San Diego mayor says Bridge Shelters contribute to 5% decrease in homeless population

As we've been reporting, the latest homeless population counts over the past two years in many Bay Area cities and counties, included sharp increases. 

By one count, the number of homeless people in San Francisco increased by 17% since 2017. In Santa Clara County the homeless population increased 31% in the same amount of time. And in Alameda County the homeless population rose by 43% over the last two years. 

But in San Diego County, the number of homeless people declined by about 5% since 2017. We sat down with San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who said some of his policies are similar to those being implemented in Bay Area cities, but that others included a "tougher approach." 

Faulconer, a Republican, said doing things differently than the way they've been done for the last 10 or 15 years, helps set the tone when addressing the issue of homelessness. 

"I've really tried to set that tone in terms of new opportunities, Bridge Shelters that we've been putting up, that I think are making a remarkable difference," Faulconer told KTVU on Wednesday. 

The city has also implemented homeless storage centers, so they're not removing belongings and "debris" off the street. 

"But also working with our police department to ensure that we're getting folks off the street, not just for a day, but really in a shelter and into permanent supportive housing. It's about helping people get off the street, but also saying very clearly that a sidewalk, a tarp, or a river bed is not suitable for a home."

Faulconer said encouraging people to get off the sidewalk takes a direct approach with not only the police department, but also with outreach workers. 

"Our neighborhood policing division is going out there with an offer of help and support first," he said. 

Faulconer admits that they need more beds. "As we've opened up these bridge shelters, [we] now have 750 people in them a night. We're opening a fourth bridge shelter." He calls the bridge shelters a commitment to the neighborhoods. KPBS reports San Diego's Bridge shelters will remain open at least through June 2020. 

In San Francisco, there is a similar concept called Navigation Centers that have been highly contentious within the community.

The program began in 2015 and the city is currently operating six of these centers. The latest is slated to open near San Francisco's Embarcadero, but critics are concerned about safety issues and don't want a homeless shelter in their neighborhood.

City officials have said the centers are monitored 24/7 and that they will step-up police presence at the proposed Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center. 

"It's not compassionate to let someone sleep in a tent city or sleep on a sidewalk and that's the very clear message that we're saying in San Diego," Faulconer said. 

The mayor said the city's several storage facilities they offer the homeless population are free. 

"If stuff is left unattended for more than three hours, the city is going to take action, to make sure they're placed somewhere, but again with a very strong message that says, you cannot be leaving this at our parks, next to our schools, next to neighborhoods." 

There are critics to the mayor's approach. Some have said this approach is too forceful or too radical. To that, Faulconer said, "Sometimes you have to help people make a change and you have to force that change." 

Recently he was speaking with someone in San Diego who told him, "Thank you for helping get rid of the tents at the freeway underpass down at Imperial", a street in San Diego. The person disclosed to the mayor that he was doing meth and feeling unproductive, but that because the change was forced, he got into a Bridge Shelter and that because he's a veteran, he found out he had benefits he was unaware of.

Now he's in an apartment and getting permanent supportive housing. 

"That's exactly what we want," said Faulconer. "Particularly when it comes to the issues of dually-diagnosed and mental health issues. You have to intervene to make a difference in people's lives and in our streets and neighborhoods."