This three-part, long-form San Diego Sun feature story offers a current, too-familiar snapshot of homelessness in East Village.
PART 1: ACKNOWLEDGING THE PROBLEM
PART 2: ATTEMPTING TO DO BUSINESS
PART 3: ADDRESSING SOLUTIONS
Downtown San Diego’s East Village is ground zero in a city that recently ranked fifth-highest in homeless population in the United States.
One businessman believes homelessness has turned the neighborhood into a “war-zone.”
He says East Village isn’t conducive for creating a positive culture or work environment, and should be avoided at all costs. This CEO would refuse a rent-free offer to move his office there.
Indeed, homelessness is a dark veneer that stains the business sheen of East Village. It’s hard to know the exact number of people living unsheltered. The methodology of San Diego's official 2019 Point in Time count was questioned; last year's count was cancelled due to COVID.
The next count could show there are up to 10,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city.
Unsheltered denizens here are heartbreakingly unavoidable. Itinerant tent encampments routinely encircle the downtown U.S. Post Office. Tents and groups also regularly coalesce around the former public library building on E Street.
Pre-COVID, the largest and most unsightly encampment was outside the Neil Good Day Center on 17th Street. It was disbanded. Now, a smaller, trash-strewn assemblage has returned, set up outside the gate near the I-5 onramp.
Downtown's circle of life is more a circle of despair.
BREAKING HEARTS & MINDS
Walking through East Village can require activation of mental defense mechanisms. Compartmentalization of your soul. Numbing of your heart.
How else do you avoid bawling at the sight of half-clothed, baby-faced lost boys sprawled out asleep next to sunbaked fast-food leftovers and human excrement?
Personal note: East Village is where I live and work.
I’ve written decades’ worth of seemingly redundant articles about homelessness. Most could be accompanied by the same soundtrack: political campaign promise dissolving into unmet expectation.
If you run a business in downtown San Diego, it’s possible you’ve subconsciously numbed both heart and mind to the sight of human being living in ramshackle tents and under dirt-crusted tarps.
Until, that is, those human beings relieve themselves in the alley next to your boutique. Or stand by the entrance of your restaurant to panhandle customers for spare change.
Most East Village business owners are truly empathetic. But justifiably frustrated. Pissed off, even.
Some aim their anger directly at the unsheltered community.
It's widely acknowledged individuals living on downtown streets are suffering from untreated mental issues and physical disabilities. Drug and alcohol addiction is a predominant underlying factor. As is a lack of financial resources and a disconnect from a family support system.
Residents and business owners will tell you there’s also a criminal element that roams the city. It’s fair to say a percentage of these “urban cowboys” don’t want help. Especially not when it’s offered from the uniformed officers of the San Diego Police Department.
This is where a critical disconnect occurs.
Some East Village observers believe the ne’er-do-wells outnumber unfortunate souls who need and would accept housing and critical services. A few business owners believe up to 90 to 100 percent of people experiencing homelessness want to be living on the street.
Stories get passed around about encounters by the police with people living on the street that end with the rejection of an offer to enter temporary shelter.
That’s largely true—even according to passionate advocates for the homeless community. However, what’s missing from the full picture of these negated transaction is the state of the available temporary shelter.
An insufficient supply of permanent supportive housing—as well as a shortage of temporary shelters—exacerbates the assistance that can be meted out to folks legitimately in need of humane assistance.
Congregant shelter—when spots are available—is often perceived as more traumatic and dangerous to people experiencing homelessness than the relative safety of a street encampment shared with friends and acquaintances.
The SDPD is aware that people experiencing homelessness don’t trust uniformed law enforcement officers. That distrust is spread among many people living on the street—each one with a unique personal story about how he or she ended up without a roof over his or her head.
This intractable quandary hasn’t changed for decades. Politicians run campaigns touting solutions. Once elected, they announce long-range goals. Terms come and go. The bleak status quo persists. Then, the next pol makes similar promises and plans.
The faces change. The needle doesn’t move.
San Diego has been near the top of the national homelessness population leaderboard for more than a decade.
Most frustratingly, our elected officials have know for years how to attack the issue. There are tried-and-true best practices. San Diego has not yet proved capable of fully embracing them.
AN ENTREPRENEURIAL OUTPOST
Inclusive of 130 blocks—between Seventh Avenue and 18th Street—East Village is the largest urban neighborhood in downtown San Diego.
