In a raucous debate that may foreshadow tough times for San Diego County's social programs, county supervisors Tuesday showed reluctance to spend more funds to help the region's homeless people.
Responding to a city task force report on the downtown homeless, three of the five members of the Board of Supervisors argued that the county should think twice before providing additional public aid because, they said, a large proportion of the homeless are on the streets by their own choice.
In addition, a majority of the board members said they were frustrated by the failure of the region's city governments--particularly San Diego--to provide help for the people forced onto the streets or made more visible by downtown redevelopment.
The supervisors' comments came during a debate about the county's response to Mayor Roger Hedgecock's task force on the homeless of downtown San Diego. With all five supervisors contributing to a rambling discussion that touched on philosophy as well as policy, the session provided a glimpse of how the board, with three newly elected members, will approach the many social issues that confront it.
Supervisor Brain Bilbray led the charge, telling his colleagues that it was "self-righteous" to assume that everyone who lives on the streets hopes to one day lead a middle-class way of life.
"Some people do choose what used to be called a vagabond life style," Bilbray said. "Some look at us and say we're making payments and going to work every day and getting all the stress of our life style, and they say we're crazy, we're a little touched because we show up at work at 8 in the morning and don't get back to our families until 8:30 or 9 at night."
Supervisor George Bailey added: "I'm not sure that giving every one of these people a home is the answer. Many of them do not want a home."
At the recommendation of the county's staff, the supervisors voted unanimously to ask the City of San Diego to fund additional services for the homeless with some of the increased tax revenue the city will get from downtown redevelopment. The board also agreed to seek a regional solution to the problem by working with suburban cities through the San Diego Assn. of Governments.
But Bilbray, Bailey and Supervisor Paul Eckert criticized a suggestion by Randall Bacon, director of the Department of Social Services, that the county allow at least some of the homeless to qualify for general relief--the bottom rung on the welfare ladder. General relief is available only to people who have less than $50 cash and $500 in personal property.
Under current county policy, applicants for the $120 monthly payments must prove they are residents of San Diego County--proof the homeless cannot provide. Under Bacon's proposal, that policy would be altered and perhaps eliminated.
Bacon's proposal was sent back to the county's staff for further details. Although the board will consider it again, the discussions Tuesday made it seem unlikely that the plan would ever be approved.
"To be frank, we can build a catch-basin for all the homeless of the Southwest," Bilbray said, warning that eliminating the residency requirement for welfare would create a beacon for transients. "We can send out a message that San Diego is an easy mark."
Bailey echoed Bilbray's comments and added that he believed the county should put more pressure on the city to help the homeless.
"We're responding to a problem created by the actions of the City of San Diego," he said. "We are being asked to assume responsibility for a problem that is not necessarily of our making."
Bilbray, Bailey and Eckert also alluded to the cuts in county social programs that are expected to result from the Reagan Administration's efforts to trim the federal deficit.
"I'm not saying it's not a noble cause," Eckert said of Bacon's proposal. "It's simply a fact that we don't have the money available."
Bilbray said: "We'd like to start working on this, but we have to have priorities. Right now, this supervisor's No. 1 priority is not transients."
But Supervisors Leon Williams and Susan Golding argued that the county is responsible for providing social services for all of the county's citizens, whether they live in cities or in unincorporated areas. They also questioned the fairness of the suggestion that many of the homeless choose to live on the streets.
"I am saddened by what I perceive as an attitude that the homeless problem is only created by the downtown redevelopment plan," Golding said. "We are not the only city or county in the country who have increased problems of the homeless. I believe there are many people we classify as homeless who would be very happy to have shelter."
Williams added, "All the people who are unemployed are not unemployed because they are lazy bums. All the people on the streets are not there because they want to be."
Bacon, the social services director whose proposals prompted Tuesday's debate, said after the meeting that increased county pressure on the city could backfire.
"We have to be very careful how we address this," Bacon said. "The city could back away and say, 'It's not our problem, it's your problem.' Legally, they're right. We are required by state law to provide social services. Legally, it's our problem. Morally and ethically, it's their problem also."