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Homeless crisis in San Diego | One-on-One with Mayor Todd Gloria

CBS 8's Shannon Handy discusses San Diego's homelessness crisis with Mayor Todd Gloria.

SAN DIEGO — A new report shows San Diego's homelessness crisis is getting worse.

The regional task force on homelessness released results from its February homeless count today - the first one conducted in two years.

The report counted 8,427 homeless people in San Diego, a 10-percent increase over 2020.

Below is the full video and transcript of the one-on-one interview: CBS 8's Shannon Handy sat down with San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria to discuss San Diego's homelessness crisis.

Shannon Handy - CBS 8

"All right, I'm just gonna jump right into it. I'm going to read you a few comments from viewers based on homeless stories we've done. 

'It's out of control.' 

'Poor San Diego used to be the gem of California.' 

'Where's the millions of dollars we have poured into helping the homeless.'

'Maybe we need to audit these programs and see what they're really doing.'

'I want to know how Coronado keeps them away.' 

'What's Todd Gloria doing about it?' 

Your response?"

Todd Gloria, San Diego Mayor  

"What I sensed in all those statements is frustration. And, I share that frustration. I'm a San Diegan as well, I go about my day, and I see what is occurring on our sidewalks and our canyons along our freeways. As a third generation San Diegan it makes me very angry to see this. What I think is often missing in those situations is context, both for what we're doing to try to address it, and why it's happening. And I think that's the story that we have to tell. And I appreciate this opportunity to do that."

Shannon Handy - CBS 8 

"So. we just held the first homeless count in two years and we're expecting those numbers to be released within days. What can we expect from those numbers at this point?"

Todd Gloria, San Diego Mayor  

"I don't need to see the numbers to know that it's gonna be bigger. And what I know is that the count is imperfect. I've volunteered for that count for many years, waking up early in the morning and doing that count, we perform it in January or February on what is often a cold or rainy day, and it affects the count. People figure out a way to find housing under difficult circumstances. If it's particularly cold, they will buddy up, they will call in favors, they will use their last nickel to get a hotel room. That affects our count. So, whatever the number is, we're required to share that to the federal government in order to get funding to help serve our homeless population. At the end of the day, we know it's going to be bigger, because there are so many pressures that are pushing people out on the streets; rising rents, more evictions, a mental illness crisis that we don't talk nearly enough about, a substance abuse crisis that is visible everywhere. There are so many drivers behind homelessness. The many effective programs that we're advancing here at the city are often hamstrung by the fact that while we may be able to get hundreds of people off the streets, and we have, there's often hundreds more that have fallen onto the streets every day."

RELATED: Downtown San Diego residents say homeless problem keeps getting worse

Shannon Handy, CBS 8  

"I've been told by your office that this is your top priority. I just saw some of the homeless outreach people in your office actually leaving when I came in. How often are you meeting about this? How often does this come up in your daily interactions about how to solve this problem?"

Todd Gloria, San Diego Mayor  

"Every single day. I live downtown. It is not uncommon as I'm walking out of my building to come to work and people talk to me about it, or that I don't see it for myself. It is common in interactions with constituents. No matter what the subject, no matter where we are, whether that's a park opening or a charity dinner, this is on people's minds. And then importantly, within this office, it comes up in all of our policy meetings, all of our council meetings, it's everywhere. What I think is different is the way that we've tried to engage it, to be intentional about it, if it is the highest priority in the city then we need to act like it. So soon after becoming mayor, I established the Department of Homelessness Solutions and Strategies. I hired a director to come run it. Her door is two doors down from my door, meaning to say that every single day that I'm here, the person that runs point on this for our city sees me too. When we're here getting water out of our kitchen and filling up our water glasses, we talk about it. When I'm passing by and I just had a conversation with a constituent I can say, 'Hey, listen, I heard about a bad encampment at this intersection, that there's a person with a mental illness crisis happening here.' Then she has her team able to work on it. My point is, I've attempted to elevate this issue in a way that it hasn't been before. We didn't have a Department of Homeless Solutions previously. That individual didn't have an office in the mayor's office. 

These are the things that we're changing just to make it functionally the same as what San Diegans are saying, which is we want you to work on this more than anything else. I think that's one of the things that's really telling for the acuity of this problem. In the middle of a pandemic and economic uncertainty, this is what people talk to me the most about. So it's why they might be afraid for their health and the health of their family. They might be struggling with their finances because of a variety of things. This is what when people see me on the sidewalk in the streets. at events. this is what they talk to me about. I think that shows why we're elevating this the way we are in my administration, why we're funding it like we have never done before. And, why you see me in Washington and Sacramento asking for reforms, trying to mirror the urgency that San Diegans really feel on this issue."

