Opinion: San Diego's growing homeless population a growing dilemma for Mayor Todd Gloria

San Diego Union-Tribune
San Diego Union-Tribune
San Diego, California - May 30: Mayor Todd Gloria speaks during a Memorial Day commemoration ceremony at the USS Midway Museum. (Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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“What ending homelessness is about is getting people off the street if they want.” Todd Gloria said that 10 years ago , long before he became mayor of San Diego and the city’s homeless population ballooned on his watch. The problem within the problem was evident to him even then: Getting people off the street if they want. He said that in December 2012 as City Council president when the Downtown San Diego Partnership had tallied 593 homeless people in its monthly unsheltered homeless count.

That’s close to the number of homeless people counted in Downtown San Diego in December 2020 — 622 — when Gloria was sworn in as mayor. Since then that number has soared during the pandemic, to a peak of 1,474 in April. It stood at 1,324 in May .

Now, Gloria is being criticized by many San Diegans, for both the explosion of homelessness throughout the city and his administration’s recent tougher approach, vowing to arrest more homeless people for encroachment and to keep throwing away some of their belongings — “waste,” his aides called it Friday. The crackdown comes as encampments proliferate around the county and as many homeless people habitually decline offers of shelter beds and storage for their stuff. To Gloria’s credit, there are more shelter beds than there were, and more planned, and he sounds humane when he asks people to use them and says concerns about limits on pets, partners and privacy are unfounded because homeless people can stay with loved ones. Monday, he even told them, “You don’t have to be sober.” He says he approaches homelessness with compassion . But there are right ways and wrong ways to try to get people help. Arresting them and punishing them with fines is a fool’s errand. People are on the streets because they don’t have enough money.

Gloria and other city officials told The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board on Friday officers don’t arrest anyone for encroachment until a fourth interaction and city workers who clear out encampments in sweeps only throw a belonging away if people don’t want it, if it is soiled and deemed hazardous or if it is deemed unclaimed or abandoned.

There is, of course, a lot of discretion in those decisions, and they are open to second-guessing. Videos being shared on social media of trash trucks eating tents, walkers, wheelchairs and bikes the city says were relinquished by owners are troubling. What’s clear is city officials must do a better job of getting buy-in from both homeless residents and the public if they want to be seen as helping people.

On the plus side, Gloria has proposed setting aside $200,000 to cover about a quarter of the costs for a “safe camping” pilot program that may be more enticing to homeless people than a large shelter with rules and less freedom. It could be set up somewhere Downtown with spaces for 40 tents for homeless people over 60. It’s a start. If they want it.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune .

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