Expanding San Diego’s campaign against homelessness, recruiting police officers from across the nation to fill a rash of vacancies and clearing neighborhoods of trash and graffiti are among Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s priorities for 2018.
Faulconer used his annual State of the City address on Thursday to lay out those goals and several others, including expansion of the waterfront convention center and spurring housing construction with incentives and loosened regulations.
The mayor focused most of his one-hour speech at downtown’s Balboa Theatre on homelessness. He unveiled some new initiatives and declared efforts launched during last year’s hepatitis A crisis as successes the city can build on.
The new initiatives include establishing the city’s first “housing navigation center,” a permanent indoor facility at 14th Street and Imperial Avenue that Faulconer said will become a model for the region when it opens later this year.
“It will be the starting point for each person’s journey to permanent housing,” he said. “Trained professionals will pair individuals with an organization that has the right tools to help.”
The city will also open a storage facility this spring at 20th and Commercial streets. Homeless people will be able to securely place belongings there so they can visit treatment clinics, attend school or work or interview for a job.
Another benefit of the storage facility, Faulconer said, will be helping to clear the city’s public spaces of shopping carts, tents and debris.
Faulconer will also expand the outreach ambassador program launched during last year’s hepatitis crisis, a preventable and deadly outbreak attributed in part to unsanitary conditions in the city’s homeless population. Fifteen people will walk the streets to build relationships with homeless individuals and connect them to services.
And the mayor will expand his “Housing Our Heroes” program, which has used landlord incentives to provide apartments for 1,000 homeless military veterans during the last two years.
Faulconer said the size of the program will triple to 3,000 participants and eligibility requirements will be loosened so non-veterans can participate.
“This is how we get San Diego’s homeless people into permanent housing now,” he said.
Faulconer said the new facilities and expanded programs are part of an altered, more pragmatic approach the city is taking to homelessness.
“For decades, local leaders – myself included – have taken the same approach to homelessness,” he said. “We pursued universal consensus while homelessness continued to rise. We tried to please everyone at the risk of helping no one. Those days are over.”
The mayor said it’s no longer acceptable to allow people to refuse shelter and services.
“America’s Finest City will no longer tolerate the use of a sidewalk, a riverbed or a tarp as a home,” he said. “Do not confuse our resolve with a lack of compassion. For those without a home trying to lift themselves out of extreme poverty, our city is ready to help. There’s a place for you, and it’s not on the streets.”
The mayor also called on regional leaders from outside the city to adopt a similar approach by providing money for temporary “bridge” shelters similar to the three San Diego has opened since October.
He noted that 40 percent of the county’s homeless population is located outside the city of San Diego.
Michael McConnell, one of the region’s leading advocates for the homeless, said he was unimpressed by the mayor’s proposals, but pleased Faulconer devoted so much of his speech to the topic.
“We’ve seen in the past that putting up jumbo tents at a cost of approximately $1,700 a person per month, and cramming hundreds of people literally right next to each other, is never a recipe for success with homeless services,” McConnell said. “But it’s good to see him making it his No. 1 priority. It seems like he realizes he’s going down if he doesn’t do something about homelessness.”
Faulconer’s speech also focused on a rash of 200 police officer vacancies that he says is leading to heavy workloads and stress and that could turn into a public safety crisis if the city doesn’t act quickly.
The first step to solving the problem was pay raises of at least 25 percent the city set in motion for all officers last month, Faulconer said.
“Although the ink on the deal is barely dry, applications are already up,” the mayor said. “Retirements have slowed. And some officers who had left our department have already returned.”
The next step will be an aggressive, national recruitment campaign to encourage men and women from throughout the U.S. to join the San Diego Police Department, Faulconer said.
“We will show America’s best and brightest that there is no place better to serve than San Diego,” he said. “And when we’re done, for the first time in over a decade, we will have a fully staffed police force.”
Another focus of the speech was a commitment to continue efforts to clean up the city that accelerated during the hepatitis crisis.
“This aggressive, sustained approach is the ‘new normal’ going forward,” the mayor said. “We can’t allow litter in our communities. We can’t allow garbage on our sidewalks. And we can’t allow trash to line the San Diego River and our canyons.”
The mayor said crews have already removed more than 700 tons of garbage in six months, and they are not going to stop.
“We are going to clean up our communities,” Faulconer said. “We are going to scrub graffiti from our streets and sidewalks. And I won’t rest until we restore the San Diego River to its natural beauty.”
The mayor also hailed an initiative launched this week by a coalition of labor and business groups to raise hotel taxes to expand the waterfront convention center, accelerate road repairs and fund additional homelessness programs.
“This initiative will be the most important decision before voters in November, and I will work tirelessly with the coalition to get it passed,” he said. “The convention center expansion is the single most effective way to strengthen our economy. It will create jobs, spur development, ensure future prosperity for our region and help meet the growing needs of great conventions like Comic-Con.”
Faulconer also focused on spurring construction of more housing, especially units affordable to middle-income and lower-income residents.
He hailed a package of reforms he unveiled last year for streamlining approvals and encouraging developers to pursue more projects in the city. He said the city’s looser granny flat rules have nearly quadrupled submitted proposals.
This year, the mayor said he plans to soften the city’s “outdated” parking mandates for projects near transit centers, a change that will shrink development costs and help reduce local greenhouse gas emissions.
He also plans to loosen regulations to allow more live/work spaces across the city and to expand an effort launched last year to encourage developers to build projects aimed at middle-income residents.
“This represents a sea change in how San Diego deals with housing,” he said.
The mayor also summarized some of his recent accomplishments, including ongoing efforts to bolster low-income neighborhoods with new parks, fire stations and libraries.
Councilman Mark Kersey, a fellow Republican, praised Faulconer’s speech afterward.
“I thought his message was spot on,” Kersey said. “Obviously, homelessness is the biggest crisis we are facing right now. And the steps he outlined are exactly right.”
Councilwoman Barbara Bry, a Democrat, praised the mayor for focusing much of his speech on the basics of infrastructure and neighborhood services. She questioned the mayor’s proposed housing navigation center, suggesting it might duplicate work done by other social service providers that the city helps fund.
“I want to make sure every homeless person has somewhere they can go to get the appropriate services, but I want to make sure we’re doing it in a way that is cost-effective,” she said.