy Chapman Semple, as the city’s primary point of contact on homelessness. “One throat to choke,” as the former mayor puts it.

They spent the next couple of years identifying sources of funding and redirecting spending. This was essentially how Salt Lake City officials launched their dramatically successful effort in 2004. In Houston as in Utah, the process provoked blowback.

“What most large cities have is a lot of really good nonprofits doing great work with the homeless. But they all want to hold onto their piece of cheese. Everybody works in parallel,” Parker said. “I had to be willing to be unpopular with some great organizations.”

Houston officials found that shelters and transitional programs were used mostly by people who were homeless temporarily because of major life events, and rarely returned.

As is the case in San Diego, the big shortfall in Houston came in providing for the chronics, who by definition are so disabled that few can return to independent living.

So Houston got busy building several thousand apartment units, complete with ongoing social and medical services, to permanently house the chronically homeless. Parker replaced the head of the city’s housing commission.

Hard choices have few friends

Adding units for the homeless required pulling resources from other low-income programs, which caused heartburn among progressives. And it provoked social conservatives who didn’t like the idea of handing keys to people actively addicted to alcohol or other drugs.

“Why would you give housing to some deadbeat?” Parker said. “They are there (on the street), they aren’t going away. If you want a different result, you need to do things differently.”

Houston also created incentives for chronically homeless to accept all this new help.

“We also did some tough-love things, I got vilified from coast to coast. We passed some ordinances that limited the ability of people to feed the homeless. If you’re going to feed more than six people, you need a permit,” Parker said. “I had pastors coming down to council for weeks telling me I hated the homeless.”

To help keep her accountable, she formed a business advisory council that included an archbishop, major philanthropist, head of the downtown business group and others. Every other month, the mayor and her adviser reported their progress to this council and listened to feedback.

Once the business community started to see tangible progress, private funding increased as well as broadened beyond the usual donors. A pastor recently disclosed that Beyoncé, the music mogul, had given $7 million anonymously over the course of several years to house the homeless of Houston.

Can San Diego embrace this basic approach, of compassion combined with hard-nosed fiscal conservatism, to solve its crisis? Absolutely, if a leader will step forward.

Paradoxically, the dramatic decline in conditions for the homeless also boosts the opportunities to emerge as a great reformer.

Politically speaking, Faulconer’s greatest risk may come from doing too little.

San Diego’s latest homeless population explosion coincides almost precisely with the first three years of his term. This mayor didn’t cause the crisis by himself, but he surely owns it now.

Herbert Hoover didn’t cause the Great Depression, yet the public saw the nation’s vast homeless encampments as “Hoovervilles.” If our booming tent cities aren’t yet “Faulconervilles,” they soon will be.

The mayor seems to realize that history is calling.

His plan outlined this month would add 300 emergency shelter beds, deploy 10 more psychiatrists to an outreach unit, urge nonprofits to use an existing database, and solicit proposals for an “intake” center.

Mayor floats hotel tax hike

And, most speculatively, Faulconer said he would ask voters to raise hotel taxes to expand the convention center and fix roads, with a portion going for the homeless.

Let’s not beat around the bush. Along with being inadequate, much of the mayor’s plan so far is either naive or downright cynical.

For example, those 300 shelter beds don’t even make up for recent losses. In 2015, cheered by Faulconer, the city stopped erecting winter tents and instead funded 350 year-round shelter beds at Father Joe’s Villages.

But the city didn’t add beds somewhere else, so incoming shelter occupants simply shoved out homeless people trying to recover in Father Joe’s transitional programs. San Diego needs to triple the mayor’s number, right away.

Or consider the intake center. Great idea; a key ingredient to success in Houston and other cities.

That’s why homeless advocates in San Diego prepared a detailed plan to locate one at the edge of downtown, on 7 acres of the city’s maintenance yard at B Street and 20th Avenue. It could securely house 800 homeless people in a contained, campus setting with access to full social and medical services, nearly eliminating San Diego’s downtown problem in a matter of months.

The proposal has been on Faulconer’s desk since at least August. So why is he asking for proposals in January? Good question.

Then there’s the convention center tax hike. If voters shunned higher hotel taxes in November to keep the Chargers — after rejecting a 2004 hike for public safety — what makes Faulconer think voters will embrace the homeless and the hotel industry in 2018?

I give the mayor credit for making a beginning.

Faulconer hired a assistant, Stacie Spector, to focus on homelessness policy. His Housing Our Heroes program, in less than 10 months, has helped about 500 people secure homes using Veterans Administration vouchers.

Relief for all renters, maybe

And in the long run, the mayor’s proposal to speed permitting and increase density for private-sector developments could — if boldly expanded someday — unchain the market forces required to solve the region’s overall affordability crisis.

Some say San Diego could never build units like Houston can. It’s just not true. 

Our shocking housing costs flow directly from restrictive zoning, hefty fees and neighborhood opposition that chokes supply. Like the region’s homeless population, all renters and would-be homebuyers suffer at the hands of local policy.

Yet so far, Faulconer’s efforts echo San Diego’s past: Talk up some new spending and hope the problem goes away. There is much more he could do.

First, the mayor should declare a public emergency and refocus resources on the most needy.

Source : http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/business/columnists/dan-mcswain/sd-fi-mcswain-homeless-mayor-20170126-story.html

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