By Mick Pattinson
Our homeless crisis is a disgrace to our city. We have the nation’s fourth-largest homeless population (and growing), defying the national trend. At last count, San Diego County had over 9,000 homeless people, with 5,600 labeled as “unsheltered,” meaning they were sleeping rough on our streets!
You can’t call yourself “America’s Finest City” with a record like that.
For years, Father Joe’s Villages and other nonprofit organizations kept our homeless population at a level we felt was acceptable, but in reality it was not. A nation and state as wealthy as ours should not tolerate homelessness even among the most disadvantaged. Today, after years of economic recession and military conflicts, far too many of our fellow citizens do not have a roof over their heads or enjoy basic home comforts. Sadly, the fastest growing sectors of the homeless population include displaced seniors and former military personnel. That’s unacceptable in my book!
Into this situation have stepped two local business leaders, Peter Seidler, Managing Partner of the San Diego Padres, and Dan Shea of Paradigm Investment Group LLC, both of whom believe San Diego can do better. They want to bring the business community together in support of a plan to solve the homeless problem once and for all.
For them, this involves logical thinking – rather than political gamesmanship – aimed at taking as many people as possible quickly off the streets into temporary accommodation while long term solutions are found. Helping people face their problems and rebuild their lives is the ultimate way to tackle homelessness.
With the support of business and the community, a series of temporary tents – Sprung structures – would be erected in strategic locations providing beds, restrooms, meals, social service assessment capabilities and storage. These facilities could begin the process of rehabilitation so that victims of homelessness could return to a productive life. The cost of taking people off the streets can be as little as $17 a day per person for basic services under this plan. And one of these temporary tents, located in each of San Diego’s nine political districts, could take 2,250 unsheltered homeless people off the streets years earlier than would otherwise be possible and begin the process of providing rehabilitation services for them now – not 5 or 10 years down the road.
Under the Seidler and Shea plan, these shelters would complement existing homeless facilities and be a bridge to the long-promised long-term sustainable housing we have heard so much about.
The key to success is finding locations for each of these new temporary facilities. My own brush with the challenge of dealing with people in need of rehabilitation occurred in the early days of the East Village rebirth, when my company purchased a development site at J Street and 11th for the construction of a condo site named Metrome.
Occupying the site was the County rehabilitation facility affectionately known as the “drunk tank”. When it came time for this facility to vacate, we were contacted by the city council member for the downtown district requesting a time extension because there were no alternatives sites available. Eventually, NIMBYISM delayed our project by 18 months as the political process struggled to find an alternative location for its facility.
Finding sites for these temporary shelters will be the greatest hurdle but we all know that sites exist and the contrived obstacles and objections must be overcome. There are plenty of suitable sites in public and private ownership and they must quickly be put into productive use. No more excuses. No more turning our backs on people in need and no more embarrassment for our city.
Leaving our homeless population on the streets is not an option. The chance to buy distressed housing units at the depth of the recession at fifty cents on the dollar was missed and we can’t build our way out of this problem. Our meager annual housing production level of just 10,000 new homes and apartments countywide leaves no opportunity to quickly house the homeless. The regulatory stranglehold on residential development hurts all of us including the most vulnerable. Redevelopment has also taken 10,000 low cost housing units out of our available inventory as neighborhoods have been improved and upgraded.
Peter Seidler and Dan Shea have taken a leadership position and are each putting in enormous hours working on this major problem. Indications are that other business leaders and business organizations are becoming involved creating momentum for new solutions. After abandoning the winter shelter program three years ago, the creation of year-round tents each accommodating 250 people would quickly turn an emergency into a civic victory and begin to permanently end this blight upon our city.
Public and private partnerships are often used to create developments so why not use such a partnership to deal with this housing problem. While these forces work together, they might analyze how we became home to the fourth-largest homeless population in America and how homelessness is also exacerbated by our outdated laws and regulations. Perhaps we could see the business community attach itself to efforts to bring sanity to the entire housing supply chain as business ultimately suffers from the low inventory and high housing costs so common in our region.
First we must tackle the acute problem of homelessness and hope that this business-led initiative achieves the success it deserves.
Mick Pattinson is past president of the San Diego Building Industry Association and California Building Industry Association. The opinions expressed here are his own.