A Chronology of Cruelty in “America’s Finest City”
Updated January 28 2018
Achieving (at least) 577 hepatitis cases and 20 reported deaths in one California County isn’t easy.
Having a mortality rate twice the @CDC national average takes work.
In fact, it has taken San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, and other elected officials years of effort to neglect the health and wellbeing of thousands of homeless San Diegans to achieve these results.
And people aren’t reassured when, 3 days before Christmas, San Diego employees tossed a homeless man sleeping inside his tent into a trash truck - nearly killing him when the noisy compactor was activated, masking his cries for help.
The outcome of all this: A January 26, 2018 KPBS news report noted that: “The number of homeless people dying in [San Diego] county increased significantly in 2017, according to the Medical Examiner’s Office.”
Meanwhile- after San Diego County endured the most lethal hepatitis outbreak in the United States in decades, it is now experiencing higher rates of mortality from the flu than surrounding counties.
This is a rough timeline of news reports over the past year related to homelessness in San Diego. It shows how San Diego’s Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the County Board of Supervisors refused to respond effectively to the hazards and squalor of life on the streets. Thousands of unsheltered San Diegans have lacked access to bathrooms for years. So in some ways, it’s almost surprising that the first few cases of hepatitis weren’t actually reported until November 2016. But then, a few months later- people began dying. By late summer, it became one death a week.
And in retrospect, the delays and lack of response to this illness is also not surprising. Elected officials have failed to use millions of dollars in redevelopment funds to provide housing in San Diego for years- even as murders and violent attacks have been carried out against homeless San Diegans.
As one San Diego Councilmember observed:
“… the city is sitting on “literally hundreds of millions of dollars” it could spend on housing.”
They have compounded these failures by concurrently converting thousands of units of affordable housing to market rate, often forcing older, disabled San Diegans living on fixed incomes out of the homes they have rented for decades. Long-time residents are given housing vouchers -but no guarantee of finding a place to use them. The only guarantee is a months or (more often) years-long wait on a list, hoping something affordable will become available.
The result: unsheltered, vulnerable people- many older adults with disabilities- have moved from housed to homeless. Many are assaulted and several have been killed while sleeping outdoors, often in inclement weather.
And as police sweeps force more people into hiding, they have taken to living- and giving birth- in the San Diego riverbed. Clean-up volunteers report finding open latrines along the river’s shoreline, along with hypodermic needles. This human waste- along with the hepatitis virus- is transferred to the beaches a few miles west, where housed residents and tourists swim, surf and wade along the shoreline with their own children.
During rainy weather earlier this year, those who sought shelter under Interstate 5 found that option taken away when the city installed rocks under the freeway. City officials also began confiscating tents and tarps used to ward off the summer sun before the All-Star Game was played in San Diego in July 2016. They continued these “sweeps” before ComicCon arrived a few weeks later.
This pattern of neglect has been contributing to a high mortality rate, especially in 2017. These conditions- exposure, violence, disruption, addiction, lack of sanitation- have all combined to create the nation’s deadliest hepatitis epidemic in decades. It has now become international news.
By early September, the County Board of Supervisors hosted a special hearing on the outbreak. But the week before, they abruptly cancelled a hearing set to address a Grand Jury report on homelessness. (The San Diego City Council Select Committee on Homelessness reviewed the city’s response to the Grand Jury report at their September 13 meeting .)
The report noted that:
Some of the most vulnerable are dying in the streets in one of the most desirable and livable regions in America
Instead of reviewing the Grand Jury recommendations, County Supervisors congratulated themselves for administering thousands of HepA vaccinations. They mostly ignored the fact that hundreds of new cases were still being reported, since that program began.
No one mentioned one additional death that was being investigated, until a resident asked for an update during public comment. That death has now been confirmed, bringing the total to 16 since the onset of the epidemic. The County Medical Examiner announced two additional deaths are under investigation in a radio interview on September 19.
Efforts to blame the outbreak on illegal immigrants have been disproven. And given the rate of transmission, and the fact people are often infected for weeks before they seek medical attention- the County Medical Director has announced it is likely to get worse before it gets better. Hundreds of cases are likely, given the rate of infections in recent months.
What these charts and media reports show is a chronology of cruelty: Kevin Faulconer and the County Board of Supervisors have made homelessness a death sentence in San Diego. People have been homeless, cited for “encroachment,” and jailed or fined for petty charges- and now they are dying of hepatitis. And they are dying at a mortality rate of nearly 4%- twice the national mortality rate as reported by CDC for hepatitis, reflecting the wretched living conditions that have emerged in recent years for homeless San Diegans.
Despite all this- it ultimately required international media reports of hepatitis to finally push the Mayor’s Office to act. This reminds us what motivates Mayor Faulconer and his staff: Not compassion. Not good public policy. Faulconer lives/dies/acts based on good/bad press coverage
To be sure: he’s not alone in this inaction. The five-member County Board of Supervisors and nine-member San Diego City Council’s tepid non-response has been “Politics as usual” for this city.
Local media helped to a point- Inewsource did a story on Faultline Park’s public bathrooms in October, after they had been closed to homeless visitors for a year- in violation of their city lease. They researched the details after being alerted by activists- but didn’t follow up as the hepatitis cases began to emerge in November. (The restrooms opened briefly when the City Council voted on a related contract- then closed after the approval was received.)
Voice of San Diego, San Diego CityBeat, and KPBS did reports, including a homelessness series in August 2016. But it still took 1 year of suffering before Mayor Faulconer reacted in any meaningful, effective way.
Dan McSwain at the The San Diego Union-Tribune has done excellent work on this, and he hoped San Diego had “turned a corner” on homelessness in June when the business community took actions and made pledges for funding for a massive shelter. (McSwain recently announced his retirement- he will be missed.)
By the time NPR reported it had become obvious: San Diego is in the midst of a horrific hepatitis epidemic that had only required a few simple acts by government agencies to prevent: installation of public restrooms, and an early and aggressive vaccination program.
Note: a total of 67 people died of hepatitis in the entire USA in 2015 according to CDC.gov. Only 179 Californians contracted hepatitis in 2015- San Diego is over 440 in less than 1 year.
As recently as late August, the Mayor’s staff claimed Kevin Faulconer had done all he could to stem the tide of hepatitis deaths, forcing many to ask: what motivates the leaders in America’s Finest City?
Ultimately, we see that what motivates Mayor Kevin Faulconer is not deaths. Not suffering.
Only bad international media coverage finally moved him to action.