A Review of Wednesday’s San Diego Union-Tribune Forum on the Homeless Crisis

By:  Ridgeway Woulfe

PIAC was in attendance for the second in the San Diego Union-Tribune’s series of forums discussing the local homelessness crisis, held in the Balboa Theatre on Wednesday, October 25.  In a beautiful setting, a series of private and non-profit homelessness leaders spoke about the topic before turning to a question and answer portion.  The question and answer portion took chosen questions from written questions the audience was permitted to submit throughout the evening.

The event was littered with optimism and focus toward San Diego becoming a national leader in working to reduce homelessness issues.  Most speakers energetically expressed their excitement with San Diego’s new approach of housing-first, which makes the foremost goal providing permanent housing, shifting away from its previous focus on transitional housing.  Video profiles of people succeeding after becoming homeless interspersed the speakers all evening.  For all of the optimism and touching moments illuminated by the event, it did fall short on the details of San Diego’s plans moving forward (aside from optimism surrounding the city’s plan to implement 3 tent cities in the coming months).

The evening began with an introduction from the UT’s editor, Jeff Light.  Gary Warth, a reporter for the newspaper, then spoke about the severity of the issue and what led the city to this perilous situation.  He pointed to the fact that while over 8,000 affordable housing units were built in the last 12 years, over 10,000 had been lost.  He then noted that tent-living has risen 59% throughout the county and over 100% in the downtown area.  These facts, he said, demonstrate that the homelessness crisis is not all in our minds, but that the issue has been getting worse and more visible.

From there, the speakers turned away from newspaper personnel, beginning with new CEO of the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless, Gordon Walker.  Walker’s message was one of measured, consistent work towards reducing homelessness.  He urged best practices, data collection, and housing-first approaches.  Throughout the night, Walker was steadfast in using best practices, with no elaboration as to the details.

Next, Amy Gonyeau, the CEO of the Alpha Project, took the stage to express optimism regarding tent cities.  She focused upon the tent city of 20th and B Street, which she said was completed in 10 days.  She was elated by the 200 people (including 40 children) which are currently on site.  She emphasized that these people are currently safe and secure, receiving a stable food supply.  Gonyeau was also excited for new permanent housing for veterans being built.  Ruth Bruland, the Chief Programming Officer of Father Joe’s Village, took the stage in a call to action.  She discussed her story, two stories of homeless individuals that succeeded, and the story of us as an audience following destiny to help the homeless.

Following these speakers, Richard Schnell, retired SDPD sergeant and founder of the Homeless Outreach Team, spoke about how police should confront homelessness.  His tact was “Triple C,” meaning compassion, communication, and consistency.  He strongly emphasized that “homelessness is not a crime,” and that jail and a ticket book had to be a last resort.  He emphasized the need for police to ask homeless people to do something rather than telling them.  Schnell’s message was that police and people generally should treat the homeless with compassion.

Padres managing partner and philanthropist Peter Seidler then took the stage, representing the private sector.  He brought energy and optimism, describing the new approach toward collaboration.  He discussed monthly/bi-monthly symposiums with San Diego leaders to address the issues.  His consistent message was on forward momentum, urging movement forward on the areas where people agree, casting aside differences to find solutions.

The speaker portion closed with Veronica Hughes, a formerly homeless mother of two and SDSU student with an internship with the FBI.  Hughes explained the problems she personally encountered as a homeless person that did not meet one of the normal homeless stereotypes (e.g. veteran, addict, domestic abuse victim).  Despite being in a group that equates to a quarter of the homeless population in San Diego County, Hughes said that she experienced great difficulty in finding a shelter which would accept her.  With her only options being downtown shelters where she felt unsafe, Hughes instead lived in her car with her son.  She emphasized the need for shelters to be placed throughout the county, and for the county to create more options for people that are simply being priced out of their homes.

After Hughes moving story, the night turned to a Q and A with all the speakers.  The program was so inundated with audience questions that the program extended more than a half hour beyond its scheduled ending time, with unasked questions promised to be answered via Facebook in the coming days.  One of the most notable responses was Walker’s recognition that 77% of San Diego’s homeless population last had a San Diego zip code, debunking the myth that San Diego’s homeless are from other regions. Later, Siedler avoided pointing fingers regarding the Hepatitis A outbreak, calling it random.  When the panel asked the next steps, the only concrete answer came from Gonyeau’s plea for landlords to accept homeless applicants, as acceptance has been difficult even where funding is secured.  The evening concluded with PIAC’s own question, asking the panel to describe steps being taken to prevent Constitutional violations regarding seizure of property and right to exist in downtown neighborhoods.  The panel struggled to answer, with the former SDPD sergeant acknowledging that despite Triple C efforts, things are not always handled properly.  He said that there is a great need for advocates to make sure that these rights are protected.

Wednesday was a night to demonstrate the city’s unity in pursuing solutions.  It was a night to show the importance of finding solutions and to highlight the strides that have been made.  In spite of the audience being left seeking details about the best practices that the city is implementing, Wednesday’s event was a night which inspired hope for the direction of homelessness reduction in San Diego.

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