COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | ROSEMARY JOHNSTON

Larry Stirling's ideas on homeless are wrong, wrong

Larry Stirling wrote an op-ed for this paper in August entitled “Our homeless policies are wrong, wrong” (San Diego Daily Transcript, 8/14/13). He said that San Diego’s homeless population is growing because we are “too generous,” and that it’s time to turn off the spigot so that these people will seize the opportunities they are offered.

Stirling, himself a former judge, blames a “liberal nutcase on the federal bench” for causing people to be homeless in San Diego. But because there is no such jurist on our federal bench, we couldn’t help but wonder: Who is really “wrong”?

• Stirling Assertion No. 1: The majority of San Diego’s homeless population is “voluntarily homeless” and “unwilling to change” their status even with the opportunity to do so.

This assertion is demonstrably false as shown by plentiful and easily accessible hard data about San Diego’s homeless population. The Regional Task Force on the Homeless (RTFH) is the acknowledged and trusted source for facts about local homelessness. This year’s RTFH data reveals there are almost 9,000 homeless people in the San Diego region, including 5,700 in the city of San Diego alone, and more than half of them are unsheltered. The San Diego County Office of Education reports that there are more than 17,000 homeless students here as well.

The main reason Stirling sees so many homeless people on our streets is not because they don’t want to access shelters, but rather, it is because there are not enough beds or shelters for them to access. So it’s not that “homeless people are unwilling to change;” it’s that there is no “opportunity for them to do so.”

•Stirling Assertion No. 2: A large percentage of San Diego’s homeless population is dumped from nearby prisons, but most of them have flocked here from other places because we are so nice to them.

Data collected by the RTFH survey of more than 700 homeless people in the days after its annual count reveals that the majority of unsheltered homeless people do not come here from other areas of the state or country, but instead are residents of our community who have lived here nearly three years on average. Data collected from the Alliance for Regional Solutions North County winter shelter collaborative reveals that 81 percent of the 480 homeless individuals served there came from the San Diego region.

• Stirling Assertion No. 3: A liberal federal nutcase judge and a horrible district court decision forced the San Diego City Council to give homeless people a free ride, and are now preventing our police from enforcing vagrancy ordinances. As a result, those homeless people are urinating, defecating and sleeping on our sidewalks and in our yards.

Every notion in this assertion is false. First, the lawsuit to which Stirling refers (Spencer v. City of San Diego) did not deal with “enforcement of a local vagrancy ordinance;” it dealt with a California Penal Code statute (§647j) prohibiting “illegal lodging,” such as sleeping in public, the enforcement of which was a violation of the United States and California constitutions.

Neither the statute, the lawsuit, the settlement, the city attorney, the “self-appointed homeless advocates,” the judge, nor the City Council dealt with the things Stirling now laments: “basic sanitation and property laws designed to stop urinating in our yards, sidewalks, streets and parks or blocking passage to public right of ways, littering and unwanted harassment of citizens.” The city of San Diego remains free to cite every single one of these violations and enforce every law prohibiting them.

The Spencer case dealt with the simple fact that our United States and California constitutions forbid the police from issuing tickets to people for sleeping in public if those people have no other legal place to sleep. Both the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court have indicated in written opinions that doing so is illegal and unconstitutional. The settlement in the Spencer case simply prevents the police from issuing “sleeping tickets” to homeless people during the hours of 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. if there is no shelter space available.

Finally, the settlement in Spencer, which allows the police to issue citations for sleeping in public as long as there is a shelter bed available, is working well. Magistrate Judge William McCurine, who approved the settlement in Spencer, has held quarterly status conferences since mid-2007 to ensure that things are working and that any problems can be dealt with swiftly.

This is not the sign of a “liberal nut case.” It is a sign of a hard-working and respected judge, and hard-working city and private lawyers, working diligently to do right for all the parties. It is one sign of a city encouraged to find, and finding, collaborative solutions.

• Stirling Assertion No. 4: It is better to put homeless people in jail until they wise up and stop being homeless.

No, it’s not. First, it is not cheaper. According to a well-regarded nationwide report by the Lewin Group, it costs a city vastly more money to cite, arrest, try, convict, incarcerate and punish homeless people for sleeping, than it would cost simply to house and feed them. Placing them in our county jail system clogs the courts and jails, and costs at least $137 per day, according to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.

That doesn’t include all the other costs of homelessness, and it does nothing to remedy the lack of shelter beds in San Diego. On the other hand, the Alpha Project, which operates the 220-bed emergency shelter downtown, reports that it can provide one bed per night for $19 per person.

Second, even if you assume it can be done legally, there’s no room in our jails. After all, if we fill the local jails with homeless people, we’ll have nowhere to put the really violent robbers, muggers, rapists and killers. Which might lead Stirling to write an editorial entitled “Guaranteeing every criminal a jury trial is wrong, wrong.”

• Stirling Assertion No. 5: San Diego’s approach is “wrong, wrong.”

On the contrary. The evidence shows that San Diego’s approach is a good one. United Way’s Project 25 Frequent User Initiative program has targeted homeless individuals who most frequently use public resources. In the last two years, P25 has housed 35 of these chronically homeless individuals who were costing taxpayers $317,904 each per year, and more than $11 million annually.

Now they are being permanently housed and are accessing supportive services at a cost of $97,437 each per year or $3,411,000 annually, saving nearly $8 million a year for taxpayers!

The Connections Housing program in downtown San Diego, which opened in March, provides 223 beds for homeless people, including 73 permanent supportive housing units for the most vulnerable homeless, as well as a one-stop “services depot” and an onsite medical clinic.

San Diego has embraced AB 109, which took effect in October 2012, by offering a coordinated response to newly released inmates; providing assistance with employment, housing, substance abuse; and follow-up resources to prevent them from becoming homeless.

The Campaign to End Homelessness Downtown has housed more than 255 people deemed most vulnerable to die on our streets as a result of its Registry Week effort in September 2010. And the City Council has not given up efforts to find funding to allow both the 220-bed downtown winter shelter, and the 150-bed veterans’ tent operated by Veterans Village of San Diego in the Midway area, to remain open year-round.

“You can help detox people from the street,” using a shelter to stabilize them and get them into other programs, Alpha Project’s Bob McElroy said recently. “But once they leave, we can't reach them.” McElroy believes ending homelessness is possible if tools like shelters remain open.

• Stirling Assertion No. 6: Jesus says there’s no point helping the homeless.

For someone who cites his “Christian ethos,” this misinterpretation of the Bible is stunning. An atheist can tell you that when Jesus said, “For ye shall have the poor with you always,” he wasn’t suggesting, as Stirling implies, that we shouldn’t bother helping them.

Instead, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, that you do to me,” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” more aptly summarize Jesus’ teachings in this regard.

San Diego has the third-highest number of homeless people in the country. Organizations such as the Regional Continuum of Care Council, North County’s Alliance for Regional Solutions, the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, Metropolitan Area Providers of Social Services, Emergency Resource Group and 211 San Diego are working together daily, holding each other accountable for outcomes that merit continued funding.

The facts show that San Diego should continue to do what it’s doing, not that it should stop, and that it’s Stirling who’s “wrong, wrong.”

Johnston is executive director of the Interfaith Shelter Network of San Diego; Berend is a professor of law at USD Law School; Dreher was one of the lawyers who represented the plaintiffs in Spencer v. City of San Diego.

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