No Room to Rest — Series Part 5: Communities nationwide take varying approaches to homelessness
This La Jolla Light series looks at local homelessness, explores the complicated factors that contribute to it and highlights the various viewpoints about potential solutions.
Homelessness is prevalent across the country, though different areas face different challenges. Thus far in this series, the La Jolla Light has focused primarily on the city of San Diego — and the La Jolla area in particular — but for this part reached out to communities close by in San Diego County and far across the United States for their perspectives on the problem and how they’ve tried to fight it.
Newly elected Encinitas Mayor Tony Kranz, a member of the City Council for 10 years, said homelessness is widespread in Encinitas and beyond.
“No one is immune,” he said.
According to the nonprofit San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness, Encinitas (which the task force includes with Solana Beach, Del Mar and the San Dieguito Community Plan Area) had 113 homeless people in the 2022 Point-in-Time Count in February (the numbers were released in May). Of those, 37 were “sheltered” (with some kind of temporary roof over their heads, such as in a shelter or transitional housing) and 76 were “unsheltered” (living on the street or in a park or vehicle). The unsheltered figure was a 61.7 percent increase over the 2020 count.
Encinitas, which has a total population of about 63,500, adopted a Homeless Action Plan in February 2021 to outline various actions to increase the city’s efforts to provide services and housing opportunities for those facing homelessness.
“We … have accomplished some and have more still to do,” Kranz told the Light. “I plan to have an opportunity for the council and the community to take a look at what’s in that plan and see if we need to make adjustments.”
The Homeless Action Plan identifies three goals: develop a collaborative community approach to ending homelessness; decrease the number of homeless people through individualized responses and supportive housing services; and increase the availability of housing.
Encinitas doesn’t have a homeless shelter, Kranz said, and it relies on San Diego County to handle health and human services. Social workers placed in the city by the county work to engage with homeless people and connect them to services.
“It gets complicated by people who refuse help,” he said.
The City Council approved an overnight parking lot for homeless people who are temporarily living in their vehicles. The Safe Parking Lot initially opened on private farmland and later moved to part of the city’s Community & Senior Center parking lot.
Kranz said he will continue to support it in its new location, but he told The San Diego Union-Tribune that he wants Encinitas to work with neighboring communities to establish a permanent shelter so the county Sheriff’s Department has a place to take people who are illegally sleeping overnight on sidewalks or in city parks.
Kranz knows from experience what a difference services can make: He was briefly homeless while between jobs in Alaska many years ago.
“I was on my way to National Guard training and I lived in my car,” he told the Light. “It was a very interesting experience. I stayed at the local shelter in Anchorage, but all my belongings were in my car.”
Kranz said his experience with homelessness has influenced his policymaking “because I’ve seen the effects on people who are … trying to get back on their feet. And when people get in that condition, it’s not the best time for making good decisions. It’s a terrible downward spiral and the social safety net [is] there in order to try and help them stop the downward spiral.”
“That’s what we’re looking to implement, not just in Encinitas but across the region and the county,” he said.
Representatives of the city of Del Mar did not respond to the Light’s requests for comment, but the city’s Housing Element Update for 2021-29, adopted in March 2021, states that “homelessness has become an increasingly important issue.”
Del Mar contracts with the nonprofit Del Mar Community Connections to provide referral services for potential shared-housing opportunities within the city and elsewhere in the county, the document states.
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Del Mar also provides homeless assistance, and the Sheriff’s Department refers homeless people in the city to local shelters.
In Coronado, physical barriers and minimal services make the city less desirable for homeless people, according to Police Chief Chuck Kaye.
Currently, he said, five to eight chronically homeless people live on the 32-square-mile island that has a total population of just over 20,000.
That number of homeless people is a small fraction of the count in areas like downtown San Diego, which reached a record high — 1,706 — for the fourth consecutive month in November, according to the Downtown San Diego Partnership.
Kaye, who worked in the San Diego Police Department for 27 years, said there is “no easy answer” to homelessness and that “the revolving door of services” is part of the problem.
“Coronado is unique because there are [only] two ways in and out of town — we have ferries and a bridge in the way,” he said. “But we don’t have services here, so [homeless people] soon find out there are other places they can be homeless and live the way they want to live.”
San Diego ranks 14th out of 18 cities in a study when it comes to pay as a percentage of a living wage.
Kaye added that “we just don’t have the space to exist out of sight. There are places in the county with an alley or a side street, but they are more visible here. There isn’t the opportunity to accumulate in a camp.”
For homeless people who do arrive in Coronado, the city has rented two rooms at St. Vincent de Paul’s homeless shelter in San Diego’s East Village to take them for access to a bed and services.