RELATED: San Diego City Council propose homeless conservatorship task force

Shannon Handy, CBS 8  

"There is an urgency but it seems like it's so slow moving. Here's a two page list of all the things that your office has done, and all the money that you've poured into this problem. It's a fact; your office has poured more money than other administrations but it seems like the problem is getting worse. I mean, you live downtown. You walk near the ballpark, go out front the post office. It's really, really bad. It seems like we're pouring money and pouring more shelter space into this issue. But is it working?"

Todd Gloria, San Diego Mayor  

"We are showing thousands of people who are not in the streets every night because of our shelter beds.  Hundreds of people have transitioned from the shelter beds into housing. But, it's still not enough. This is a part of the education piece, because I think people's anger maybe blinds them to the facts and the circumstances we find ourselves in. The pandemic has been horrible for all of us. But it has been particularly bad for homeless individuals. I respect the fact that if you're not unsheltered this may not have been your understanding but allow me to educate: Social distancing for you and I may have meant that we stood six feet apart when we got our cup of coffee. For homeless people, that meant hundreds of shelter beds that could not be used because we had to maintain social distance within our shelters. That impacts things. So yeah, you spend more than you ever have but what you're paying for you don't have access to because the public health border doesn't allow us to use those beds. We only recently got that capacity back and we still struggle with it because when we have positive tests it requires social distancing. 

Our criminal justice system has not been running at full tilt for the last two years. Our ability to book people in the jail; our ability to hold them there with bail, these are things that have not been tools that are in our toolbox for the last couple of years. And so when people say, 'Mayor, why are there more people out there, you're doing all of this stuff.' 

There are a multitude of reasons why but I would say the primary culprit in this situation has been the pandemic. That's why you've seen me be aggressive and asking people get vaccinated, you know, advancing the enforcement of the public health order. This isn't because we enjoy doing that. We recognize it's what's necessary to put the pandemic behind us not just for good public health, but because it is limiting our ability to respond to the biggest problem going on right now, which is homelessness. 

I will tell you that on May 15th a bill is going to be reinstituted in San Diego County for the first time in nearly two years. What that means is that not that all homeless people are criminals, that's not the case. But if you're a criminal and you happen to be homeless, or if you're not, if you are housed, I believe there ought to be consequences for your behavior. I would argue that a lot of the consequences have not been there for some time. And if some of your viewers are saying this stuff is crazy, this is criminal, there's something should be done about it, well, the answer may be that we may not be booking people in the jail for that currently. And we may not even if we did, they probably can be let out on their own recognizance because we have zero bail. 

I'm excited about the fact that that ends this Sunday. And I think that will be another tool in our toolbox to help us to control the circumstances that are going on throughout our community, and often, particularly within our homeless population."

RELATED: California mayors call for extension of funds to combat homelessness

Shannon Handy, CBS 8  

"And I think you bring up a great point because often what our viewers say is that a lot of these homeless people are breaking the law, they're doing drugs, they've got chop shops with stolen bikes, they're defecating, they're urinating in public. 

If I did that I would probably get a ticket, right? 

But no one is out there, or it seems, giving them tickets or doing anything about it. We've heard from officers that their hands are tied. So are you saying that with bail reinstituted that maybe we're going to start seeing some of these laws actually in place where, you know, people are being ticketed, and having consequences for these actions?"

Todd Gloria, San Diego Mayor  

"Absolutely. I believe that will help. And I'm very supportive of that. There has to be some level of enforcement. I think that's one of the tightropes that we walk. There are some folks who seem they want to excuse behavior from individuals because they happen to be homeless. I don't agree with that. If you are committing a crime, I don't care if you're housed or unhoused, you should be held responsible. And again, that's nothing to do with our homeless policies, that has been a response or a need because the pandemic. 

We have seen congregate settings that are jails, you know, as being a means of facilitating the spread of the virus. And so I understood why this measure was necessary but I have been pushing and lobbying our presiding judge and others to get these changes made. These are not decisions of the mayor. I don't decide who gets booked into jail. I don't get to decide whether or not we have bail. Other people make those decisions. They have all heard from me about this change that I want. The good news is we're getting the outcome that we want. So, there has to be consequences. 

Again, I want to be very careful. It is not saying all homeless people are criminals, far from it, but there are folks who are doing open drug dealing, open prostitution, other kinds of things that are not acceptable and we have to be able to enforce upon them. 

