Mega shelters and camping bans don’t solve a root cause of homelessness: Housing costs

Map of San Diego on crumpled cardboard sign
San Diego’s homelessness count increased 35% from 2022 to 2023. Nearly half of the unsheltered people counted were considered chronically homeless.
(Los Angeles Times illustration; map via OpenStreetMaps)

Good morning. It’s Wednesday, April 24. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

‘Managing mode, not solutions mode’

San Diego’s mayor created a department in 2021 to find solutions to the homelessness crisis, signaling a new direction. It hasn’t made things better.

The city’s homelessness count increased 35% from 2022 to 2023. Nearly half of the unsheltered people counted were considered chronically homeless.

Homeless deaths increased about 135% over five years, up to at least 624 last year, according to the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office.


For every 10 people who find housing in San Diego, 13 people become homeless for the first time, says a 2022 report by the Regional Task Force on Homelessness.

And 19% of households who exited the city’s shelter system last year fell back into “homeless situations,” according to San Diego Housing Commission data.

“Homelessness is the most complex problem for which people crave a simple solution,” San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria told me. “And there isn’t one.”

A camping ban has moved the problem from one part of town to another

Gloria has championed the city’s controversial Unsafe Camping Ordinance, which bans people from sleeping outside close to schools, transit hubs and shelters, or in parks and other open spaces.

But just because residents, business owners and tourists are seeing fewer tents downtown doesn’t mean homelessness is being reduced.


“Tents line San Diego’s highway on- and off-ramps, where the city can’t enforce its ban because Caltrans owns the land,” CalMatters’ Marisa Kendall reported earlier this month.

Disjointed efforts make progress challenging

Michael McConnell has spent nearly 15 years advocating and providing aid for San Diego’s homeless communities.

He characterized the city’s current approach as “managing mode, not solutions mode” — like using a teaspoon to keep a bathtub from overflowing.

“If we were to build a homeless service system from scratch, it would look nothing like what it looks like today,” McConnell said. “It’s so fragmented.”

The nonprofits and providers that the city relies on each need funding and have varying approaches, he said, which creates competition and undermines collective progress. And with no one strategy in place, it’s hard for elected officials to effect change.

A person in a rain poncho walks in front of a street encampment.
Homeless people use plastic tarps to shield themselves from a light rain brought by Tropical Storm Hilary in downtown San Diego last year.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

If you ask Gloria, it’s not so simple.

“I have very blunt instruments with regard to responding to homelessness,” Gloria told me. “It’s the sanitation department or the police department. Neither of those are the social workers or human services agencies.”

A group of businessmen has floated a different version of moving homeless people around.

George Mullen, who grew up in San Diego, said the severity of the humanitarian crisis requires radical solutions.

He and a group of residents have an idea: build a facility to house thousands of their homeless neighbors, several miles outside of town.

They call it Sunbreak Ranch. It would serve as a large-scale “triage center” complete with shelter, health treatment, job support, schools and daily shuttle service to downtown San Diego.


The Sunbreak group’s website includes among its goals a “return to the rule of law” and cleaning up city streets that are “filthy beyond recognition.”

Proponents say the federal government should declare a national emergency and build the facility on federal land, similar to how FEMA responds to natural disasters.

Mullen and his collaborators have been pitching a version of the idea for years, and found support from a former mayor and former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. But it’s been dismissed or criticized.

Mullen is unperturbed.

“Why not try?” he said. “Do you just let people keep dying? Or do you actually try to do something to get them off the streets?”

City officials are pushing their mega-shelter plans

Mayor Gloria announced a plan earlier this month to convert a massive warehouse near San Diego International Airport to a long-term mega-shelter with 1,000 beds. The site would include 24-hour security, meals, showers and other amenities, plus services to connect people with housing.

Another large shelter being considered, dubbed H Barracks, initially aimed to provide temporary beds for up to 700 people, also near the airport. The plan faced some local opposition in the fall when more than 6,000 residents signed a petition urging the city to kill the idea.


Gloria said that the H Barracks plan could change if city leaders act on his new proposal and sign a long-term lease for the warehouse site.

None of these shelter proposals address housing costs

San Diego was recently ranked the most expensive U.S. city to live in by U.S. News and World Report.

Gloria called the lack of affordable housing the “primary cause” of the current crisis.

“It is not uncommon to have a conversation with a resident who is incensed about our homelessness crisis but will simultaneously, in the very same conversation, share their opposition to more housing,” Gloria said.

It’s one place where advocates and the mayor agree.

“None of these ideas are going to solve homelessness without homes for people to go into,” McConnell said. “People don’t drop out of the sky onto the street; they were in housing, and they became homeless. These were your housed neighbors and now they’re your unhoused neighbors.”

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For your downtime

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Going out

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And finally ... a great photo

Show us your favorite place in California! We’re running low on submissions. Send us photos that scream California and we may feature them in an edition of Essential California.

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Jessie Munoz emerges from a trap door in the Belmont Shore Model Railroad Club track layout.
(Joel Barhamand / For The Times)

Today’s great photo is from Times contributor Joel Barhamand at the Belmont Shore Railroad Club in San Pedro.


Have a great day, from the Essential California team

Ryan Fonseca, reporter
Defne Karabatur, fellow
Andrew Campa, Sunday reporter
Kevinisha Walker, multiplatform editor and Saturday reporter
Christian Orozco, assistant editor
Stephanie Chavez, deputy metro editor
Karim Doumar, head of newsletters

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