Recall candidate Kevin Faulconer says his record on homelessness as San Diego’s mayor is a model for how he would tackle California’s crisis as governor.
Faulconer, a moderate Republican who was mayor from 2014 through 2020, claims on his campaign website that he “transformed San Diego into the only big city in California where outdoor homelessness went down.”
On the campaign trail, Faulconer has repeatedly said he got this done by requiring people to move from San Diego’s streets into shelters. He’s vowed to take the same approach to deal with homelessness statewide.
“We have to get people off the sidewalks,” he said in a June interview with Fox 11 in Los Angeles. “As mayor of San Diego, I did not allow tent encampments in San Diego.”
Faulconer has also criticized Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom for California’s 24% increase in homelessness during Newsom’s first two years as governor. Last month, he released a plan for creating more shelters statewide while stepping up enforcement of no-camping laws in public spaces.
Given Faulconer’s focus on this crisis, we decided to take a closer look at his record on homelessness in San Diego, specifically his claims that he did not allow tent encampments and reduced homelessness.
Clearing Tent Cities
Faulconer’s first claim is generally correct but needs context. He instructed law enforcement to take an “approach focused on compassion as well as action,” according to his website, to connect people with shelters before clearing so-called tent cities on public sidewalks.
While local governments are authorized to cite people for sleeping on public property in some cases, a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling limited that authority, requiring that they must provide adequate alternatives such as shelters.
The lack of shelter capacity in cities from Sacramento to Los Angeles has prevented local officials from enforcing laws against public camping.
Still, San Diego experts and political observers said Faulconer’s claims about clearing camps, as with some of his other statements on homelessness, ignore key facts.
John Brady, a board member on the San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness, said removing the camps didn’t make the problem of homelessness go away, but pushed it to outlying neighborhoods.
“We were very aggressive as a city in enforcement of encampments — I believe to the point where it actually harmed the unsheltered community and was traumatizing,” said Brady, who was previously unhoused. “From a service provider and outreach perspective, that [dispersal] created some difficulties because we had a continuously moving population.”
Others point out that Faulconer’s clearing of camps didn’t have a lasting effect.
“He didn’t get rid of all of them. And didn’t get rid of them permanently because they’re now back,” said Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College.
Observers say Faulconer should be credited with increasing the city’s shelter beds, which Brady noted “were desperately needed,” and for eventually agreeing to open the city’s convention center to unhoused residents early on in the COVID-19 crisis.
Even so, Brady and others described Faulconer as a hesitant leader on homelessness, a politician who tried to address the problem, but mainly through short-term fixes and without enough emphasis on long-term solutions such as permanent supportive housing.
“The mayor was a reluctant player who really began to engage on homelessness during our hepatitis A outbreak,” Brady explained.
From 2017 to 2018, the disease spread across San Diego’s homeless population, leaving hundreds sick and killing 20 people, the nation’s worst outbreak in two decades.
Observers said Faulconer did not ignore homelessness before the outbreak, but the horrific results added new urgency.
In interviews and press releases, Faulconer frequently claims he reduced homelessness in San Diego “by double digits,” noting it was the only big city in California to do so.
Results from San Diego’s 2020 point-in-time count, an annual survey of homeless individuals, support Faulconer’s statement. No other large California city can claim a significant reduction from 2019 to 2020. In fact, many saw their numbers rise.
But like Faulconer’s claim on encampments, he leaves out key information.
“The statistic can be a little misleading,” said Brady, whose task force conducts the annual counts. “The true statistic is the mayor under his leadership saw a 12% reduction in unsheltered homelessness. It wasn’t a [double digit] reduction in total homelessness.”
The survey shows San Diego achieved a more modest 4 percent drop in overall homelessness in 2020 when including the city’s unsheltered and sheltered populations.
Additionally, Faulconer’s statement omits the fact that “the point-in-time count changed during the time he was mayor,” leading to a more limited survey, said Jennifer Nations, a researcher at UC San Diego’s Homelessness Hub, which provides data to policy makers and service providers.
The San Diego homelessness task force made changes in 2018 and 2019 to how they conducted surveys at the urging of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or HUD. Experts said the changes should lead to a more accurate count, but they make historical comparisons misleading.
In his role on the task force, Brady said he cautioned against comparing the recent point-in-time count results with previous ones given the changes in methodology. The changes, he said, limit the group’s ability to count those who are homeless but less visible.
“Unless we made physical contact with somebody, we were unable to recognize them as homeless,” Brady said, referring to the new methodology. “In prior years, if we had seen a van or a vehicle that looked like it was being inhabited, we counted that as two individuals. But moving forward with the new HUD guidance, we were unable to do that.”
In a written statement, Faulconer campaign spokesperson Gus Portela said the former mayor stands by his statements and accomplishments:
"While many other cities and the state as a whole saw massive increases, Mayor Faulconer showed that his compassionate but firm approach to homelessness — providing a right to shelter with an obligation to use it — is the proven solution our state desperately needs.”
Portela did not respond to a question about the criticism he’s received for not making homelessness a bigger priority before the hepatitis A outbreak.
Nations, the homelessness researcher, said Faulconer can point to a slight reduction in overall homelessness during his full tenure as mayor. The city’s total homeless population declined by 312 from his first year in office to his last, ending at 4,887 in the 2020 count. Most of that decline comes from people who were unsheltered, meaning those on the street, in vehicles or abandoned buildings.
“The numbers are not great, but he’s not lying,” Nations added about Faulconer’s statements on reducing homelessness. “I think the larger question is, ‘Did he really make a dent in San Diego’s approach to homelessness?’ And I would say absolutely not.”
That assessment hasn’t kept Faulconer from proposing the same streets-to-shelter approach to tackle the statewide homelessness emergency. His plan calls for creating enough shelter space across California to then legally obligate people to “vacate public spaces” if they refuse to accept shelter.
Kevin Faulconer, Fox 11 Los Angeles interview, June 21, 2021
Gus Portela, email exchange, July 23, 2021.
San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness, 2020 point-in-time count and Summary Results from the San Diego Regional 2014 Point-In-Time Count, accessed July 2021.
John Brady, board member on the San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness, interview July 19, 2021.
Jennifer Nations, homelessness researcher, UC San Diego Homelessness Hub, interview July 19, 2021.
Carl Luna, political science professor, San Diego Mesa College, interview July 14, 2021.
Voice of San Diego, Faulconer Hopes His Action on Homelessness Will Overshadow His Failure, Dec. 7, 2021.
Associated Press, Tents considered blessing for homeless in San Diego, Dec. 7, 2017
CapRadio California’s Homeless Population Rose 7% To 161,000 Ahead Of The Pandemic, New Report Finds, March 9, 2021.
National Homelessness Law Center, Supreme Court Lets Martin v. Boise Stand: Homeless Persons Cannot Be Punished for Sleeping in Absence of Alternatives, Dec. 16, 2019
NPR, Homelessness In Los Angeles County Rises Sharply, June 12, 2020
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