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No Room to Rest — Series Part 1: La Jolla meeting on homelessness illustrates urgency of a ‘wicked problem’

A homeless person sleeps on a bench at Girard Avenue and Coast Boulevard in La Jolla in October.
(Alice Rosenblatt)

This new La Jolla Light series looks at homelessness in La Jolla, explores the complicated factors that contribute to it and highlights the various viewpoints about potential solutions.

“We’re not going to solve homelessness. We’re not going to solve mental health tonight. We’re not going to solve criminal behavior. But hopefully we will leave this meeting with a greater knowledge and awareness of the resources available, the importance it has to our community and the multiple challenges facing us.”

With those words, La Jolla Town Council President Jerri Hunt opened the group’s Nov. 10 meeting, inviting 15 panelists to speak for five minutes each about their thoughts and contributions addressing homelessness. An extended public comment period followed.

The forum at the packed La Jolla Recreation Center and online was held about three weeks after a homeless man was arrested on suspicion of using a box cutter to cut the hand of the Rev. Pat Mulcahy, pastor of La Jolla’s Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church, during an altercation Oct. 18 outside the church’s school, Stella Maris Academy, on Herschel Avenue.

A recent incident involving a homeless man attacking and cutting the hand of the Rev.

The suspect was set to appear in court this month. No further information was immediately available.

The incident set off a robust discussion within the community and on social media about the local homeless population, prompting several people to weigh in on various platforms.

Homelessness by the numbers

From left, Francie Moss, Drew Moser, Joanne Standlee and Dr. Aaron Meyer
From left, Stella Maris Academy Principal Francie Moss, homeless advocates Drew Moser and Joanne Standlee and psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Meyer give their thoughts about homelessness.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

According to the nonprofit San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness, the city of San Diego had about 4,800 homeless people as of the 2022 Point-in-Time Count in February (the numbers were released in May). Of those, 2,307 were “sheltered” (with some kind of temporary roof over their heads, such as in a shelter or transitional housing) and 2,494 were “unsheltered” (living on the street or in a park or vehicle). The unsheltered figure was a 9 percent increase over the 2020 count. The sheltered number was an 11 percent drop.

Countywide, the 2022 count reported 8,427 people experiencing homelessness, a 10 percent increase from 2020. That number includes 4,106 unsheltered and 4,321 sheltered.

Homelessness in San Diego has been at “an all-time high six out of the last 10 months,” said Drew Moser, executive director of the nonprofit Lucky Duck Foundation, which seeks to fund shelters and homeless support programs locally.

For every 10 people who are housed, 13 more become homeless, according to the Regional Task Force on Homelessness.

Homelessness is “a social or cultural problem that is so difficult or impossible to solve because of the interconnected and complex systems involved.”

— Dr. Aaron Meyer, psychiatrist at UC San Diego Health

Task force Chief Executive Tamera Kohler said at the Town Council meeting that 25 percent of the homeless population is older than 55, with 60 percent of those having “a physical disability that hinders their ability to take care of their basic needs.”

“We’re also seeing a significant increase in families experiencing homelessness” because of increasing housing costs and low vacancy rates that make housing “unaffordable and unattainable,” Kohler said.

The solution to homelessness is a home, she said. “All the other conditions get better and can be treated when someone has a place to call home and can begin to recover.”

Impact on La Jolla

Panelist Francie Moss, principal of Stella Maris Academy, said “most of the safety concerns our school and parish community have encountered are related to homeless, drug-addicted or mentally ill individuals.”

In the past year, Moss said, the school has spent $16,250 on cameras for the campus, $36,146 on additional wrought-iron fencing, $2,600 for trash enclosures and $5,300 for a gate for its athletic court, among other security-related expenses.

“I’ve picked up human waste,” Moss said. “I’ve been called terrible names in front of my students while they were crossing the street. We’ve experienced a person shouting vulgar language, including one who literally threatened to burn down our school. I’ve missed work to be present in court.”

Moss said she hopes for collaborative solutions to keep the community safe while showing compassion for those in need.

Government and public safety support

Hafsa Kaka, director of San Diego’s new Homelessness Strategies and Solutions Department
Hafsa Kaka, director of San Diego’s new Homelessness Strategies and Solutions Department, discusses what the city does to combat homelessness.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Hafsa Kaka, who directs the city of San Diego’s new Homelessness Strategies and Solutions Department, told the Town Council that the city funds outreach events in La Jolla and across the city.

In September, she said, 1,731 unhoused people were connected to housing, shelter and resources.

“We have 1,666 shelter beds in the city,” she said, with 90 percent of them occupied on any given day. “The fact that folks are utilizing the shelter is incredible.”

The city also is progressing on “three non-congregate shelters where folks have their own room,” Kaka said. One is dedicated to medically fragile senior citizens, one to families and one that will be LGBTQ-affirming.

Kaka said Mayor Todd Gloria’s “Homes for All of Us” program, introduced last year, contains initiatives to “create a quicker inflow into housing.”

The city also is working with San Diego County officials on mental health supports, conservatorship reform and more, she said.

Dijana Beck, director of the county’s Office of Homeless Solutions, said the county works “to help people get signed up to federal and state benefits they’re entitled to,” along with coordinated outreach efforts to tell people on the streets about available services.

The county’s Regional Homeless Assistance Program, which began in 2020, has been credited with providing temporary shelter to more than 1,000 people by giving vouchers for 22 hotels around the county. It also has helped more than 300 people find some type of permanent housing, county officials say.

However, the city of El Cajon recently blamed it for a surge in homeless people, crime and drug use.