It was a warehouse district until the 1990s. By the turn of the century, artists and social service providers were the primary residents. When Petco Park opened in 2004, gentrification took root. Condos and apartment building began to spring up.
Before the Padres ballpark was built, few visitors to The Gaslamp Quarter, the well-lighted, adjacent entertainment district, ventured east of Sixth Avenue.
Pre-Petco, many weekend revelers in the Gaslamp considered it a risk just to park a car in East Village. Today, it’s estimated the neighborhood is home to more than 700 business—restaurants, bars and boutiques, as well as a variety of start-up companies.
There was a mini-Renaissance. One of the founders of a prolific, high-profile restaurant group says he’s lured by the creative spirit East Village engenders.
“I’m drawn to urban grittiness,” says Arsalun Tafazoli, who lives in East Village two blocks from his Consortium Holdings office. “Along with the grit and the dirt there’s a little more soul.”
Consortium Holdings has spawned 16 bars and restaurants all over the region that deliver popular “immersive experiences.”
“East Village is my neighborhood,” Tafazoli says. “Overly developed areas are not as interesting. In any great metropolitan city, anybody with vision and talent—and without money—goes to places where property values aren’t as great.”
He sees East Village as a grand canvas.
“It gives you an opportunity to do something interesting,” he adds. “If you’re good at what you do, you can build a community. Development in a community and a neighborhood starts with businesses like ours—going into uncharted territory.”
Up until mid-pandemic, Crowe PR was headquartered in East Village.
“Our company spent five years working in East Village and enjoyed the entrepreneurial spirit of the area,” says Anna Crowe, founder and CEO of the rapidly expanding public relations firm.
Yes, Crowe and her all-female staff kept their eyes open after hours when it was dark.
“We did have one incident where someone entered our building and came into our space,” she says. “But that never deterred me from coming into the office. I recommend East Village as a place for doing business, based on my experience. We loved being near Petco Park. And some great restaurants and event venues. Also, it was fantastic having Fit (Athletic Club) in the area."
Crowe previously worked in New York City and has seen bicoastal examples of “less-fortunate people living on the streets.”
She never considered the level of homelessness in East Village a deterrent to doing business. “There's an entrepreneurial spirit in East Village," Crowe says. "I feel fortunate to have met many entrepreneurial-minded people while we were there."
JUST TRYING TO DO BUSINESS
Brant Crenshaw is sitting at a high-top table on the outdoor back patio of Social Tap San Diego. The view appears idyllic. Just outside a fence is the 2.8-acre Gallagher Square public space. The grassy expanse—also known as The Park at the Park—is filled with shade trees. The park rises up a hill and then slopes down to the outfield exterior of Petco Park.
Especially during baseball season, Social Tap sits on prime East Village real estate.
Crenshaw has co-owned the upscale sports bar and eatery for six years. We met while I was researching a story on the best downtown San Diego spots to watch NFL football games on TV.
Social Tap made the list.
In conversation, the omnipresent topic of homelessness comes up. Crenshaw has no interest in trashing the reputation of East Village. That’s not good for business.
However, he has plenty to say about how homelessness is not being addressed. And how a lack of effort by politicians and city officials is negatively affecting the East Village business community.
“We shouldn’t just be talking about it, we should be finding a solution,” Crenshaw says. “This needs to come from the top down and directly from the mayor’s office.”
Crenshaw expresses disdain for oversight of the issue by former Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
“I thought it was hilarious he ran for governor with a platform that he was going to cure the state's homeless problem,” Crenshaw says. “It got worse while he was here!”
Crenshaw says current Mayor Todd Gloria has yet to do any better.
Homelessness, Crenshaw says, should be considered priority number-one by politicians, the East Village Association booster organization, and anybody who cares about doing business in the area.
“In the six years I’ve been here, I’ve watched a minimum of 15 other restaurants within three blocks of me go in and out of business,” he says. “It’s not because they had bad food or service. Because of homelessness, there’s not enough traffic coming into East Village to be successful here.”
Crenshaw quietly fumes about a protracted run-in he had with one individual who was disturbing the peace outside his restaurant. He declines to go on the record with specifics of the incident.
