Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey says he has the solution for homelessness.
Coronado’s low homelessness rates have recently made national news, with Bailey applauding the city’s zero-tolerance for city ordinance infractions (such as encampment and encroachment) as the cause. He wants to extend that approach regionally by creating a network among municipalities to give the unhoused access to shelter beds throughout San Diego County.
But critics say Coronado hasn’t truly grappled with homelessness considering it’s never had much of a problem to begin with – and that Bailey’s policies would not work and may not be legal.
“It’s not a hard problem to solve,” Bailey said. “It just requires hard decisions. This isn’t rocket science: If homelessness is down throughout the nation, but skyrocketing in California, that means we’re making the wrong decisions.”
Here’s the Coronado model: The city does not have its own shelter, but it pays for two beds at St. Vincent de Paul, a shelter in San Diego’s East Village. When police officers encounter homeless people, they offer shelter space. If it’s declined, the city issues citations. The philosophy, Bailey said, is that accepting help is the only choice.
In a 2022 count, only one unsheltered person was found in Coronado, according to data from the San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness. That’s a 93.8% decrease from its 2020 count of 16 people. In San Diego County as a whole, there were 4,106 unsheltered people in 2022, a 3.4% increase from 3,971 in 2020.
Critics say that decreasing the unhoused population from 16 to 1 is hardly a herculean task.
“Coronado represents a demographic that is not at risk of becoming homeless, and most homeless people stay where they’re from,” said Scott Dreher, an attorney who offers pro bono representation to homeless individuals facing misdemeanor charges. “Plus, it’s hard to get there. If I’m a homeless person, I’m not going to trek across the bridge to Coronado.” [The bridge does not allow pedestrians, and the other access road to Coronado is the eight-mile Silver Strand highway from Imperial Beach.]
California leads the nation for homelessness, and accounts for nearly 30 percent of the nation’s homeless population — most from California, despite persistent myths that the homeless migrate to the state. It ranks second in homelessness per capita, behind New York.
The United States counted 582,462 homeless people in 2022, an increase of about 2,000 people from 2020, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2020, California had 161,548 homeless people, and by 2022, that number increased to 171,252.
Tonight, I had the opportunity of going on the @TuckerCarlson Show to talk about the failures in California when it comes to homelessness and how we fix the problem. We must establish a policy that makes saying “yes” to getting help and off the streets the ONLY option available. pic.twitter.com/YMvduh0yyO
— Richard Bailey (@RichardPBailey_) March 4, 2023
Elo-Rivera: Exemplifying Coronado is ‘performative’
The crux of Bailey’s criticism of the state’s response to the homelessness crisis is its adoption of the housing-first approach, which argues, most simply, that if the problem is lack of housing, society should increase housing.
The approach asserts that homeless people must first have access to a permanent, safe place to live before they can stabilize themselves. Under this method, barriers to attaining housing – including income, criminal history, and sobriety – must be removed.
The state required all housing programs to adopt the housing first model in 2016 under Senate Bill 1380.
“What we’re seeing happening in places like Los Angeles County and San Francisco County,” Bailey said, “is they’re trying to take this approach to building permanent housing solutions at the cost of $500,000 to $800,000 per unit. There’s just not enough money in the world to build all those units, so in the meantime, the problem just keeps getting worse and worse because of a combination of lack of shelter space in some areas and a lack of code enforcement that should be applied or could be applied if shelter space were available.”
Bailey said lawmakers have lost sight of the government’s role in society. “The notion that a government agency can be a housing developer is just preposterous,” he said.
Across the bridge, San Diego has rallied behind the housing first approach and, at a March 6 City Council meeting, directed city staff to apply for a grant from California’s Prohousing Incentive Pilot Program, which could award the city up to $5 million for affordable housing initiatives.
“In coming into compliance with state law and submitting the housing element that’s been approved, we are eligible for critical, critical funding to address our housing and homelessness crisis in San Diego,” said Council President Sean Elo-Rivera.
“There are jurisdictions around the city of San Diego, neighbors of ours, who have failed to do that, who’ve failed to submit housing elements that are consistent with state law – Coronado comes to mind,” he continued. “Not only are they likely to lose jurisdiction over some of their land use decisions as a result of this, but they’re not eligible for funding like this.”
“When neighboring cities are pointed to as models for the sort of local control that should be asserted here in San Diego, I will just state that I think that there’s nothing more performative and that ultimately not be in the best interest of San Diego,” Elo-Rivera concluded.
California’s housing first laws
Housing first is a controversial approach. The method was introduced by social worker Sam Tsemberis in 1992, and it grew in popularity in the 2000s. In 2014, a National Low Income Housing Coalition document said housing first could solve homelessness within a decade. In 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom allocated $12 billion to expand homeless outreach programs – most put toward housing – claiming the funding could “end family homelessness within five years.”
Critics, including the California Policy Lab and Cicero Institute, say that housing options are increasing simultaneously with the rate of homelessness because focusing solely on housing doesn’t address the root cause of homelessness, including social, economic, substance, and mental health issues.
By contrast, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that permanent supportive housing programs have a one-year retention rate of 98 percent, while 75 to 91 percent of households utilizing rapid-rehousing programs remain housed a year later.
Conflicting studies are at the heart of all controversial issues. Enough confounding variables agree in human studies – especially sociological ones – that make causation tricky to nail down. Meanwhile, though, California’s homelessness crisis is undeniable.
The legality of citations and available shelter beds
Cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough shelter beds available, according to Martin v. Boise, a 2018 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Bailey said Coronado – and all of San Diego, for that matter – has sufficient beds for the unsheltered. Because of that, he argued, those who refuse help should be cited.
