Two years ago, we reported on an ambitious campaign to end homelessness in downtown San Diego, Calif., a city with one of the largest homeless populations in the nation. The effort involved an unprecedented coalition of business leaders, community groups and government agencies.
At the time, some advocates for the homeless — after years of seeing other, failed efforts to get people off city streets — were skeptical that the campaign would amount to much.
Bob McElroy, head of Alpha Project, which provides services to the city’s homeless population, said this: “We could solve the problem. We’re not allowed to do that because of the politics.”
This month, we returned to San Diego, to see how the campaign is going, and found that a lot has changed over the past two years.
Perhaps nothing shows the progress of the campaign more than the story of Wanda Rayborn, a 63-year-old woman, who was homeless for nine years and was living under a tree in downtown San Diego two years ago.
Today, she has an efficiency apartment in a newly renovated high-rise building a few blocks away. The apartment is meticulously decorated, in black and white with splashes of red, like something out of a home store catalog.
She has accent pillows on a used leather couch she got for $40 at a thrift store. There are potted plants, a day bed covered in stuffed animals, and a metal dog that has the word “welcome” written on the side.
“I guess I wanted to make it really feel, you know, home,” says Rayborn, who was initially reluctant to move inside, but is now glad she did.
Building To End Homelessness
Two years ago, the facility where Rayborn lives was just being talked about by the coalition to end homelessness downtown. Now the building, called Connections Housing, houses 223 people who used to live on city streets. It provides health care, counseling and other services for the homeless.
The city has also renovated a nearby hotel to house mentally disabled adults, who are at risk of homelessness. Similar projects are in the works. Housing has also been provided for hundreds of other homeless residents with the use of federal housing vouchers — especially for veterans.
So today, Bob McElroy, president and CEO of Alpha Project, has a whole new outlook on efforts to reduce homelessness in the city. “I’m kind of in shock still. I wish this had happened 20 years ago. We’d have been somewhere,” he says. “I haven’t seen this political will in 26 years.”
McElroy says, this year, for the first time ever, he didn’t have to fight city hall to set up a temporary tent to house about 1,000 homeless men and women over the winter months. Even more amazingly, he says, the mayor and city council have agreed to keep the shelter — which was scheduled to close April 1 — open an additional three months.
McElroy says there’s been a political sea change in San Diego since November.
Making A Difference
“The mayor came down here uninvited, before he was even elected, and is hanging out with folks,” says McElroy, sitting in the tent. “Bronywn, his fiancé, has been down here every weekend.”
McElroy is talking about Bronwyn Ingram, fiancé of the new mayor, Democrat Bob Filner. They both have said that ending homelessness is a top priority.
Ingram says that she’s found out a lot about the issue by spending time talking to homeless people about their problems.
“What I decided to do right after the election is to just go out onto the streets and start learning,” she says. “I needed to learn. And that’s how you can make little connections here and there that start to make a difference.”
And people say Ingram has made a difference. She pushed to have a veterans shelter opened to women vets for the first time. And she helped to secure storage bins where the homeless can keep their belongings. She’s also given people here hope that more will be done to help those living on the streets.
That is the good news. The bad news is that even though more than 600 people have been housed through the San Diego campaign so far, the city’s homeless population continues to grow.
Replicating Downtown Efforts
David Ross is an activist, who is widely known in San Diego as Waterman Dave. He goes out nightly, handing out bottles of water to the homeless and is their fiercest advocate. He notes that there are still more than 6,000 homeless people in San Diego.
“There’s still people laying out here,” he says. “Has there been any changes? There’s been a lot of conversation about changes that might happen.”
Ross notes that there are more homeless people moving into the city, including veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who have no place to go and many medical problems.
Indeed, some city sidewalks are lined with makeshift tents and sleeping bags. Four latrines that serve the homeless are overflowing with excrement and soiled clothes.
City leaders say they realize there’s still a big problem. They hope what they’ve done so far — reducing homelessness downtown — can be replicated around the city.
Progress, But New Problems Arise
But that might be wishful thinking. State and federal funds used for the $38 million facility where Wanda Rayborn lives are no longer available because of budget cuts.
And among those who recently toured the building were local law enforcement officials, worried about a new challenge — thousands of inmates being released from California’s overcrowded prison system.
Bonnie Dumanis is San Diego County’s district attorney.
“Those people coming out of prison don’t necessarily have a home,” she says. “It’s their last address. But their family may not want them when they’ve been in prison.”
And that means, just as San Diego is making some progress, it might have to deal with a whole new set of people living on the streets.