“It took me months to get a restraining order against this certain guy,” Crenshaw says. “Then the police department would come—because I had a restraining order—and they’d take him to jail for three days. Then he’d come back. And the police would take him to jail for seven days.”
After three arrests, Crenshaw says he finally didn’t see the man, again.
Consequences for illegal actions are few and far between, Crenshaw believes. He’s thankful when police can solve these types of issues but says the long-term problem doesn’t get solved.
“The PD are just, in most cases, moving somebody from being out in front of one business to another one—until the next place complains and then they shuffle them back, again,” Crenshaw says.
Captain Shawn Takeuchi, head of the SDPD’s Neighborhood Policing Division recently noted that before this past August, due to COVID concerns, bookings by the police were limited to felony crimes.
“When that changed, we could resume progressive enforcement,” Takeuchi says during an online “Politifest” seminar sponsored in October by media outlet Voice of San Diego.
That’s a mixed-bag of information. Business owners often feel neglected by the police. Homeless advocates says that especially pre-COVID—and continuing today—officers sometimes overstep in ticketing and rousting people sleeping on the street.
LINKEDIN TO EAST VILLAGE
This past June, a headline in The San Diego Union-Tribune announced that software startup ClickUp was expanding into East Village’s DiamondView office tower.
ClickUp is a $4-billion tech company. It sells software that helps businesses be more organized and productive. In negotiating a lease, the company bought naming rights to the DiamondView high-rise, which is also adjacent to Petco Park and Gallagher Square.
In announcing the move-in by ClickUp, a statement from the parent company of DiamondView noted: “It’s perfect space for innovative companies looking for modern creative space with the flexibility to grow.”
When the Union-Tribune reporter posted her ClickUp story on LinkedIn, the comments section quickly included a negative reaction.
“Do they not know about the homeless problem in East Village?” wrote Bill Lyons. His LinkedIn profile indicates he is CEO of mortgage lender Griffin Funding.
On a public thread, I asked Lyons if it was his advice that businesses avoid East Village due to the homeless problem.
“Yep!” he replied. “Until our elected officials with all of our tax dollars solve the problem. I’ve seen too many assaults, deaths and businesses/restaurants close due to the unresolved problem…if you want a positive culture and work environment then a business should avoid the area.”
Lyons had more to post.
“ClickUp will have to provide daily catering for its employees so they don’t have to leave and put themselves in danger,” he wrote. “…I personally would never move my company to East Village even if the rent was free,” Lyons added. “Putting businesses and employees in the middle of a war zone is not the solution.”
This thread didn’t spinout into the flame throwing more common to Twitter. It was calmly capped with an observation bythe U-T reporter.
“Bill Lyons is not alone in that thought among business leaders, including those that have left East Village for this very reason,” wrote former U-T reporter Brittany Meiling, who now works as a newsroom analyst for the Los Angeles Times.
“It’s not something people typically say publicly,” she confirms by telephone. “But privately, I’ve been told this before.”
A ClickUp spokesperson was given a transcript of this LinkedIn discussion. She declined to discuss homelessness in East Village.
“What I can tell you is that the team at ClickUp is very happy at this location,” company spokesperson Tanya Carlsson wrote in an email. “The company is in high growth mode with over 600 employees worldwide today, and growing their team by 20-plus each week.”
She added: “I know that [founder] Zeb [Evans] and the rest of the exec team is very passionate about giving back to the local community. The company is also very much in support of and encourages random acts of kindness but there is a general rule around privacy with that (these acts are not something the company promotes publicly).”
HELPING THE HOMELESS
Before the aforementioned LinkedIn exchange was over, Lyons aired another point of view that is also often whispered, rather than publicly shared.
“The truth is that close to 100 percent of the homeless want to be homeless; most do not want to contribute to society, most want to be irresponsible and most are addicted to drugs, regardless of mental illness or not,” Lyons wrote.
He noted many people living on the street are also dangerous.
“The ones that actually are homeless due to extenuating circumstances and don’t want to be homeless can get help and not be homeless,” Lyons believes. “There are plenty of programs that provide help to those that are down on their luck. Having the city spend millions on building more shelters will not solve the ‘problem’ because we all know that the shelters will be empty for the most part…because, again, they want to be homeless and on the street disrupting society and businesses. San Diego can let them do so or they can put an end to it and clean up the streets.”
