“Connect. Support. House.” San Diego’s Strategy to Reduce Homelessness

Transforming Local Government presenter, The City of San Diego, CA, shares how their "Connect. Support. House." strategy has helped to acknowledge and reduce homelessness in their community.

ARTICLE | Mar 3, 2020
by City of San Diego
Homeless Encampment
Homeless Encampment

In 2017, San Diego County faced a public health crisis that hit the City of San Diego’s homeless community particularly hard — and it was a wakeup call. San Diego Mayor Kevin L. Faulconer took swift action to put San Diego on a path to provide temporary relief for homeless individuals from the streets, support them with services, and help them find permanent homes. This became San Diego’s “Connect. Support. House.” strategy to reduce homelessness that more than three dozen other cities have now sent representatives study and replicate.

The “Before” State

In California, the rising cost of housing as well as a deficient behavioral health system have created a crisis on our streets: homelessness. Last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported more than 150,000 homeless individuals on a given night in cities up and down the state.

Conventional wisdom on how to solve homelessness has proven to be largely ineffective in the real world. San Diego saw it firsthand. In 2017, 20 people died of hepatitis A after the virus struck San Diego County. The deaths were fueled by many factors, including illegal drug use and unhygienic conditions in homeless encampments.

Lack of housing being a significant driver of homelessness, and with San Diego needing tens of thousands more housing units, only unprecedented regulatory reform would help turn this tide.

Solutions

Homelessness:

Our entire region was forced to look in the mirror. Business as usual wouldn’t cut it anymore.

Working with the County of San Diego, the City deployed nurses and paramedics to every riverbed, canyon and street corner, and vaccinated more than 100,000 in a few weeks. We started a robust campaign to educate the public. We began sanitizing our streets and sidewalks. And we took all those homeless ideas we were debating, threw away the excuses, and put the solutions into action.

Since then, we’ve opened four new bridge shelters that serve nearly 1,000 individuals every night, expanded safe parking lots for people living out of their vehicles and opened storage centers where folks can store their belongings while they go to work, access services or attend school. Under Mayor Faulconer’s, “Connect. Support. House.” strategy to reduce homelessness, San Diego has undergone the largest expansion of homeless services in San Diego’s history.

Housing:

To address a statewide housing crisis on the local level, Mayor Faulconer has worked over the past few years on the “Housing SD” plan – a set of aggressive reforms to make San Diego a more affordable place to live.

The overall goal is to increase housing supply, lower development costs and promote smart growth for the benefit of San Diegans at all income levels. To address the shortage of affordable homes, the plan:

  • Spurs construction of low-income and middle-class housing through incentives;
  • Streamlines development standards and speeds up the review process;
  • Directs available funding toward affordable housing; and
  • Encourages growth in transit-friendly areas to make it easier for San Diegans to live close to where they work, which reduces commute times and supports the goals of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan.

Mayor Faulconer has declared San Diego a Yes In My Back Yard city and then followed it up with action reflecting the most aggressive municipal reforms in California. Specifics include:

  • Parking Reform: Eliminated parking requirements along new housing developments in transit priority areas
  • Streamlined Regulations for Companion Units
  • Reduced Fees: Updated the Affordable, Sustainable, Infill Development Program to eliminate fees for projects building 100% affordable housing in the city.
  • Streamlined Project Reviews
  • Permanent Supportive Housing By-Right
  • Transitional Housing By-Right: Eliminated regulations placed on developers to encourage more by right projects designed to help formerly homeless individuals.
  • Affordable Housing Density Bonuses
  • Commercial Flexibility: Flexibility to allow interim ground floor residential or office where commercial retail is typically required.
  • Mixed-Use Zoning: Created six new land-use zones that allow projects to include a mix of residential and employment uses.
  • YIGBY (Yes In God’s Back Yard): Allowed religious institutions to build affordable housing in their underutilized parking lots.
Outcomes:  What happened?

Homelessness

As a result of Mayor Faulconer’s actions, San Diego is the only major county in California where homelessness went down by 6 percent last year while many others saw double-digit increases with a few experiencing increases of 50 percent to 140 percent.

