Gloria is mayor of San Diego and lives in Downtown.
Recently, while blessing Saint Teresa of Calcutta Villa, a new affordable housing project in the East Village, Bishop John Dolan quoted a proverb: “It is far better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
We provide this platform for community feedback for free. Thank you to all Union-Tribune subscribers whose support makes our journalism possible. If you’re not a subscriber, consider becoming one today.
The line resonated with me when it came to homelessness, an issue where many San Diegan residents curse the darkness. And I certainly understand that. Residents don’t see progress and are frustrated, impatient and angry. I’m too.
But cursing the darkness will do nothing; only action will improve a crisis that has worsened during the pandemic and threatens to worsen further with the sharp rise in rents. Am I frustrated? Yes. But I’m not desperate. It’s because I know my administration has a plan, and that plan can work to end people’s homelessness.
We saw this plan in action recently when we opened Villa Sainte Therese in Calcutta. The project has 407 apartments for people experiencing homelessness or at risk, and 270 of them include support services to help residents cope with the challenges that contribute to their homelessness – whether addiction, mental illness, disability or other problems.
Of the first residents to move into the supportive housing units of this project, 100 came directly from our network of shelters. This is precisely how it’s supposed to work. Shelters are meant to be a pathway to housing that will eventually end people’s homelessness.
One of the main challenges we face is that many people camping on our sidewalks or in canyons and riverbeds don’t want to live in a communal setting – which is what most of our shelters are – so they refuse the offers of beds in these facilities.
Their reasons for refusing accommodation are as varied as the factors at the origin of their homelessness. Admittedly, life in a shelter is not ideal; it often makes sense that a person would prefer the autonomy of a tent.
But we just can’t be a city that allows people to move wherever they want. It’s dangerous, it’s unhealthy, and it speaks ill of us all if we don’t do anything about the misery and despair.
Shelters provide immediate safety from street hazards – cold temperatures, crime, communicable diseases that can result from unsanitary conditions in encampments or horrific tragedies like what happened last year, when a motorist jumped off a sidewalk and killed three homeless residents near the city’s San Diego College.
But shelters are not – and are not meant to be – the end point of our response to homelessness.
This is a temporary but essential step on the way to permanent housing. Villa Sainte Therese de Calcutta was the most recent example of this shelter-to-housing pipeline, but there are many more on the way.
Soon, City Council will consider for approval seven affordable housing projects made possible by the city’s new Bridge to Home program that helps fund the chasm affordable housing developers face when trying to make projects work financially.
These seven projects, which received approximately $32 million in Bridge to Home funding, will create 662 apartments, including 193 reserved for the chronically homeless. We are raising more state and federal dollars for another round of Bridge to Home funding, while continuing to work to secure state funding to acquire existing properties that can be turned into permanent, supportive housing. .
Two weeks ago, I signed into law the first of several sets of policies under my Homes For All of Us initiative. This package includes a series of reforms that will make it easier to create housing for people of all levels of income in San Diego, easing the severe housing shortage that is driving up rents and home prices.
Of course, lack of housing is not the only factor that causes homelessness on the streets. We know that behavioral health and substance use disorders are a major factor for many people. We are therefore looking for ways to reorganize a broken system and help people access the care they need to improve their situation.
I will be one of the major city mayors in California to help design policies and pass laws to implement Governor Gavin Newsom’s recently announced Care Court initiative. Care Court will take referrals – from families, first responders and others – for people in serious need of treatment for a mental health disorder and provide them with a team to develop and support a comprehensive care plan for their illness. Although some elements of the plan are mandatory, Care Court is designed to serve a population that may not qualify for the more intense guardianship care model.
All of these measures to address the conditions that cause homelessness take time to implement. In the meantime, we will not allow street encampments to grow unchecked. We have outreach workers who provide shelter and services, our environmental services staff who keep sidewalks clean, and law enforcement officers who protect public health and safety.
Addressing homelessness in this way takes constant and intensive effort. And that takes time. This crisis did not appear overnight and will not be resolved overnight. But we have a plan, and we are acting on it.
The people who do the work, day in and day out, need our support for this complex and difficult endeavour, including positive and constructive ideas.
Let’s resist the urge to curse the darkness. Instead, let’s catch the candles.
This essay is in the print edition of The San Diego Union-Tribune on March 28, 2022, with the title, Our homelessness plan will take time to execute