Homelessness activist Michael McConnell resolutely disagrees. He believes criminalizing homelessness, as opposed to providing proper services and adequate housing, serves to make homelessness worse.
“I hate to tell you, the homeless problem in East Village was created because San Diego pushed people out of the Gaslamp because we wanted more tourists and conventioneers there,” McConnell says. “Now East Village is gentrifying. The plan should not be to push them out again, this time into Barrio Logan.”
McConnell admits it’s not fair to ignore business owners’ complaints. Rather than issuing tickets, jailing people or sweeping neighborhoods, however, he says a solutions-focused response is necessary.
“If somebody has set up a camp in front of your door, obviously that person has to move,” McConnell says. “You can’t conduct business when somebody is blocking the way or aggressively panhandling to the point that customers don’t want to come in.”
He says individuals have to be told, “you can’t be here—but yes, here are 10 other places you can be.”
Unfortunately, that variety of options doesn’t exist in San Diego, McConnell says.
“Right now, we primarily offer congregate shelter,” he says. That means you’re sleeping three feet from somebody with a hundred-plus other people in the room.”
That doesn’t work for a large percentage of people and is why shelters have a low success rate, McConnell says.
“We have to stop being a complaint-driven system and build a solutions-driven system,” he says.
McConnell says the percentage of people who are shelter-resistant is much higher than the those who are housing-resistant. The SDPD’s Captain Takeuchi has similar observations.
“We all know shelters don’t work, but we keep trying to cram people into them,” McConnell says.
He says the only way to satisfy the legitimate problems business owners have with the homeless population is to dig deeper in the solutions bucket.
“It can be done,” McConnell says. “I see it happen every day. It just doesn’t happen fast enough in scale to reduce the population.”
The federal government has an department called the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Its’ website contains lists of cities and regions that have achieved “functional zero” and have effectively “ended” (within a 3-percent margin) veteran and chronic homelessness.
According to the USICH, 82 communities and three states have essentially stamped out veteran homelessness. Four communities have also abated chronic homelessness.
Why isn’t San Diego on either list?
“We don’t follow best practices,” McConnell says.
Who’s in charge of best practices?
In most communities where progress has been made, McConnell says it’s the mayor of the city with the largest population of homelessness who can take the lead and make a difference.
POLITICS TO THE…RESCUE?
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria says homelessness is his number-one priority.
It’s not just among the top items, he says. It’s the top priority. Numero uno.
Elected mayor in 2020, Gloria is intimately familiar with East Village. From 2008-16, he represented all of downtown as the District Three City Councilmember.
Reminder: Gloria served as interim mayor of San Diego from August 2013 to March 2014, after the resignation of Bob Filner. Gloria chose not to run for mayor at the time and went on to serve in the California State Assembly from 2016-20.
After winning the recent mayoral race, Gloria hired former USICH executive director Matthew Doherty (who worked for President Obama and was fired during the Trump Administration) as a homelessness consultant.
Part of Doherty’s advice was to restructure city personnel and elevate a person focused on homelessness.
Gloria hired Hafsa Kaka as director of the newly created department of Homeless Strategies and Solutions. Kaka, who served in similar roles elsewhere in Southern California, came on board in August.
“We need to have a professional who can work on this issue as their sole focus all the time,” Gloria says. “We have a homelessness crisis. I’ll be very involved, too, because this is what I’m passionate about. I mean, the buck stops with me, right?”
The mayor says the focus will be on providing multiple housing options.
“I acknowledge that this is a complex situation,” Gloria says. “I understand that some people will say the shelter environment is not their preferred solution. That’s odd to some people, who would say beggars can’t be choosers. But what that should do is challenge us to come up with a different intervention.”
The mayor believes a boost to the overall supply of housing, currently working its way through city bureaucracy, is part of the solution.
“It’s a mistake to only look at street-level concerns and overlook the larger issue of housing affordability and availability,” he says.
Gloria says prior efforts—including by the Faulconer administration—have proven unsuccessful.
“What we have failed to do in the past is to sustain the outreach that is necessary,” he says. “Along with diverse solutions, that is what we will do.”
POLITICS TO THE…RESCUE, PART II
In 2020, Stephen Whitburn was elected to the District Three Councilmember post that Gloria formerly held.
Whitburn says the homelessness situation is “completely unacceptable.”