Under the direction of Mayor Faulconer, San Diego has seen the largest expansion of homeless services in city history including:

  • Establishing three tent structures and one brick-and-mortar facility that serve as temporary relief from the streets to nearly 1,000 individuals each night, with other shelter options underway
    • To date more than 800 individuals have been placed into permanent housing
  • Opening two new storage facilities where individuals can safely store their belongings while they access services, go to school or attend a job interview.
    • 1,628 people served in Calendar Year 2019.
  • Expanding a proven successful Safe Parking Program for individuals living out of their vehicles
    •  970 people served in Calendar Year 2019
  • Establishing a one-stop-shop for homeless services Downtown
    • To date, 16 percent of the individuals that utilized the center had not connected with the homeless service system in the past three years. 
  • Investing more in outreach programs to connect individuals living on the streets, in the riverbed or canyons to services
    • Since 2012, the Downtown San Diego Partnership’s Family Reunification program has worked to reconnect homeless individuals with their families and loved ones across the country.
      • 3,219 people have been reconnected with their families or support systems
      • Average cost per year is only $844,000
  • Clean SD 
    • Launched in May 2017, the “Clean SD” program is an aggressive cleanup effort to keep our neighborhoods, public spaces, canyons and riverbeds free and clear of trash and debris. Clean-up crews respond to complaints received through our resident-facing Get It Done application, and have removed litter from “hotspots” and neighborhoods with a historically high level of illegal dumping activity.
    • Since its inception, crews have already removed over 4,500 tons of debris, enough to cover several football fields.
    • In partnership with the San Diego River Park Foundation, the City has also worked with private property owners to target cleanup efforts along the San Diego River – reducing the number of homeless encampments by 90 percent.
  • Neighborhood Policing Division:
    • The City of San Diego has established a Neighborhood Policing Division (NPD) within the San Diego Police Department, whose mission is to enhance the quality of life and safety in San Diego neighborhoods in a manner that is compassionate, professional and fair to all. 
  • Homeless Outreach Teams 
    • The City of San Diego's Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) aims to provide homeless citizens a liaison to seek out available social services.
    • The HOT team consists of police officers, mental health professionals and social workers who go out into the community seven days a week. They contact homeless individuals to build trust, provide education and assist them with available resources. The purpose of this team is to provide an alternative to enforcement for those who find themselves in need of assistance and willing to accept help. 
  • Progressive Enforcement Model
    • The San Diego Police Department’s Neighborhood Policing Division uses a “progressive enforcement” model that provides a consistent approach that is compassionate yet firm. Officers are trained to always offer services to individuals with whom they come in contact, encourage them to accept services and educate them on the law when necessary.
    • If an individual violates the law and is eligible for, but declines the offer for services or shelter, officers will use a staged approach to enforce. Applying a consistent and progressive enforcement posture, the City provides a high level of responsiveness to community concerns while allowing flexibility for those willing to accept available help. 

Housing

In the last year, Mayor Faulconer has won City Council approval for several reforms including:

  • Affordable Housing Density Bonus Regulations: There has been a 19% increase in affordable units constructed using the Affordable Housing Density Bonus.
  • Companion Unit Regulations and Fee Waivers: There has been a 731% increase in units constructed through the Companion Units and Junior Units ordinance.
  • Affordable Housing/Infill Projects Expedite Regulations: Amendments to the existing code have reduced the discretionary review process, allow more deviations to qualify and to expand eligibility for in-fill projects. This has led to an increase of 127 units in the last year alone.
  • Community Plan Update Program: A record 14 plan updates have been approved by the City Council under the Mayor’s tenure leading to a 25% increase in citywide residential unit capacity, not including density bonus units which would allow for even more units. The plans have created capacity to build more than 74,000 units, and capacity is expected to be added by the end of 2020.
  • Parking Requirements Reform Ordinance: In 2019, the City Council adopted Ordinance 21057, which eliminated parking requirements for multifamily residential developments in Transit Priority Areas (TPAs) when transit amenities are provided. While still recent, this reform has already attracted more affordable housing developments to San Diego neighborhoods

Lessons Learned

San Diego no longer accepts the use of sidewalks, riverbeds or tarps as homes — because we got a glimpse of how bad things could get. That’s why it’s concerning to see other places around the country grappling with similar health scares. Hepatitis, typhus or tuberculosis outbreaks should be unheard of in modern-day America.

As a society, we need to decide that it’s not OK to condone living outdoors in urban areas. It’s not compassionate to enable the brutal life found in tent cities. It’s not responsible to turn a blind eye to drug abuse. It’s not humane to let people with severe mental illness wander the streets without effective treatment.

We have to be honest with ourselves about why so many people are living on the street. We have to speak the truth about what causes homelessness, no matter how uncomfortable it is. And we must have the courage to enact the solutions to fix it.

With all of the actions San Diego has taken over the past several years there have been advocates that condemn it, communities that oppose it and leaders who won’t stand behind it. Some may fear homeless programs and affordable housing coming to their community, but we can’t let fear control our actions. Saying “Not in my backyard” is saying “Yes” to homelessness in our canyons, our parks and on our streets. The choice is simple: We either help folks find a place to sleep inside or we condemn them to sleeping outside.

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