Homeless in La Jolla: Town Council hears the story


Results from a 2015 Point-in-Time Count will be released in April

La Jolla Town Council (LJTC) hosted a forum on homelessness during its March 12 meeting at La Jolla Rec Center that provided both broad-spectrum and local perspectives on the issue, and an update on efforts to combat it.

Dolores Diaz, executive director of the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless, said only 16 unsheltered homeless individuals were reported sleeping in La Jolla during her agency’s January 2014 Point-in-Time Count, though she said homeless service providers suspect the number of homeless people in La Jolla is actually closer to 25.

“Keep in mind it’s only what you can see between 4 p.m. and 7 a.m. (when we do the count) — and they’re really, really tough to find,” Diaz said.

The federal government compiles San Diego’s Point-in- Time Count results with similar counts across the nation to assess the situation and channel resources appropriately.

The counts are included in an Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) that is submitted to Congress to help provide policymakers with a deeper understanding of homelessness for funding applications and strategic planning purposes.

Homeless in America’s Finest City

The report showed San Diego still has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation.

In 2014, the San Diego region ranked fifth among major U.S. cities in terms of the amount of homeless individuals (8,506), compared to New York City (67,850) Los Angeles city and county (34,393), Las Vegas/Clark County (9,417) and Seattle/King County (8,949).

“Our federal government has set a very aggressive plan to end veteran homelessness by the end of this year, chronic homelessness by the end of 2016 and family and youth homeless by 2020,” Diaz said. “We’re on an aggressive path to house our veterans. That’s a huge, huge effort in San Diego right now.”

In 2014, the size of San Diego’s chronic homeless population — those with severe mental illness, substance abuse problems or a combination of both — was seventh on a list of major U.S. cities (1,156 individuals), though San Diego was only 17th on the list for the amount of federal funding it receives to combat chronic homelessness, Diaz said.

“San Diego has to apply for that federal funding; it’s very competitive,” Diaz said, noting there are close to 300 programs in San Diego that help the homeless. “We’ve been trying to tackle homelessness for decades and the numbers seem to be getting worse. The formula isn’t helping us right now. We’re not getting our fair share of funding.”

Diaz said service providers dealing with the homeless are working aggressively to change the system — including a “housing first” model that has shown getting homeless people into housing first often works better than providing emergency or transitional housing and services as a stepping stone to permanent housing.

“We know that of all the homeless ... 30 percent could self-resolve their homelessness,” Diaz said. “Sometimes people just need a short subsidy — maybe help with their deposit or first or last month’s rent.”

Behind the homeless faces

Between 40 and 50 percent of homeless individuals are dealing with addiction, substance abuse or mental health issues, Diaz said, noting her task force works closely with San Diego’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) to interview and collect demographic information about homeless people and their condition.

Sgt. Teresa Clark with SDPD’s HOT unit, said the program includes five officers and two benefits experts from County Health and Human Services that assess homeless individuals “one conversation at a time,” offering assistance to those who are “ready and willing to accept it.”

Additionally, one mental health expert from the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team rides with the officers, and is authorized to access to the county’s mental health database so officers know what conditions a person may be dealing with, or any medications they may be prescribed.

“They’re the ones whose self-confidence and self-esteem cannot possibly get any lower, so getting that person up off the street is not as simple as what someone might think,” said Clark, whose officers patrol the San Pasqual Valley to the San Ysidro border.

Clark said every city council member requests HOT officers patrol their district, though the Downtown San Diego Partnership’s monthly homeless count found 700 homeless individuals in East Village alone, making it harder to get up to La Jolla and other areas (with comparatively low levels of homelessness).

However, she said the city recently agreed to let SDPD hire five retired officers on a provisional basis to work with the HOT unit. “They’ve done 30 years in this department. They’re a hand-picked group of guys and I have lots of plans for having our vans stationed ... away from downtown ... up in this area,” Clark said. “There are specific issues here (in La Jolla). I have a real plan for that. It’s just a matter of whoever is putting the stumbling block in the way for me to get those officers.”

Homelessness not a crime

Both Diaz and Clark said “homelessness is not a crime,” as long as individuals keep it “light, tight and mobile,” and not set up camp in a particular area. (Although panhandling is technically illegal, due to current case law San Diego is not able enforce the law, Diaz said).

When responding to complaints about the homeless, Clark said the “old school” approach was to round the individual up, “find a reason to put them in jail and get them off the street, make the radio call go away.”

However, after the American Civil Liberties Union sued the City of San Diego in 2009 for aggressive raids in which homeless people’s blankets, medicines and photos were thrown in the trash, the city has since employed a program of “compassionate enforcement” to deal with homeless people.

“We can’t touch property, ever, unless the person is there with it and we can do a negotiation,” Clark said.

Before someone is taken to jail — say, for illegal encampment — a series of offers is made to help them end their homelessness, Clark said.

“There’s not a lot of resources there, but my team has access to just about any kind of program that’s out there ... with St. Vincent de Paul, Alpha Project, San Diego Rescue Mission and Rachel’s Women’s Center,” Clark said. “On our team we have something for everyone, if they’re willing. ... Hopefully, everyone on the same day doesn’t say, ‘OK, today’s the day I’m ready; can you help me?’ because then we’re in trouble.”

Of the 14,000 conversations HOT officers conducted last quarter, Clark said — some occurring several times with the same individuals — there were 400 housing or treatment center placements.

“You never know; today may be the day they’re ready — and that’s the beauty of this team is to establish that rapport,” she said.

Clark advised people not to give money to panhandlers, but to make a donation to a homeless service provider or perhaps donate money to someone in the lobby of one of the 15 to 20 single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels downtown “to help the people stay in the SROs and not end up homeless again.”

Results from San Diego’s 2015 Point-in-Time Count will be released the first week in April, Diaz said.