In the News
By Gary Warth, Karen Pearlman and Paul Sisson
Maybe it was the deadly hepatitis A outbreak that prompted the city to open large tents to take homeless people off the streets.
Or maybe it was the increased enforcement against tents on downtown sidewalks that resulted in homeless people moving elsewhere.
For whatever reason, early indications are there may be fewer homeless people in downtown San Diego this year, though it will be a few months before anyone knows for sure.
More than 1,600 volunteers hit the streets throughout San Diego County early Friday morning to search storefronts, canyons and other areas for the annual point-in-time count of homeless people.
An unofficial count of homeless people in downtown San Diego has shown a dip in people on the street, and some people who participated in the count said they sensed the number had dropped there.
“I think I saw fewer people on the street this year than last year,” said San Diego Housing Commission President and CEO Rick Gentry.
Besides the people participating in the Friday morning count, other volunteers began the first of four days of surveys with homeless people to collect information that will give a clearer picture of the population and their needs.
“Today is very important to the community,” Downtown San Diego Partnership President and CEO Bill Geppert said at Golden Hall in downtown San Diego, where many local, state and federal representatives and their staff members had gathered to conduct surveys.
“The data we collect through this morning’s interviews is crucial to understanding the homeless population and effectively plan for services,” he said.
Data from the count, known locally as WeAllCount by the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless, is used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help determine funding for communities with homeless programs.
Last year’s count found about 9,100 homeless people throughout the county -- a 5 percent increase from the previous year -- and about 5,600 of those were unsheltered.
Whether Friday’s count will show an increase, decrease or no change from last year may not be known for months. The report from the January 2017 count was released in April.
There is some indication that the number of unsheltered people in downtown San Diego may have dropped, reversing an upward trend that showed a 27 percent jump in downtown homeless people in 2017.
A monthly count taken by the Downtown San Diego Partnership on Thursday found 803 people on the street, down from 1,012 in December.
The decrease could be related to three large tented structures the city has opened since December to house almost 700 homeless people. Two of the tents are downtown and one is in the Midway District. They were set up in the midst of a hepatitis A outbreak that killed 20 people and sickened 577 people, most of them homeless.
The organization’s monthly counts showed an average of 582 homeless people downtown in 2013. By 2016, that monthly average had jumped to about 1,400.
While downtown’s homeless population is the most visible, the bulk of the county’s homeless people are scattered throughout the county.
The count includes the number of people who checked into shelters on Thursday night. The hard part is finding the people who did not.
Volunteers gathered at 23 sites from South Bay to Fallbrook and from Pacific Beach to El Cajon, where they picked up clipboards, flashlights, maps and some coffee and donuts. They hit the road in teams of two at 4 a.m., hoping to spot people as they slept.
In North County, where hundreds of volunteers fanned out from Carlsbad to Escondido, a team of police officers scouring downtown Oceanside said there seemed to be fewer people than in previous years, perhaps because vacant spaces in-between places seemed less accessible than they have been in the past.
An alcove at a downtown business that used to be reliably filled with sleeping homeless people was empty, flood lights burning away the deep shadows that used to provide cover.
Lots that used to be open at the rear, providing a place to slip in and sleep showed wire fences blocking entry. A well-known back stairwell behind Regal Cinemas showed fresh signs of pressure washing. Dumpsters in a commercial complex off Horne Street were locked up inside enclosures.
“We’ve noticed they’ve taken a lot of proactive approaches to limit the places where the homeless can bed down at night,” said Officer Steve Peppard.
Besides the count, the San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness began collecting information about the population through questionnaires that were filled out at 18 sites Friday throughout the day.
While most interviews are done indoors and at a more reasonable hour, the Golden Hall event was a kind of hybrid, with people conducting interviews on the street before dawn.
Participants included Congress members Susan Davis and Scott Peters, State Assembly Majority Whip Todd Gloria, County Supervisors Greg Cox and Ron Roberts and San Diego City Council members Chris Ward and David Alvarez.