For our officers, their hands have been tied to the extent that maybe the crime that they're witnessing is not a bookable offense, or if they did book that person in it's almost futile because you could take them to jail and they may beat you back to the sidewalk, you know, as you're walking back to your car. That may cause them to reevaluate what calls they respond to. I want them to respond to all calls. I want them to respond to every call that is a crime because there has to be consequences in an organized society. This is among the many prices we pay during the pandemic. 

I've been really frustrated because a lot of times people have been critical of my willingness to enforce the public health order, my desire to have a vaccine mandate, the promotions that we've done around vaccines, they've acted like the spread of this virus hasn't been incredibly painful to all of us, not just our kids who couldn't go to school, but in our homeless ecosystem. I've seen people yell at me about this issue, and they don't understand that what they have been doing by helping to facilitate the spread of this virus has had direct consequences when it comes to our homeless situation. 

Another area that's not we haven't talked about is encampment cleanups along our freeway, you know, for the better part of the last few years Caltrans was not doing that because CDC guidance said that that was not going to be helpful for curtailing the pandemic. Now, we've resumed that in the city has decided to partner one of our homeless service providers with Caltrans so that when they go out and do those abatements we're not simply moving folks from one freeway intersection to the other. Governor Newsom came to San Diego to highlight this as a best practice, other cities are now following our lead. I understand if San Diegans aren't aware of that, or don't necessarily see the fruits of that work just yet, because it's only been in place for a short while. But my point is, as more of our tools are returned to us, because we have been able to reduce infections, increase vaccinations, it's allowing us to hopefully make a meaningful difference in what people are seeing along our freeways in our sidewalks in our streets."

Shannon Handy, CBS 8  

"You know, some people have said we're turning into San Francisco which has a notorious homeless situation. But on the flip side are you looking at other large cities across the country that don't have such a huge homeless problem and asking yourself, what is it that they're doing right?"

Todd Gloria, San Diego Mayor  

"Well, I'm always interested in learning from other people's experience. I was a history major in college for that reason. I recognize you don't have to reinvent the wheel, you can look to other examples and try and adapt them to your circumstances. The fact of the matter is there is not a mayor I speak to across this country that is not dealing with this exact same issue. Communities that have long been heralded for what they've been able to do are dealing with this situation. 

The City of New York, you see that they've long been a right to shelter community, but they now also have encampments on their sidewalks. This is a community where they are required to provide shelter for these individuals and yet there are still people ended up in emcampments on the streets. Washington, DC, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, LA, everyone is dealing with this. 

I spoke at a recent conference of mayors on the issue of homelessness. And when my comments were completed, I was swarmed by my colleagues who are from cities big and small, on the coast and in the interior, in red and blue states. A guy follow me into the restroom, that's how much other mayor's are feeling under siege by this issue. And they're asking us well, what can we do, and I will tell you that, you know, whether it's our coordinated street outreach, our expansion in shelter beds, the construction of more permanent supportive housing, we are implementing what are understood to be best practices in the space. 

We're also trying to find new ways to to address this issue. Whether that's the Caltrans service provider collaboration to make sure, you know, freeway cleanups are better, or our demands around behavioral health reform. I think one of the biggest areas that we can make a difference is changing the state's laws when it comes to how we interact with severely mentally ill people. Our current threshold of saying that if you're not a threat to yourself, or someone else that we're just going to let you be is wrong. It is not based on common sense. 

There is no San Diegan who would look at some of the individuals who are allowed to walk around our community and say that they are clearly capable of caring for themselves. They can't. So let's stop acting like they can and change the laws so that we allow compulsory responsibility on the individual to get care and our government to provide that care because what we currently are doing is leaving our most vulnerable people to die on our streets. That is wrong."

Shannon Handy, CBS 8

"I think mental health is so key because you can build more low income housing, you can increase shelter space, but when you walk down the street, and you see people that are clearly mentally ill, they are not going to a shelter, and they're not the ones looking for low-income housing. They don't even know where they're from, or their first name. And that's what a lot of people see as being the problem, it's not the woman or the man that lost their job during the pandemic and now they're living on the street, it's these people that just need mental health."

Todd Gloria, San Diego Mayor  

"I want to be clear, we have to serve all of them. But it is true that there is a group of individuals who find themselves unsheltered who are relatively easy to serve. They may need some minimum subsidies, a little bit of job training, maybe a little bit of housing navigation, and they're good to go. There are other folks that require more significant interventions. And we have those opportunities. But where I see a huge need is for the severely mentally ill. These are folks who are dealing with psychosis or substance abuse disorder. And, it really prevents them from being able to accept the help that is provided. That really requires changes in state law. 

