The Lack of Political Will: Why San Diego’s Homelessness Won’t Get Better without a Change in Its Leadership’s Mentality

By:  Ridgeway Woulfe

At the San Diego Union-Tribune’s forum on the homeless crisis on October 25, one set of buzzwords was brought up repeatedly struck a chord – political will.  Gordon Walker, the new CEO of the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless, outlined three needs for a city to appropriately address homelessness.  The first was political will, or the willingness to fund the appropriate solutions and best practices.  The phrase was repeated by many of the speakers throughout the night, emphasizing the positive responses that have taken place in San Diego, especially after the nationally-covered Hepatitis A outbreak.

It is hard to share the panel’s optimism regarding the political will of the city’s leadership given its historical (and present) treatment of homeless individuals.  Unquestionably, uncountable numbers of San Diego’s citizenship care about the homeless, and even the most dispassionate want to find a solution to the crisis at this point.  But, as an old Slovenian saying prescribes, “watch their feet, not their mouths.”  In other words, look to a person’s actions to determine where their will lies, rather than what they say they want.  The city’s feet struggle to show the same compassion as their mouths.

In San Diego’s case, there is a foundational question that does not get addressed in the pursuit of solutions.  Are we looking to help the people of San Diego by addressing their struggles with homelessness, or are we looking to help the people of San Diego by removing the blight of homelessness from their sight?  Understandable, though it is, to not address such a divisive question, the lack of clarity allows for leaders to discuss the need for compassion while ordering and allowing actions that show the opposite.  So, with that in mind, this post will address the dispassionate actions which seem to some of San Diego’s leaders do not have the political will needed to truly address this crisis.

Since it is the biggest issue currently confronting the city, let’s begin with the Hepatitis A outbreak.  At the forum, Padres managing partner Peter Seidler called the outbreak a “random occurrence,” but the truth is, concerns about the outbreak were reported before it spread.  Deaths occurred without city action, despite concerns that it would spread further.  It spread, to the point of killing 19 within San Diego County and spreading to other regions of Southern California.  Now that the national spotlight has shined on San Diego and its response, a plan has been announced that would permit 3 tent cities across the city, where the residents will have access to washroom facilities and safe sleeping arrangements.  This has been embraced with optimism, but falls far short of a response befitting the crisis before the city.  It’s enough to turn the tides politically, but not enough to truly address the problems.

Turning to the random occurrence stance, there is genuine cause and effect.  The outbreak started due to a lack of public restroom facilities.  Homeless citizens have been unable to wash their hands, let alone bathe, across much of the city.  They have been left without enough accessible places to defecate.  Given that the disease spreads through fecal matter or oral transmissions, the lack of access to a proper depository or the ability to wash its residue off one’s hands is the cause.  Most San Diegans who have traversed downtown have borne witness to piles of the results lying on our sidewalks.  This isn’t an issue of people preferring this method, but a lack of other options for how to deal with this basic need.  Advocates pushed for greater access to public restrooms, but the city closed existing ones and did not maintain others.  After the outbreak, hand-washing stations and bathrooms were delayed in being installed.  Without national criticism, the City of San Diego’s government remained unwilling to address its population’s needs.

The City has not only demonstrated dispassion through inaction.  In a well-publicized action to address homelessness, the government made a $50,000 expenditure in the form of “rock garden” underneath an overpass on Imperial Avenue.  The “rock garden” was intended to prevent homeless individuals from sleeping there, with reports attributing it to help with visibility for the 2016 MLB All-Star game.  Not only is installing jagged rocks to prevent sleeping not a compassionate response, but it is an ineffective and expensive measure, as people still sleep alongside the rocks.

Comparatively, the rock garden is a small effort by the city.  Simply ‘liking’ Homelessness News San Diego will expose the user to countless videos of city officials taking and throwing away homeless people’s possessions.  People have been forced away from the downtown area and other high-value properties.  When I was interning in San Diego from Chicago, tents lined C Street.  It was intimidating, but still felt safe.  To the untrained eye, it may appear as good news that those tents are no longer present.  But they are not gone, just relocated.  Some have gone to the closest possible space they are permitted to sleep, while others have spread to communities which are ill-equipped to address the needs of homeless citizens.  Arrest records and fines grow for so many homeless people, making their chances of success dwindle, all in the effort to encourage expensive developments to come in.  This is not a compassionate approach to helping individuals, but a dispassionate pursuit of economic development.

Until the City’s efforts to criminalize and displace homeless persons ceases, it is difficult to see San Diego’s political will amounting to more than words.  For all of the strides made, too many actions show the will of too many of San Diego’s political leaders.

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