“No matter the reason someone became homeless, they either want help or they don’t,” Bailey said. “If someone is motivated to seek help, I have no doubt in my mind that the resources that exist today are plentiful enough that someone can get back on their feet.”
San Diego County’s emergency shelter beds were utilized at 73 percent in 2022, according to the county’s point-in-time count. Because of this, Bailey said, citations are legal and should be utilized more outside of Coronado.
But the ruling says that cities – not counties – must have adequate shelter beds before citations can be issued. Dreher said this could call into question the legality of Bailey’s policy.
And, Dreher said, just because a bed is available, that does not mean an individual would qualify. Some are segregated by gender, and many do not allow dogs or children. Married couples and families are often separated, which does not appeal to many.
“If you have to give up your child to get a shelter bed, there’s no mother on the planet who would do it,” Dreher said.
Shelters have limits on how long people can stay, and their hours can prohibit the homeless from working to rise out of homelessness. If a person works until 8 pm, for example, that is too late to enter a shelter.
And utilization of shelter beds may not be as cut-and-dry as the point-in-time counts imply. That data is not collected in real time, and it’s hard to know if and where beds are available at any given time.
“San Diego does not have nearly enough beds,” Dreher said. “If you ask anyone in the city or county how many beds there are today, nobody can give you that answer – they waffle. Nobody can answer that.”
Plus, shelter beds are often worse than sleeping on the streets, Dreher said.
“Being homeless is a shock to the system: It creates mental anguish and horror,” Dreher said. “You get kind of messed up and don’t trust anyone. A big shelter isn’t good for some people. They get raped, they get robbed, they get scared. Some people decide a shelter isn’t as safe as being in a group with some tents. And most homeless people aren’t going to trust police offering services.”
Coronado Police Chief Chuck Kaye agreed that establishing trust is an issue, and said the city’s success hinges on community policing. He encourages his officers to patrol on foot and interact with the community to create positive associations with law enforcement.
“The other day, there was a gentleman in Starbucks, and apparently he’d been going there for a few days and had a habit of stealing drinks,” Kaye said. “An officer interacted with him and, instead of focusing on the low-level offense, the conversation turned to, ‘We have a bed available.’ Once he realized we weren’t trying to trick him and believed us, we were able to get him help.”
It’s unclear how often police in Coronado encounter homeless people. The police department was unable to provide data on how many of its police incidents were related to homeless individuals because it does not classify reports in that manner, and its records division was unable to process a request for general incident reports with descriptions of police encounters.
Is Coronado the only city citing the homeless?
Perhaps Dreher’s biggest critique of Bailey’s policies was his contention that other municipalities do not enforce ordinances against the homeless: He says they city ordinances to penalize the homeless consistently.
“Bailey’s criticisms are unfounded,” Dreher said. “None of the other cities tolerate encampments either, but the problem is at larger scale in larger cities. It’s clear the mayor doesn’t really know anything about homelessness – what causes it, how to prevent it, how to address it – because Coronado simply does not host a population at risk of homelessness.”
Dreher defends homeless individuals facing misdemeanor charges for multiple citations of ordinance violations in court. The city operates on a progressive model: first, if officers encounter a homeless person and offer shelter that’s refused, they receive a warning. The second and third times, they receive citations. They are arrested on misdemeanor charges after the fourth encounter.
He described an elderly woman who put her walker down to order food from a taco truck and received a citation for encroachment, and a man who stopped on the sidewalk to put something in his suitcase and was, too, slapped with an encroachment citation.
“If I’m waiting for an Uber and put my suitcase down on the curb, I don’t get a ticket,” Dreher said. “Encroachment violations are a workaround to target the homeless when shelter beds are unavailable and sleeping ordinance citations cannot be issued.”
In 2017, Dreher filed a federal lawsuit against the city of San Diego asserting that the city used encroachment laws to unfairly target the homeless. The case settled in 2019, resulting in increased officer training and a facility for the homeless to store their possessions – though storage bins are few and the problem of overenforcement of encroachment ordinances persists, Dreher said.
Defragmenting social services
Where Bailey and Dreher might agree, however, is that the services available are fragmented beyond their optimal utilization. Dreher and Bailey both said that a person in need of a shelter bed would likely struggle to find one, even if the county had unused spaces that night.
“If there were to be a partnership between the 18 cities in the county,” Bailey said, “and all of us agreed that we’re going to make sure that people who need help have access to resources while working under a united front where none of the cities tolerate ordinance violations, we could solve this problem. The County of San Diego can serve as a one-stop-shop kind of resource, providing real time data on where there are shelter beds and helping people access them.”
Bailey said he is currently working to establish such a partnership, and is making phone calls daily to other leaders in the county.
“We have to get away from this idea that we’re either criminalizing or not criminalizing the homeless,” Bailey said. “It’s that we need to enforce the same codes that all of us have to abide by. What will happen is those on the margin might be prodded into getting help. If they’re violating our laws and committing crimes, they should be held accountable because that’s not fair to everyone else.”
He believes homelessness would be solved through a combination of government and community initiatives, with the government playing its role and nonprofits playing theirs.
“On a human level, I have deep compassion for everyone who has ended up homeless,” Bailey said. “Our current policies have failed both the community and the homeless population and have created more suffering. It is our duty as policymakers to address where we’ve gone wrong.”
Related story from 2014:
Down and Out in Coronado: Homeless Try to Eke Out a Few Feet of Paradise