You have seen me stand with Governor Newsom at the announcement of his Care Court proposal because I see that as being one of the ways that we can disrupt the status quo on homelessness, do something different innovative, something that other states might choose to replicate, as well as testify in support of bills in the legislature to change our conservatorship laws. These are things that when I was in the legislature just a year and a half ago were unthinkable. 

These bills are now advancing through the legislature on bipartisan unanimous votes because legislators all across the state, red and blue, interior and coastal, they all see it. It's not just the San Diego thing, everyone is dealing with this. So, what I'm saying is, is that we have to continue to help those people who need minimal assistance, we have to work with those folks who may need a bit more. But, for this group of folks that are so difficult to reach, we have to help them. We have to change our laws and our programs to assist those people because those are the people that I think San Diegans are most troubled by. They're the ones that stick out. 

A lot of our homeless blend in. Your restaurant server, your daycare worker, there's any number of people who you probably interact with on a daily basis that you would not know are sleeping in their cars or couchsurfing. The ones that people notice and get frustrated by are the people standing on the street corner screaming. There's a man in my neighborhood who walks around without pants on. And the answer right now in California is that if we approached them with this one of our outreach workers and say would you like some assistance, and they turned us down? That's the end of the conversation. And that is just wrong, we have to be able to follow up and say, with deep respect and with complete, understanding that civil liberties are something that we have to cherish. These folks are not capable of making that decision for themselves. 

We have to provide them with advocates and supporters and due process. We have to find some way to say that it is not okay to leave our severely mentally ill people on our sidewalks. What I'm encouraged by is that that conversation that was basically nowhere a year or two ago, is now seemingly everywhere. I actually do have relative confidence that something will happen this year, the governor has been clear he wants this done this year. I believe that if on our current trajectory, those modifications and reforms could be adopted before the fall, and hopefully implementable according the governor's timeline by January 2023."

Shannon Handy, CBS 8  

"What about the resources? Say that you have the law behind you where you can go up to someone who's clearly mentally ill and get them forced help, so to speak. When you take them to a place, will there be enough people to help them? Is there going to be enough space in a facility that's able to help them?"

RELATED: City resumes enforcement on homeless encampments in Midway area

Todd Gloria, San Diego Mayor  

"That is absolutely the next question. First, we have to get agreement that this is what we want to do as a society. It's a no brainer to me. How can we, as a civilized society, in a city, state and nation as wealthy as ours, to allow these people to be on the streets? I think we can get that agreement. The next step is how do you actually implement it? 

What the Governor has proposed under his Care Court proposal is real repercussions for communities that don't provide those kind of services. I'm here as the mayor of the second largest city in the state, saying I will accept that responsibility if I'm given the tool of providing the compulsory responsibility to accept the services. This is a very complex subject.  I want people to think of this as public education. We have a compulsory responsibility when it comes to public education, both on the parent and student to be educated, and on school districts to provide the schools, the teachers and the textbooks to actually do education. 

This is essentially what we're arguing for when it comes to severe mental illness that there's a compulsory responsibility to get services and on government to actually provide them. That's what this legislative action is intended to do, create that responsibility. Everyone has skin in the game. Everyone has to deliver, both the individual who currently often declined services and on the responsible parties at the state, county and local levels to say we will provide those services".

Shannon Handy, CBS 8  

"Do you think that the County is doing their part? Do you think they're doing enough?"

Todd Gloria, San Diego Mayor  

"They're doing more than they ever have? This is a bright spot. When I was a city council member, it was difficult to get the County of San Diego to engage on the issue of homelessness. Under the leadership of Chairman Nathan Fletcher, this has been very different. Could they do more? Yes, I'd always like them to do more. The problem is enormous. I'd like the city to do more and my budget requests from the City Council reflects that. What I will tell you is that you can look at the fact that to prior to now the shelters that have existed in our community are largely city funded. It's usually a City of San Diego initiative in partnership with a non-profit provider like Alpha Project or Father Joe's. In the last couple of months you've seen the city and county collaborating on shelters. It's our C-Heart shelter on Sports Arena Boulevard. We took an old city facility, partnered with Alpha Project and the county. Now, all three of us are providing shelter beds at that site right now for severely mentally ill individuals. 

We're partnering as we speak to stand up a another 150-bed shelter on county property. The city will be providing operational dollars. We're going to partner with Alpha Project, which will provide both behavioral health workers and the property. So, what you're seeing is greater collaboration between the City and the County. We need to do more of that. This is no longer a downtown San Diego issue. It is no longer just a City of San Diego issue. All 18 cities in this county and the unincorporated areas see the kinds of encampments that you typically have only seen in East Village. That is sad. But, it's a fact. 