“For the most part, when people are offered a bed they take it,” Kaye said. “Some don’t want anything to do with it.”
Though it is a more than 2,000-mile drive from La Jolla, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin’s most populous region, has reached what is known as “functional zero” for chronic homelessness.
That means its available resources for homeless people align with the number of people who need them and thus can be offered to everyone who qualifies.
Chronic homelessness is when someone has been on the street for at least a year continuously or at least four times in three years equaling 365 days.
“We saw a 46 percent reduction in overall homelessness in our annual count,” said Eric Collins-Dyke, Milwaukee County’s assistant administrator of supportive housing and homeless services. “Our last count was 830 people, so we’ve made quite a bit of progress.”
Collins-Dyke said the county has used a “housing first” model since 2015, but without the requirements of some other counties.
“We ... focus on getting them into housing and dealing with [other] issues when they have some stability,” he said.
The system, started by former County Executive Chris Abele and continued with the current executive, David Crowley, began with a half-million dollars for support services in addition to covering certain rent payments.
“For a long time, permanent supportive housing in our area required sobriety, adherence to treatment, resolution of any legal issues and others to access the program,” Collins-Dyke said. “We found that, for a lot of the folks that were on the street for years, that wasn’t working, so they were lingering. When we implemented housing first, we adopted the model as it is right away, where we wipe away the requirements.”
Once a person is in housing, Collins-Dyke said, the county works with nonprofits and other agencies to provide services and case management for those with medical, mental health or substance abuse issues and others.
“We ... focus on getting them into housing and dealing with [other] issues when they have some stability.”
— Eric Collins-Dyke, Milwaukee County
“We pushed aggressively to start this model,” Collins-Dyke said. “Not everyone was enthused right away … but we tried to advocate for affordable housing as a way to decrease homelessness. We understand there needs to be demonstration of its efficacy. We have to show it works for the community stakeholders that might be skeptical.”
While acknowledging that Milwaukee doesn’t have the homeless numbers — or the housing shortage — seen in San Diego, Collins-Dyke said availability of affordable housing and relationships with landlords are keys to managing the chronically homeless population.
“Between 2015 and 2020, we had great relationships with private landlords; we were able to access apartments that were available, which was immensely helpful,” Collins-Dyke said. “We’ve also relied heavily on the master lease model, which is when the county or the provider is the lessee on the property. So we can move our clients in if they struggle with the private rental model.”
Under that system, the number of people accessing emergency services has “dropped dramatically” and the county saw cost savings associated with the use of emergency services, he said.
“It costs us $9,600 to $10,000 to pay rent on an annual basis for one person in our program,” Collins-Dyke said. “However, two or three hospital inpatient stays already match that cost. Across the board, we saw after that first year [that] there was $700,000 in cost savings [in] what [services] they used before being housed compared to after they were housed.”
Additionally, he said, citations for things such as loitering and public intoxication fell by 98 percent.
He added that there is a more communal attitude in Milwaukee than might be present in other areas. “We see it as neighbors and a community,” he said. “Instead of saying they need to go elsewhere, we say we need to support them in this space.”
However, Collins-Dyke said Milwaukee is “starting to feel the pinch” as vacancy rates decrease. In addition, he said, the system is reliant on county executives willing to carry it forward.
New York City
In a measure that grabbednational headlines recently, New York City Mayor Eric Adams directed police and city medics to be more aggressive about getting severely mentally ill people off the streets and subways and into treatment, even if it means involuntarily hospitalizing some who refuse care.
Adams said at a news conference in November that “these New Yorkers and hundreds of others like them are in urgent need of treatment,” noting that the pervasive problem of mental illness has long been out in the open.
“No more walking by or looking away,” said the mayor, who added that there is “a moral obligation to act.”
Adams’ directive marks the latest attempt to ease a problem that has been decades in the making. It would give outreach workers, city hospitals and first responders, including police, discretion to involuntarily hospitalize anyone they deem a danger to themselves or others or unable to care for themselves.
State law generally limits the ability of authorities to force someone into treatment unless they pose a danger, but Adams said it is a “myth” that the law requires a person to be behaving in an “outrageously dangerous” or suicidal manner before a police officer or medical worker can act.
As part of its initiative, the city is developing a phone line to enable police to consult with clinicians.
The mayor’s announcement was condemned by some civil-rights groups and advocates for homeless people.
“The mayor is playing fast and loose with the legal rights of New Yorkers and is not dedicating the resources necessary to address the mental health crises that affect our communities,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. She called forcing people into treatment a poor strategy for connecting people to long-term treatment and care.
— San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Barbara Henry contributed to this report.
The next installment of the series will share the stories of people living on La Jolla’s streets. ◆
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