Faulconer, Newsom say homelessness is a top priority in their recall campaigns

Faulconer, Newsom say homelessness is a top priority in their recall campaigns

In San Francisco, commuters trying to get to work often pass homeless people leaning against or passed out along the corridors of a Bay Area Rapid Transit stations. They sometimes step over a pool of vomit or look away as someone shoots up heroin.

Meanwhile in San Diego, some downtown streets lined with tattered tents and canvases that form makeshift shelters for homeless people who have nowhere else to go. Fentanyl use in the city has gotten so bad that county health officials are providing the public with naloxone, a nasal spray that can save a life if administered quickly to someone overdosing on the drug.

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Annual counts consistently find San Diego and San Francisco have some of the largest homeless populations in the nation. But the former mayors of those cities both say they are the best choice to solve the problem of homelessness in California. California has the largest homeless population in the nation, and both men have made it a top campaign issue.

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who left office in 2020, is running as a replacement candidate in the recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom, who served five years on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and seven years as mayor of the city before being appointed lieutenant governor in 2011.

“We can solve homelessness,” Newsom said in a June address in Mountain View. “There’s a lot of pessimism. ‘It’s never been worse’ and ‘We’re never going to solve this.’ It can be solved. We have vision. We have a plan. And we now have the resources and yes, again, this resourceful mindset to try new things, to iterate, to learn from our mistakes.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom works with Caltrans in removing debris at a long-standing homeless encampment along Highway 80 on August 9, 2021 in Berkeley, California.

(John G. Mabanglo / Pool via Getty Images)

Newsom’s campaign office did not respond to a request for a comment, but the governor’s office sent a statement that tackling the homelessness crisis had been a top priority in his administration since he took office in January 2019.

Faulconer’s campaign also did not respond to the request, but he has often spoken about how the homeless population dropped in San Diego while it was increasing in other cities statewide.

“I did not allow tent encampments on the streets when I was mayor of San Diego,” he said during a debate earlier this month. Faulconer said he was attacked at first for the action, but public opinion changed from opposition to support when they saw the city helping people who had been on the street.

“I strongly believe that if we would allow tent encampments on the sidewalks, people are going to die on the sidewalks, and we’re better than that,” he said during a debate.

Annual reports on homelessness show the counties of San Diego and San Francisco usually have the fifth and sixth largest homeless populations in the nation. Looking at just the cities alone, San Diego had about 4,890 homeless people in 2020, while San Francisco had an estimated 8,100.

Raul Flores with the San Diego Police Department

In April 2019, Officer Raul Flores with the San Diego Police Department tapes a notice to a tent belonging to a homeless couple who have been camped out by the beach in Ocean Beach. The notice informs tenant of “Notice of Cleanup and Property Removal in 72 hours.”

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The National Alliance to End Homelessness found San Francisco’s homeless population rose by 42 percent between 2007 year and 2020. Newsom left the mayor’s office in 2011. San Diego County’s homeless population increased by 4 percent during the same years.

The most recent count from January 2020 shows San Diego city’s homeless population fell by 4 percent from the previous year. San Francisco conducts its count every other year, and the last official count in 2019 found the homeless population had increased by 17 percent since 2017.

Other recall candidates’ ideas

Homelessness is also a campaign issue for other leading candidates in the recall race.

Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox has a 24-page plan to address homeless on his website. He proposes shifting money away from the housing-first approach and instead adopting a treatment-first policy that would require homeless people with addictions and mental health issues to enroll in programs to treat those problems before being housed. Cox also proposes cutting building costs by overhauling the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and other regulations, fees and zoning rules.

Candidate Larry Elder’s campaign site does not have a homeless plan, but he said in an online forum hosted by The Sacramento Bee that his first action as governor would be to declare a statewide emergency on homelessness. That would suspend CEQA, Elder said, which would help developers build housing faster and at a lower cost. He also said he would like churches to become more involved in addressing the issue.

Candidate Kevin Kiley wrote in his online blog that he would audit how the state has spent money on homeless programs under Newsom. He credits Faulconer with having a better approach: “Actually ending homelessness would mean doing what Mayor Faulconer has in San Diego: provide mental health services, insist on drug addiction treatment, enforce criminal laws, institute workforce training, reform housing policy, care for our veterans.”

Candidate Kevin Paffrath wrote on his campaign website that he would end homeless through executive action, which would result in no person in the state living on the street within the first 60 days of his administration. The plan includes constructing 80 emergency facilities capable of housing 160,000 people and using the National Guard to provide food, supplies and other services. He also proposes partnering with nonprofits and organizations to centralize mental health and addiction programs.

Beyond the numbers

At the Project Homeless Connect event, held at Golden Hall in February 2020

At the Project Homeless Connect event, held at Golden Hall in February 2020, the line to participate began early in the morning and went outside the plaza and around the corner.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Faulconer has taken shots at Newsom’s record on homelessness, noting San Diego’s 12-percent reduction in outdoor homeless at a time when more encampments have emerged throughout the state.