That's why other cities have to engage on this matter. They have to start providing shelters. They have to start constructing permanent supportive housing. They have to have homeless outreach. It's not sufficient for the city, we certainly have the majority of the population, but we do not have the entire population. We need collaboration. What I know from San Diegans is they do not care which side of the city limit a certain unsheltered individual is on. They want that person served. I couldn't agree more. So if they're on the city of San Diego side or on the National City side, or the Del Mar side, whatever the case may be, those cities have to have some skin in the game. They have to be willing to provide solutions to this very significant problem."

Shannon Handy, CBS 8  

"If we were to sit down this time next year, do you think the homeless issue will be better? Will we have less people living on the streets? What do you foresee in the next year?"

Todd Gloria, San Diego Mayor  

"I would like to be optimistic in this regard, in part because this collaboration between the City and County is real. It's gonna deliver hundreds of additional shelter beds over the next couple of months. I believe that the state will take action to address behavioral health reform. That certainly will help. The COVID restrictions and in some cases have made the situation worse, will continue to abate. And so things like bail, social distancing, and other things that have been constricting, will get better. It's a reminder to San Diegans to continue to get vaccinated take this virus seriously. Please do your part to not spread it. I think those are things that trend in our in our favor. 

We have 450 additional shelter beds in the next couple of months. That will go a long way to helping people. We've exited 600 people out of our shelter system into permanent housing. They're not going back to the streets. They're off the streets for good. If we can continue on that trajectory, it's good. Let me tell you what I am worried about. I'm worried about rising rents and evictions. So every individual we get off the streets may be replaced by another family that just got evicted from a rent increase they couldn't sustain. Inflation and what that does to household budgets and people making really unfortunate and difficult decisions may result in them ending up on the streets. 

The mental health crisis that we do not talk enough about. I'm not talking just about the severely mentally ill but you see the shootings, you see the violence, a lot of that is mental illness driven. That kind of stuff does result in people becoming homeless and we need to get our arms around that. And drugs, specifically methamphetamine and opioids, particularly fentanyl. Part of why San Diegans are so frustrated by the situation is these drugs were not a large part of our homeless population. It was always there but now it is just writ large. 

When you see good reporting today about the number of deaths that we're seeing in terms of overdose deaths, while many most of those deaths happen in people's homes and their businesses and hotels, you know, out of out of sight out of mind, a lot of this is current in our encampments. And so, I have optimism when I think about the collaboration with the county the growth in our shelter beds and permanent supportive housing beds, the potential for behavioral health reform and continued progress on the pandemic. But I worry a great deal about evictions and rising rents. I worry a lot about inflation. I worry a lot about mental health, and I worry a lot about substance abuse disorder."

Shannon Handy, CBS 8  

"Well, I appreciate you sitting down with us and for your transparency. And when we have more time we'll have to discuss all these issues further..."

Todd Gloria, San Diego Mayor  

"It's complex. There are no simple solutions to this problem. It is extremely complex. Our challenge has to be that we're willing to provide a variety of offerings in order to address people's individual concerns. I appreciate the chance to be able to tell this story to San Diegans, who understandably are frustrated. I want them to know I'm frustrated as well. But that doesn't deter me from engaging on this matter. If anything, it's caused me to roll my sleeves up and work harder. 

We can change the narrative on the situation. I ask for people's partnership. For people to understand that primarily, this is a housing issue, and that we have to be willing to open up our communities to provide the kinds of services that we know end homelessness, and that can be often scary. I encourage San Diegans to look at some of our existing facilities. We have homeless shelters on the 2300 block of San Diego Avenue in Old Town Mission Hills. You would have no idea that dozens of homeless veterans live at that facility. Sixth than A is one of our larger homeless shelters. It's generally I think, a very well run operation. Rescue Mission, which is on Elm Street and in front in downtown San Diego, hundreds of homeless families and women that live there everyday, you would not know that those are facilities that are operated as homeless shelters.

 And that should be what people envision when I share with them that every neighborhood has to be part of the solution. It's not about large encampments. It's not about a lot of queuing and feeding operations. It's about providing people the basic human dignity of home of a bed. We need to build a lot more of this. And I look forward to be able to continue to explain to San Diegans what effective solutions look like and to work with them to actually deployed because we cannot claim to be America's Finest City if we have 8,000 homeless people living on our streets."

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