He’s an East Village resident. We meet at the Copa Vida coffee shop on J Street. He mentions that on the way here, he was accosted by an individual spewing “aggressive conversation.”
No, he says East Village residency doesn’t bear comparison to being in a war-zone. But Whitburn regularly hears dire complaints from constituents. About encampments. About people relieving themselves in doorways.
He cites one example of a lost business opportunity cause by homelessness. A hotel manager told him a group considering San Diego for its national meeting observed the situation with unsheltered individuals downtown and decided to meet elsewhere.
“I’ve lived in San Diego for a long time, and it’s never been like this,” he says. “It’s a result of some false starts in the past to try to address it, and a lack of attention to the problem. But with the new administration, the new mayor, the new council, there has been a heavy focus on addressing homelessness.”
Many observers do point to a Democratic mayor and majority city council—along with a Dem majority on the five-person San Diego County Board of Supervisors—as potential for change-making.
The Board of Supervisors controls the purse strings for programs that offer assistance for substance abuse disorders and mental health needs.
“We need the city to provide outreach and shelter and the county to provide those social and health services,” Whitburn says. “And state and federal governments to provide the funding. We have that now, and we need to seize the opportunity to end widespread homelessness in San Diego.”
Wait, this isn’t a revelation. What’s been the holdup?
“It’s incredibly expensive to build housing,” Whitburn says. “An affordable housing project can be a daunting process. There’s often community pushback. And even if you have the funding and the community support, the permitting process is a long one.”
Meanwhile, diversions and roadblocks are everywhere. San Diego is experiencing a mild Shigella outbreak among the unsheltered community. That has called to mind the Hepatitis A endemic of 2018 that was ignored long enough to kill 20 people and sicken 600.
Also in the news, negative publicity about two hotels the city bought and converted to permanent affordable housing in late 2020. Headlines have focused on conflict of interest related to the purchase, resident deaths and a pullback by service providers.
How do you fill a solutions bucket that's pockmarked by gaping holes?
BACK TO BUSINESS
Community reactions to suggested solutions can be polarized, says East Village Association executive director Diane Peabody Straw.
The EVA is a nonprofit that manages a Business Improvement District. Peabody Straw and an assistant are the fulltime staff. The board is all-volunteer.
Peabody Straw reiterates that East Village is not a war zone.
“Frankly, those kinds of words are hyperbolic,” she says. “That’s a bit extreme. Those words diminish people who are really in war-zone situations. But are we without problems? No, of course not.”
Peabody Straw says a wide range of responses are needed for homelessness.
“No two businesses need the same thing—just like no two individuals need the same thing when it comes to support," she says.
Merchants running storefronts that rely on customers coming in and out every day have different feelings on the issue, she says, than an entrepreneur running a business on the 20th floor of a condo.
“We try for a balanced approach,” Peabody Straw says. “I’m really proud of my board, made up entirely of East Village business owners. They recognize we need to address homelessness compassionately while simultaneously enforcing the legal side. There's got to be both.”
She describes the current mood in her district as a mix of short-term frustration paired with long-term optimism.
“There was a lot that needed to happen that wasn’t happening—for a really long time—to start shifting into a positive public-policy direction," Peabody Shaw says. “Now, we’ve seen some of these policies go into place. And seen an emphasis and a priority placed on trying to resolve this issue rather than looking the other way.”
She says the question now is the pace of public policy change.
“The frustration still lies with the fact that, sure, the money may be there now and the political will may be there now, but that doesn't make it an immediate fix.” Peabody Straw says. “Many of these solutions are literally, physically being built right now. But it’s like, ‘Okay, so what do we do in the short term?’”
One thing advocates say business owners and concerned San Diegans can do in the short term is continue to direct their voices and concerns toward City Hall. Not at individuals with no safety net who are struggling to survive on the street.
Yes, there does appear to be a rare pantheon of politicians in place who are on the same page for long-term, results-oriented solutions for the unsheltered.
Nothing is guaranteed.
Maybe it's natural to simmer resignedly and curse the roster of former politicians who’ve dragged their feet for decades.
It can't hurt to redirect that emotion at current policy makers who might dare take their foot off the pedal while putting realistic housing solutions in place. SDSun
[Cover photo: Chanin Wardkhian/Getty Images]
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