El Cajon reported an uptick in criminal activity at participating hotels, but other cities are not seeing any correlation

Jeffrey Yuen, senior adviser for county Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, whose District 3 includes La Jolla, said the county does not provide shelters but recently provided $10 million to cities for shelters and is committed “to bringing behavioral health services to those shelters.”

Yuen said the county also is studying each homeless subpopulation, such as senior citizens and people experiencing domestic violence, “to really start preventing them from becoming homeless.”

The La Jolla Town Council presents a packed community forum Nov. 10 to discuss homelessness.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Capt. Erwin Manansala of the San Diego Police Department’s Northern Division, which includes La Jolla, said “homelessness is a chief concern among the residents … particularly in the La Jolla area.”

“We’re doing the best with the limited resources we have,” he said. “We are working with our community leaders, community groups, elected officials and service providers out here to mitigate this issue the best we can.”

Manansala said “we are responsible for public safety writ large for the division,” which includes homelessness issues but also property crime, traffic safety, violent crime and more.

A ‘broken’ system

Joanne Standlee, co-founder and executive director of La Jolla-based nonprofit Housing 4 the Homeless, said the statistics on homelessness speak to “a system that’s terribly broken.”

Dr. Aaron Meyer, a psychiatrist at UC San Diego Health who spoke on the Town Council panel on his own behalf and not for his employer, called homelessness a “wicked problem … a social or cultural problem that is so difficult or impossible to solve because of the interconnected and complex systems involved.”

Meyer, an inpatient psychiatrist in the emergency department, said he’s not an expert on homelessness, but he “can tell you what tragedy looks like. And I can tell you what moral distress looks like from a perspective of a physician. And the helplessness that happens every day.”

He said he often will try to connect an unhoused senior citizen with county Adult Protective Services but can’t “because self-neglect is an exclusion criteria for somebody with chronic homelessness.”

Further compounding the problem, Meyer said, is that “this unhoused senior might have cognitive impairment or dementia, and you can’t admit them to the hospital because that’s not a criteria that a hospital can receive reimbursement for.”

In some cases, a senior also can’t be referred to a shelter because “they’re not independent with their activities of daily living.”

Meyer said the senior will then be turned onto the street.

“We dramatically need an increase in skilled nursing facilities for custodial placement,” Meyer said. He added that existing placements come with waiting lists so long that they preclude others from joining.

La Jollan Amie Zamudio, co-founder of local nonprofit Housing 4 the Homeless
La Jollan Amie Zamudio, co-founder of local nonprofit Housing 4 the Homeless, speaks about the threat of homelessness for senior citizens.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Community advocate and Housing 4 the Homeless co-founder Amie Zamudio, who is up at 2 a.m. daily to check on local homeless people, said “people like Dr. Meyer and I are on the front lines of this crisis for our seniors. They literally have nowhere to go.”

“Our elders are one of our fastest-growing populations of people,” Zamudio said. “We cannot ask the seniors to get up and move to another state.”

She added that “the demands we’re putting on our seniors are completely unreasonable,” made more difficult by advances in technology that many seniors are uncomfortable using.

Nonprofit efforts

Standlee said she was compelled to form Housing 4 the Homeless with Zamudio, a fellow La Jollan, in February 2021 after being frustrated by bureaucratic red tape.

“There’s so many people who care so much about this, but … they are held back by the system,” Standlee said.

Housing 4 the Homeless has “two arms — direct service and advocacy,” she said.

Through direct service, “we focus on the most vulnerable people,” including young children, medically fragile seniors and those with a terminal illness.

The organization also works to get single mothers with young children into transitional housing and older adults into emergency shelters, and to connect others to wraparound, or comprehensive, services.

“It shouldn’t be so hard,” Standlee said.

Through advocacy, Housing 4 the Homeless works to spread awareness of the issue, Standlee said. To further that goal, the organization will present a forum on homelessness at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, at the La Jolla/Riford Library, 7555 Draper Ave.

Moser said the Lucky Duck Foundation’s mission is “to alleviate the suffering of homelessness” by backing programs that will have a “tangible impact on the issue” throughout San Diego County, such as funding shelter beds and employment and job training programs.

Lucky Duck strives to directly help the homeless but also aims to “instigate political will. … We also try to constructively hold elected leaders and elected officials accountable,” Moser said.

The foundation does that by highlighting effective government strategies to address homelessness as well as missteps and “failed opportunities,” he said.

“There’s nothing perfect about addressing homelessness,” Moser said. ‘There’s no perfect strategy or silver bullet. But … we believe we can meaningfully help a lot of people.”

To help those transitioning from homelessness to housing, La Jollans Rob and Treger Strasberg founded Humble Design, a nonprofit interior design company that furnishes homes with donated furniture and decor.

Citing national statistics indicating that 80 percent of previously homeless people will return to the street because of the “psychological difficulty” of choosing between rent and food, Rob Strasberg said Humble Design’s success rate is much higher due to community collaboration. During a Day of Service, local volunteers place the items in each home according to the designers’ plan, though they get some flexibility to decorate as they wish.

Nearly all the people who get into a Humble Design house stay housed, Strasberg said.

La Jollan Ed Witt talks about how Father Joe's Villages serves homeless people.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Getting people into housing is key for La Jollan Ed Witt, a board member for Father Joe’s Villages, a San Diego nonprofit that feeds and places people in transitional housing daily.

However, “permanent housing without supportive services … is usually a failure,” Witt said.

Father Joe’s works to get people into permanent housing with services such as medical, child care and employment aid, Witt said. He added that 95 percent of those placed stay in their housing.

The second installment of the series will look more closely at government services and homeless shelters, exploring what it takes to get a shelter bed — and the obstacles involved.