There is some common ground between the two men, however. They’ve both supported laws prohibiting people from sleeping in public places during certain hours and both have endorsed efforts to create more permanent housing for homeless people.

In Faulconer’s last year in office, the city of San Diego purchased two hotels that together had 332 rooms to provide permanent homes for homeless people. While the former mayor can boast about housing hundreds of homeless San Diegans, the purchases were made possible with money from Newsom’s Project Homekey, which provided $600 million to help cities find homes for people in shelters or on the street.

Faulconer also regularly appeared at Project Homeless Connect, an annual event held at Golden Hall in downtown San Diego that brings together homeless service organizations. The event has been held in San Diego for 15 years but was created in 2004 in San Francisco under Newsom.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer visits people waiting in line at Project Homeless Connect in 2015.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer visits people waiting in line at Project Homeless Connect in 2015.

(John Gastaldo / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

On his campaign website , Faulconer outlines his “Streets to Shelter” plan to clean up encampments and increase access to shelters, services and housing. He also proposes widespread enforcement of laws against “unsafe and unsanitary tent encampments” while following a legal precedent that requires homeless people to be offered a shelter bed before they can be cited or arrested.

Newsom also agrees that unsafe homeless encampments should be cleared, and his California Comeback Plan includes $2.7 million for the California Department of Transportation to clear trash and debris from state property while working with service agencies to help people who had been living there find shelter and services. The state is also providing local governments with $2 billion in flexible aid and $50 million in grants to address encampments.

The governor’s plan also includes $12 billion to address homelessness, with a goal of providing 65,000 people with housing, helping more than 300,000 people with housing stability and creating 46,000 new housing units. The plan has a goal of ending family homelessness within five years through a $3.5 billion investment in homeless prevention, housing and rental support.

But money hasn’t solved homelessness in California yet. The state has spent an estimated $13 billion on homeless programs since 2018, and a state audit from February called California’s approach to the issue disjointed. It also cited a lack of coordination among at least nine state agencies that administer and oversee 41 different programs.

Newsom’s legacy

Mayor Gavin Newsom meets with a group of homeless people

Mayor Gavin Newsom meets with a group of homeless people camped out under the transbay terminal overpass on Beale Street in 2010 in San Francisco.

(Michael Macor / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

San Francisco civil rights lawyer Angela Alioto ran for mayor against Newsom in 2003 and was critical of a homeless program he created when supervisor. She later came to appreciate his approach.

“What Gavin did for homelessness couldn’t be beat in the nation,” she said in a recent interview from San Francisco.

Alioto and others in San Francisco at the time were critical of Care Not Cash, a program sponsored by Newsom and approved by voters in 2002. Care Not Cash slashed the amount of welfare single homeless adults could receive and redirected the money to housing, shelter and services. The intent was to prevent welfare recipients from using their relief money on drugs or alcohol by leaving only $60 a month. Activists saw it as heartless, and Alioto saw Care Not Cash as problematic because sometimes shelter beds went unused while people were still on the streets.

About 2,000 people were housed through the program.

After losing her bid for mayor, Alioto said she met with Newsom and helped craft a 10-year plan to end homelessness in the city through prevention programs and permanent housing.

Newsom also created Project Homeless Connect, which Alioto said has helped house more than 7,000 people. The program was so successful, she and others from San Francisco helped bring it to other cities, including San Diego. Alioto said the 10-year plan also called for housing homeless people by purchasing and converting existing buildings.

“Then in 2012 it all fell apart,” she said.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom meets with homeless people

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom meets with homeless people as they wait in line for services at the San Francisco Project Homeless Connect in February 2007 in San Francisco.

(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

In 2012, the year after Newsom left office, high-tech companies began opening shops in the city, increasing the demand for residential units for their employees. The city had planned to acquire multistory buildings that could have provided housing for the homeless, Alioto said, and had already converted two buildings and was working on a third when the boom hit. Seventeen buildings in the pipeline for homeless housing were lost, she said.

Alioto doesn’t blame Newsom or his successor, Ed Lee, who was appointed mayor in 2011 after Newsom became lieutenant governor. Homeless advocate Paul Boden is not as forgiving.

“He went after the visibility of homeless people, and came up with a way of making them just not as visible,” Boden said about Newsom.

Boden is executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project and was executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness for 16 years. He said homelessness has increased nationwide since the 1980s, largely because of a lack of affordable housing. More housing was lost in the 1990s through the HUD program Hope VI, which was intended to demolish some of the nation’s worst public housing projects or convert them to mixed-income developments.

Newsom and other elected officials nationwide know the federal government caused the housing shortage, Boden said, but they all are afraid to demand federal dollars to correct the problem out of fear of losing the funds they already receive.

Boden also said Newsom has fed into the rhetoric that homeless people are dysfunctional or addicts who are on the street because they are turning down offers for help. In reality, Boden said, they are turning down offers to be on a long waiting list for shelter or housing.

Four homeless men including Larry Gaspar, 66, sleep on Larkin Street in San Francisco, California in June 2019.

Four homeless men including Larry Gaspar, 66, sleep on Larkin Street in San Francisco, California in June 2019.