Peters said he had been working with HUD to change the department’s funding formula to bring more money to San Diego’s homeless programs, but was disappointed that progress on the revision has stopped under the new administration.
“One thing about the Trump administration is, whatever you think of their ideology, it’s just chaos,” he said. “There’s not a lot of policy direction, and I think (HUD Secretary Ben) Carson is still on a learning curve.”
San Diego County had the fourth-largest homeless population in the nation last year, but has ranked 18th in funding in recent years.
Peters, a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said he also was disappointed that the new administration is reversing an Obama-era priority of ending homelessness among veterans.
Speaking to volunteers before they headed out to conduct surveys, Ward said the meetings with homeless people could be enlightening and shatter some myths and stereotypes.
“You’re going to learn that not everybody is crazy,” he said. “Not everyone has a drug issue.”
Two homeless men who answered surveys in return for a $10 Subway gift card demonstrated the spectrum of people on the street.
“I like to smoke speed and methamphetamine,” Mike Lovelace, 59, told Peters when asked about why he’s on the street.
“It’s not a habit,” he added before explaining he prefers to be on the street because he doesn’t like the restrictions in shelters. Lovelace said he has been waiting about eight years to get a Section 8 housing voucher.
Jonathan “Alpine” Williams, who said he was clean and sober but homeless for the first time in his life, also took a survey.
“I adapt,” said Williams, 57, who was upbeat when he took the survey and grateful for the gift card. “I’ve got family. I’ve got friends who are there for me.”
Williams said he become homeless in June after the building he had been renting a room in for $800 a month was sold. Legally blind, he said he receives $940 a month from Supplemental Security Income, and he is taking classes and interning at the San Diego Blind Center.
“I want to be what they call a motivational consultant, to encourage people to keep treading through all the headaches in life,” he said about his future plans.
Gentry and Regional Task Force on the Homeless CEO Gordon Walker usually work behind the scenes to help the homeless, but were out on the street Friday morning meeting them and conducting surveys.
“It’s always a humbling experience to meet people who live in a homeless situation,” Walker said. “They are good people.”
Gentry said he was impressed by a 50-year-old homeless man he met, but saddened to hear his story.
“This guy had two heart attacks, back surgery, had lost his wife to a long-term illness,” he said about the man, who had worked in information technology before his health problems.
Gentry said conducting the surveys and meeting people on the street was “a reminder of why I’m in the business.”
Shortly after the early-morning street interviews concluded, surveys with homeless people in other locations throughout the county began, including at Crisis House in El Cajon.
Jack Micklos, assistant executive director of Crisis House, said the interviews will help “paint a picture of who these people are.”
Carol DeLaurentis, 64, was among the people interviewed. With long gray hair and piercing blue eyes, her smile lit up as she pulled a doll she had being sewing for her goddaughter Carly out of one of her bags.
Homeless since October, DeLaurentis said she has lost 28 pounds.
“I went from a size 9 to a baggy size 5,” she said. “Not a good diet.”
“If it weren’t for them, I’d be afraid,” she said. “A lot of homeless people are wonderful people. It’s the few rotten ones that make it look bad for all of us.”She said she camps close to six or seven other homeless people, who all look out for one another.
Being close to Crisis House allows her to charge her “Obama phone,” have a mailing address that allows her to pick up Social Security checks when they arrive, and access to a food pantry that also offers hygiene items and clothes.
A 1971 graduate of Hilltop High, she has been married twice, has a 44-year-old daughter and two adult grandchildren. She has reached out to her daughter as well as her two sisters and brother, but has been repeatedly shunned.
She has had different jobs over the years, including waitress, shipping supervisor, bookkeeper and her favorite career – landscaping. Finding work at her age is difficult.
“My goal is to find a place to call home,” DeLaurentis said. “I don’t care if it’s an independent care living situation, a shed or a converted room.”