Homelessness and Housing by the Numbers — A San Diego Shell Game

Notices were posted prior to the sweep and City workers showed up in force an hour before a torrential el nino rainstorm to take away the pathetic tarps and tents homeless people needed to protect them from the rain and wind. No common sense nor compassion in San Diego. (sweep photo courtesy of Michael McConnell)

The San Diego Point-In-Time Count is a federally mandated annual report that identifies the number of homeless individuals and families in the county on one particular day. The 2016 report, which was released at the end of April, showed less than a one percent decrease from the previous year in the number of homeless people in San Diego County.

A curious decrease in sheltered homeless persons (-18.2%) nearly matched the increase of those who were unsheltered (+18.9%). But anyone with their eyes open didn’t need this report to know that there has been a deplorable increase in the number of people living on our streets. The report also confirmed the obvious — a 69% increase in tents and hand-built structures throughout the county.

As in previous years, the tally of 8,692 homeless individuals (sheltered and unsheltered) in the county still doesn’t include thousands of women, children and families who, for reasons of vulnerability, are deliberately not visible for counting. We know they exist, because of the 22,000 homeless students reported by county schools last year.

It’s when we compare the number of unsheltered persons with the number of shelter beds available, that we can understand why there are so many people living in makeshift shelters on our streets, canyons and alleys.

The HUD mandated Housing Inventory Count that’s part of the Point-in-Time count, breaks down available beds in various housing categories: Emergency Shelter (ES), Transitional Housing (TH), Safe Havens (SH), Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH), Rapid Re-housing (RRH), and Other Permanent Housing (OPH).

The City of San Diego seems to think they can make homeless persons disappear with recurring sweeps and human deterrent rockscaping. There seems to be an assumption that people are voluntarily choosing to befoul the sidewalks downtown rather than go to a shelter. Some residents will tell you that homeless people are turning down offers for housing. Could it be? Is the aversion to rules and proselytizing so strong that all of these homeless people would prefer to sleep on cold cement and be rousted daily by vigilante residents and “abatement” enforcers?

In order to determine if beds are actually available for those who were counted as unsheltered, I am limiting my analysis of the Housing Inventory Count to ES (90 day limit), TH (max 24 months) and SH (mentally ill) beds.

On the night/morning of Jan 29th, 2,348 homeless people were reported as sheltered in the City of San Diego. The Housing Inventory Count shows 2,359 shelter beds were occupied that night so it’s safe to assume that all of the people counted as sheltered were occupying those beds (I haven’t been able to determine why there are 11 more occupied beds than sheltered homeless people, but that doesn’t really change the analysis):

Occupied beds
884 (ES)
1,423 (TH)
 52 (SH)
2,359 Total Shelter beds reported as Occupied on night of 1/29/16

The Housing report also tallies the number of shelter beds that were available that night:

Available beds
1,026 (ES)
1,710 (TH)
57 (SH)
2,793 Total Shelter Beds reported as Available on night of 1/29/16

For various reasons, 434 beds were not filled. This isn’t an indication of inefficiency or beds being turned down. There are many reasons why 100% of the shelter beds are not filled. A family with only two children could be occupying a Transitional Housing unit with 5 beds; in the case of the rotational shelter provided by Interfaith Shelter Network, they might have three beds open up but the family next in line requires five beds so it will take another night or two to match that opening with a family needing 3 beds; over at Rachel’s shelter above the Post Office, they might have a bed open up, but the woman they bring in that night realizes she can’t make it up the 35 stairs; or an agency might have beds set aside for only HIV or Domestic Violence victims and that particular night, no one qualifies for that category; or maybe someone just vacated a bed that afternoon and there wasn’t time to get it back in the system. But for the sake of our analysis, let’s assume that these beds were all actually available on that night.

The PITC reports that there were 2,745 unsheltered individuals in the City of San Diego on the night of Jan. 29th. Let’s say that we could have put 434 of them into those un-occupied shelter beds, if everything was magically working at 100% efficiency.

That would mean that we would have still had 2,311 individuals who could not be sheltered, even if they were willing to go anywhere there was a bed open for them. (And these numbers do not even include the thousands of women and children who are not counted)

That qualifies as “Having no place to go,” no matter how you want to look at it.

