Homeless in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

By George Mullen & Brian Caster

With nearly 9,000 people living on the streets of San Diego, it’s time to find a realistic way of solving the homeless problem. Our solution is to establish a “Camp Hope San Diego” on city-owned land adjacent to Brown Field.

This camp would safely and respectfully house all of the men, women and children living on our streets, as well as provide adjacent space for the generous nonprofit organizations that serve them.

The homeless deserve our help and respect, but they do not have the right to reside on public lands of their choosing. Opening this camp is the answer to a major dilemma for our city.

Our solution — first made public last week in a newspaper column — has already gained public support, but also raised a number of questions, and we want to address them.

1. What is the impact of homelessness on San Diego?

There are three broad areas of impact. First and foremost is the significant negative impact on our 8,692 brothers and sisters living on the streets, with 117 actually dying in fiscal 2016 alone — more than double the deaths in 2014. County and city government expenditures are now over $238 million annually for homeless emergency medical services, police, shelters and related services.

Second is the spillover effect upon homeowners and businesses adjacent to the homeless encampments. And third is the significant negative impact upon San Diego’s ability to present itself as an appealing destination for business, tourism and higher education.

2.  Do individuals in San Diego have the right to sleep or camp wherever they choose?

The answer is no. There are long-standing ordinances against loitering and public camping, though they are largely unenforced at present. Most agree that it is egregious to criminalize and ticket a person who has nowhere else to go.  However, once Camp Hope is up and running, each and every homeless person will have a safe place where they can find shelter. Then San Diego can return to a policy of enforcing our anti-loitering laws, which exist for the good of the community.

3. Why Brown Field?

The City of San Diego owns approximately 880 acres of open land in the Brown Field plateau area, and the county even more. Though only 13 miles southeast of downtown, it remains a remote setting and perhaps the only city area where NIMBYs opposed to development don’t yet rule. Furthermore, it is easily accessible via highways and public transit. As an emergency humanitarian mission, we will not be building permanent housing or structures here — thus eliminating the lengthy process of construction, as well as the need for building permits and environmental impact statements.

Camp Hope is designed to be a temporary and supportive place where unsheltered persons can safely begin the process of transitioning back to permanent housing and employment. Our happiest day will be when Camp Hope strikes its last tent due to an absence of unsheltered persons in San Diego.

4.  How will Camp Hope be funded?

We have identified several funding approaches for Camp Hope, but one in particular makes the most sense — and it does not pirate funds from existing sources that homeless service providers rely upon.

In 2016, SANDAG proposed Measure A to raise sales taxes countywide by one-half cent in order to fund transportation projects. SANDAG projected this tax would raise $18 billion over 40 years. Measure A failed at the ballot box because voters wisely didn’t trust how these funds would be used.

What if we instead propose a one-eighth cent sales tax increase countywide to fund a Camp Hope comprehensive homeless solution? The increased tax on any one individual purchase would be minuscule, but over 40 years it would equate to $4.5 billion, or $112 million annually.

These funds would be designated solely for addressing the homeless problem. It would be a clean measure devoted solely to helping our less fortunate brothers and sisters on the street.

As a general rule, we are opponents of tax increases because they almost always lead to further government waste.  However, in this unique case, a small targeted tax is justifiable and necessary for the betterment of our community.  This measure would likely be supported by vast majorities on both the right and left. Americans are a generous people who genuinely want to help the less fortunate — so long as there is clarity on where their money is going.

With passage of this measure, the policy of zero tolerance will be initiated for homeless camping or loitering anywhere in the county, except within the jurisdiction of Camp Hope. Of the funds, 50 percent would be devoted entirely to Camp Hope operations to be run by private operators with a passion for helping the homeless. The next 25 percent would be allotted to homeless service providers for daily operations away from Camp Hope. And the remaining 25 would go to building single-room occupancy and long-term permanent housing for the most serious chronically homeless cases.

These funds should be administered by a consortium of homeless service providers who best understand the issues involved, as well as experienced business leaders who understand business operations. Executive pay should not exceed that of the Mayor of San Diego — these tax monies are for helping the homeless, not paying exorbitant salaries as we see in other city-leaching entities.

These comprehensive measures will bring real help to our homeless population, eliminate the negative impact upon nearby homeowners and businesses, and enable San Diego to successfully market itself as an appealing business, tourism and higher-education destination.

The lives of our brothers and sisters on the street are depending on us, so there is no time to lose.

Shall we continue the conversation San Diego?


George Mullen is an artist and gallery owner at StudioRevolution.com and Brian Caster is CEO of A-1 Self Storage and a well-known philanthropist. Both are lifelong Catholics and native San Diegans.

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