Opinion: Homelessness Is Spilling into San Diego’s Residential Neighborhoods

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A homeless man in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

By Mark Powell

San Diego’s elected officials have spent decades trying to tackle the homeless crisis, but the problem still exists today and does not appear to be getting better anytime soon.

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San Diego County has the fourth largest homeless population in the United States with an estimated 9,160 homeless people. We are behind only New York City, Los Angeles County and King County in Washington. With so many people experiencing homelessness it is unrealistic to think that building a handful of apartments will eradicate the crisis and it often appears that is how our local government is electing to handle the problem.

Only 15 percent of San Diego County’s homeless population resides in downtown. The remaining 85 percent live in other areas of San Diego. For decades the homeless problem was confined to downtown San Diego and the beach areas, but it has now spilled into residential neighborhoods resulting in even louder public outcry for a solution to the homeless crisis.

A large number of San Diegans believe that the homeless dilemma is directly related to our affordable housing crisis and that spending tax dollars on building reasonably priced housing is the best solution. However, funds to help the homeless could be much better spent. Tax dollars should first be used for residential treatment facilities and impatient hospitals, and if there is money left over then build apartments for the chronically homeless. Let’s treat the problems not the symptoms to insure our homeless population gets the professional help they need to return to society.

Increases in the homeless population also bring increased calls to police for service which costs money, and there are not enough police officers to respond to every call involving a homeless person acting bizarre in public. Ignoring the mentally ill homeless population also poses a safety risk to the public and the homeless. Although the vast majority of homeless are peaceful, there have been some serious violent crimes committed by homeless individuals, a fact which has law enforcement concerned.

Mark Powell

We know that about two-thirds of the homeless have substance-abuse problems and approximately 30 percent of people experiencing chronic homelessness have mental illness. Mentally ill homeless should be given the same care we give to people who have other types of health issues, such as diabetes, heart disease or cancer. Government should do all that it can to help the homeless receive the care they need, and if the homeless individual refuses treatment or services and ends up breaking the law, they will need to face the legal consequences, which include arrest and incarceration.

Municipalities and local governments need a more assertive and proactive approach to manage homelessness. Quite a few of our elected officials spend a great deal of time and money on attempting to solve the homeless crisis through building homes or apartments, but what we really need to build are inpatient residential treatment centers like the Alpha Project that are specially designed to help the homeless with drug and alcohol abuse. San Diego also needs more psychiatric hospitals to help homeless individuals with mental health issues.

Most homeless individuals with mental health issues in San Diego end up at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, the largest privately operated psychiatric hospital in city. We could use more hospitals like Mesa Vista. San Diego will spend millions of dollars building housing and shelters for the homeless, and although these efforts may be done in good faith, they do not address the problem: substance abuse and mental illness.

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The high cost of health care might account for the trend of releasing mentally ill homeless patients back onto the streets as quickly as possible to free up hospital beds. While discharging patients out of psychiatric hospital beds saves the health care system money, it could actually increase taxpayer cost overall by shifting care to more expensive jails and prisons. Releasing mentally ill homeless people back onto the streets without a support system is reprehensible, and most homeless shelters will refuse to admit a person who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs or is mentally unstable.

Cities and elected officials must start dealing with homelessness as an ongoing core function of local government. The relationship is clear; substance abuse and mental illness are the major contributing factors for many people becoming and remaining homeless. Without a proactive approach, the homeless will remain living in our streets, alleys, parks and canyons.

Mark Powell is on the board of directors for the San Diego Association of Realtors and is a member of the San Diego County Board of Education.

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