The fact that 2,311 human beings had absolutely no place to go, needs to be factored into how San Diego deals with people living on the streets. In February 2011, the terms of a settlement of a lawsuit filed by homeless advocates specified that San Diego police officers can only issue citations for illegal lodging or take someone into custody if a bed is available in a shelter and the homeless person refuses to take it. The city supposedly holds 5 beds open for homeless people in order to claim that a bed is available. The thinking is that, given the choice of taking the shelter bed or being taken into custody, most homeless people will just move on. But word on the street is that even if a person agrees to go to the bed that’s offered, they are often not taken there.

Five years later, it still remains to be seen where people can move on to. Whether or not the city can keep five beds open, there are 2,311 city residents needing beds. Unless we have a prophet performing a bed version of the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes every night, it is mathematically impossible to house 2,311 people in 5 beds! So what does that do to laws against loitering, trespassing and illegal lodging?

What happens when you give a citation for illegal lodging to a person who can’t afford to pay rent?

Illegal lodging comes under section 647(e) — a misdemeanor carrying a $250 bail (fine) plus a Penalty Assessment (PA) for the first offense. That PA adds $31 to every $10 of the fine, which would add $775 to the bill. That’s a helluva tab for sleeping on a sidewalk! Knowing they can’t pay the fine, and fearing they will be put in jail, many homeless people just don’t show up in court and that results in a warrant.

So when you read that the police doing the sweeps are only arresting people with outstanding warrants, you might think they are arresting criminals, but it would be safe to assume that many of those warrants are for unpaid illegal lodging citations. With some guidance from local service providers, a person could be referred to homeless court where, if they can show that they have a plan for not continuing to “illegally lodge” they could be forgiven of their trespasses.

But how does someone assure even the most compassionate judge that they will “sin no more” when there isn’t anywhere to go? Which brings us to ask who is actually guilty of breaking the law? The destitute or the city?

Boise, Idaho is a long way from San Diego, but we should be looking at a Statement of Interest filed August 6, 2015, by the U.S. District Court, in the case of Bell vs City of Boise. Boise plaintiffs argued that criminalizing public sleeping in a city without adequate shelter space constitutes criminalizing homelessness itself, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. They alleged that Boise’s enforcement practices are unconstitutional because:

o There is insufficient shelter space available to accommodate all who are homeless in Boise;

o There are restrictions on certain shelter beds that some homeless individuals are unable to meet, thereby preventing them from obtaining shelter space even when beds may be unoccupied, and

o The BPD continues to enforce the anti-camping and disorderly conduct ordinances when shelters are full and against those who do not qualify for the beds, either because BPD officers are insufficiently trained or they are unaware when shelters are full because of unreliable reporting from the shelters.

Plaintiffs encouraged the court to follow Jones v. City of Los Angeles, (9th Cir. 2006), which held that enforcement of anti-camping ordinances may violate the Eighth Amendment on nights where there is inadequate shelter space available for all of a city’s homeless individuals.

The United States District Court concluded that:

If the Court finds that it is impossible for homeless individuals to secure shelter space on some nights because no beds are available, no shelter meets their disability needs, or they have exceeded the maximum stay limitations, then the Court should also find that enforcement of the ordinances under those circumstances criminalizes the status of being homeless and violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

San Diego has eleven municipal codes that criminalize daily activities associated with homelessness, or slightly more than the state average. Among the eleven are four codes that criminalize standing, sitting, and resting in public places; five codes that criminalize sleeping, camping, and lodging in public places, including in vehicles; and two codes that criminalize begging and panhandling. But the “vast majority” of citations issued to homeless people in San Diego have been for illegal lodging under California Penal Code 647(e).1

We must stop treating our homeless residents as criminals when their only crime is having no place to go. And while it is noble to set goals to get everyone into permanent housing, let’s be honest about how quickly that is going to happen no matter how well intentioned our providers may be. And let’s be realistic about the suitability of emergency shelters for people with good reason to avoid them, from valid fears of assault, to mental challenges, to addictions, to not being able to climb 35 stairs or even hoist up to the top bunk. We need a multiplicity of emergency shelter options to get people off the streets while we create permanent housing that is appropriate for all of the different populations who currently don’t have a place to be.

Safe, suitable emergency shelter isn’t the solution to homelessness. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the path Portland has chosen, letting homeless people sleep on city sidewalks or pitch tents on public rights of way during evening hours, with the understanding they pack up and move out by 7 a.m. isn’t a solution either. Getting people off the street should not end our efforts to get them permanently housed. But it’s what we must do now, because arresting people like criminals, sweeping them away like trash and building rockscape deterrents as if humans are pigeons, when they have no place else to go, just ain’t right.