(Gabrielle Lurie / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Jennifer Friedenbach, director of Our City, Our Homes in San Francisco, gives Newsom a mixed review on his homelessness efforts. She said Newsom deserves credit for focusing on creating housing for the homeless he made mistakes supporting laws against panhandling and sitting on sidewalks.

“What became very clear was that’s the wrong approach because it didn’t work,” she said. “Folks either have somewhere to go or they don’t. You can have a police officer push someone from block to block, but that doesn’t make them disappear.”

Friendenbach said Newsom’s predecessors and other big city mayors, including Faulconer, have taken the same approach.

“Homelessness has very clear causes and very clear solutions,” she said. “We don’t have to keep repeating our mistakes from the past. That doesn’t get us anywhere.”

Faulconer’s mixed review

In 2017, Richard MaGuire, watches Mayor Kevin Faulconer

In 2017, Richard MaGuire, who has been homeless for the last couple of years and lives at Father Joe’s Villages, watches as Mayor Kevin Faulconer announces at a press conference in the shadow of Father Joe’s, that hundreds of homeless people living on the street will find shelter in three large industrial tents with beds, showers, restrooms and hand-washing stations, with at least one operating by the end of the year. The announcement was made in a parking lot in a parking lot at 14th and Commercial streets downtown, one of the three tent sites.

(Howard Lipin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Like Friendenbach’s criticisms of Newsom, Mitchelle Woodson of the San Diego nonprofit Think Dignity had similar criticisms about Faulconer.

“I think there were plenty of opportunities to do much better during his administration,” Woodson said. “There were a lot of missteps in the way he handled the issue of homelessness. I don’t think he prioritized housing at all, and I think that he prioritized more of a penalized approach.”

Woodson, an attorney and executive director of Think Dignity, said the nonprofit represented homeless people who were charged with low-level quality-of-life offenses during Faulconer’s administration.

“Many folks know that criminalizing and penalizing somebody for their poverty and their homelessness only perpetuates poverty and homelessness,” she said.

Two San Diego police officers watch as Daniel Martinez, who is homeless, cleans out his tent

Two San Diego police officers watch as Daniel Martinez, who is homeless, cleans out his tent in 2017 after the police told Martinez that he had to get his belongings and leave the private property he has been living on at the corner of Imperial Avenue and 17th Street.

(Hayne Palmour IV / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Chris Cate has served on the San Diego City Council since 2014 and said Faulconer took quick action to address homelessness at a time when it wasn’t considered a priority in many parts of the city. While some of those actions might not be considered best practices today, Cate said, the city now is better prepared to address homelessness because of Faulconer.

“At that time, nobody was talking to each other,” he said. “There was no communication. There was no sharing of information or data, of working off the same sheet of music. To get to the point of where we are today, it was really a Herculean task.”

Cate recalled how Faulconer faced and overcame opposition to create programs such as city-funded safe parking lots for homeless people who live in their vehicles.

“What I saw from working with him was a willingness to figure out and provide solutions, even when some community members don’t want these types of solutions in their back yards,” Cate said.

Journalist and author Michael Shellenberger, who ran for California governor as a Democrat in 2018, has endorsed Faulconer because of his homelessness plan.

“California is facing a crisis with homelessness and people aren’t getting the help they need,” the Berkeley resident said in a press release from Faulconer’s campaign. “I’ve never voted for a Republican, but I know Mayor Faulconer can be trusted to tackle this challenge head-on and help thousands of Californians in need.”

San Diego homeless advocate John Brady credited Faulconer for some actions, but faulted him for increased enforcement of laws targeting people living on the street.

But Brady credits Faulconer for working with the county and service providers to create Operation Shelter to Home, which established a large homeless shelter inside the San Diego Convention Center to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus last year. He said the former mayor deserves credit for the purchase of two hotels as part of Project Homekey, but he also questions Faulconer’s commitment to finding long-term solutions.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer speaks to the media about "Operation Shelter to Home"

Mayor Kevin Faulconer speaks to the media about “Operation Shelter to Home” in front of the San Diego Convention Center in December 2020.

(Ariana Drehsler / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego homeless advocate Michael McConnell also was critical of the city’s enforcement of what he called anti-homeless laws during the Faulconer administration, but he also credited the former mayor with the hotel purchases.

McConnell said he is skeptical of the reported drop in homelessness in Faulconer’s final year in office because of methodology changes in the count.

“There’s not much there to be honest with you,” he said about Faulconer’s legacy on homelessness. “I think it really is defined by the massive increase in ticketing people for being homeless and the hepatitis A outbreak.”

The outbreak started in 2017 and largely affected the city’s homeless population, hospitalizing hundreds and leaving 20 people dead. The city responded by creating a bridge shelter program during Faulconer’s administration. The shelter programs is continuing during Mayor Todd Gloria’s administration and includes more than 1,000 beds in two large tents operated by the Alpha Project, another shelter in Golden Hall operated by Father Joe’s Villages and additional beds inside the Paul Mirabile Center at Father Joe’s Villages in East Village and at Connections Housing operated by People Assisting the Homeless.

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