On a rainy afternoon people take shelter outside of the San Diego Central Library, March 18, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Mayor Todd Gloria went to Sacramento last week to ask state lawmakers to help pay for homelessness programs on an ongoing basis and was met with some objections. 

Testifying before a State Assembly budget subcommittee, Gloria thanked lawmakers for the money they approved in June 2021 to address immediate challenges, but bemoaned that he had only just received San Diego’s remaining portion — $22 million — last month. He said local governments need the state to commit to permanent funding with enough flexibility to help people get off the streets and into shelters, but also to help prevent people from falling into homelessness.

Why this matters

Estimates show San Diego has at least 4,800 homeless people. Mayor Todd Gloria said solving homelessness is the city’s top priority.

“If this is the biggest issue in the state of California, it shouldn’t take 20 months for us to get the funding that you’ve allocated to us. That is not urgency that you’re talking about, that I’m talking about, and the people of California are talking about,” Gloria said.

“If you want us to be able to do more, we need more. That’s just the fact of the matter. And I understand the financial realities that this legislature’s staring down right now,” he added. “But again, is this the biggest issue? If it is, I’d ask you to fund it accordingly.”

Gloria’s trip to Sacramento comes on the heels of recent data that shows nearly twice as many San Diegans are becoming homeless as those who manage to find housing, and the number of people bedding down on downtown sidewalks is the highest it’s been in the past decade.

But this isn’t a problem unique to San Diego. Gloria, who also serves as chair of the California Big City Mayors Coalition, was asked to present on behalf of mayors from the 13 largest cities in California. They want the state to double its investment in a grant for homeless assistance programs and make it permanent — from $1 billion to $2 billion, every year.  

Two assemblymembers balked at the idea, saying the state is “kind of out of money.”

“You know what’s happening in the world and you know there’s a $20 billion deficit, and (you’re) coming up here to get more permanent, ongoing money,” State Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, said. 

Local governments are spending a lot of money on this issue, but when people walk down their city streets, they can see it’s only getting worse, State Assemblymember Bill Essayli, R-Corona, said.

“If we get a better handle as a state on chronic homelessness, which I think is the element that’s most visible,” Essayli said, “I believe the public would be more supportive of the programs in general.”

The need for these programs is great. The San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness reported that last month, more than 1,200 people experienced homelessness for the first time and about 660 people left the streets for housing. The Downtown San Diego Partnership has been conducting monthly counts of unsheltered folks living on downtown sidewalks since 2012, and last month counted just over 1,900 people — nearly 800 in the East Village. The Partnership’s count has set a new record every month since last July.

The California Capitol in Sacramento is shown on Jan. 21, 2006. (Franco Folini/Flickr)

When asked by lawmakers what the root cause is, Gloria said, “the high cost of housing.”

“If you’re having $3,000-a-month, one-bedroom apartments like we have in the city of San Diego, of course you’re going to end up with a tremendous amount of tent encampments,” Gloria said in response. “It’s just going to be the case.”

But it’s also an issue of supply and demand. Half of San Diego’s housing supply are rental units and less than 1% are vacant, records show. The lack of availability has driven up rents by 15%, according to a study from the Southern California Rental Housing Association.

Right now, San Diego is failing to meet the demand for housing people of all incomes — new construction isn’t keeping pace with population growth. That’s why officials agreed earlier this month to hire two private companies to help fill staffing shortages, speed up the time it takes to approve new construction and eliminate a backlog of permit applications.

Local governments need money that is consistent and flexible, meaning it isn’t tied to a specific program, to have the most impact, Gloria said. Consistency allows officials to commit to multiple-year agreements, which ultimately saves money, and flexibility allows them to put the money to work wherever it’s needed.

“I would just shudder to think how this would go without your support. And it’s part of why I’m here asking for, if not additional support, ongoing support,” he said, adding that he fears having to shut down shelters when money runs out.

“I have to keep those things running, I have to tell the providers you can keep those folks on staff. I have to tell the people who live there that they’ll have a place to be tomorrow and the week after that.”

The chairman, Assemblymember Phil Ting, a Democrat from San Francisco, said members of the subcommittee hear Gloria’s points about flexibility, but they also want to make sure there are performance measures tied to that money — such as a reduction in homelessness and an increase in permanent housing. Ting said they will continue to look at this in upcoming budget hearings.

Gloria asked lawmakers to consider low vacancy, high rent and other issues contributing to homelessness when setting performance measures tied to money that pays for these programs.

“As all of you consider what changes you’ll make, consider the fact that there are, in my city, thousands of people who are living in these (shelters) because you’ve allowed them to,” he said, “and any changes will disrupt certainly their lives, as well as our ability to actually do more.”

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Cody Dulaney is an investigative reporter at inewsource focusing on social impact and government accountability. Few things excite him more than building spreadsheets and knocking on the door of people who refuse to return his calls. When he’s not ruffling the feathers of some public official, Cody...