San Diego mayor Gloria prioritizes homeless issues

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday May 3, 2023
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San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria addressed the BAYMEC crowd at the South Bay's LGBTQ political organization's 39th annual brunch gala in San Jose Sunday, April 16. Photo: Lam Nguyen
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria addressed the BAYMEC crowd at the South Bay's LGBTQ political organization's 39th annual brunch gala in San Jose Sunday, April 16. Photo: Lam Nguyen

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria has taken a queer eye to his city's homeless issue to get people housed and he's helping other mayors come up with solutions to shelter unhoused residents. However, everyone must do their part, he said.

Gloria, a gay Filipino man and Democratic former state assemblymember, was elected mayor of the state's second largest city in 2020. He said high rents and crises with addiction and mental health have "supercharged" the homelessness problem not only in California but also in cities across America.

Fentanyl is relatively new, he explained, noting that many of his constituents haven't made the connection between fentanyl and the homelessness crisis. They haven't made the connection with how fentanyl is affecting youth and the homeless population who are being preyed upon by drug dealers.

"Of the 800 people who died in our county last year by fentanyl overdose, 113 of them were homeless," Gloria said. "It is the No. 1 killer of our city's homeless population. We've got to do more on this issue.

"Sanitation and police are blunt instruments for dealing with our homelessness crisis," he continued. "We need counties in the state to do more and that's part of the advocacy in Sacramento."

Gloria spoke with the Bay Area Reporter about homelessness issues at a mixer ahead of the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee's annual fundraiser brunch at the Signia by Hilton in San Jose April 16, where he was the keynote speaker. He spoke about his tactics to keep people on the brink of homelessness housed, housing people who are unhoused, some of the underlying causes and the most vulnerable populations — especially LGBTQ youth and youth of color, and every city must do its part to solve the problem.

Last year, Gloria was tapped to head California's Big City Mayors coalition for 2023 and 2024, according to the City of San Diego's December 15, 2022 news release.

The bipartisan statewide coalition of mayors of California's 13 most populous cities includes San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, Fresno, Sacramento, Long Beach, Oakland, Bakersfield, Anaheim, Stockton, Riverside, and Irvine. In total, the cities represent 11 million Californians, more than a quarter of the state's population, according to the release.

The coalition's focus is advocating for and securing dedicated funding to address homelessness through California's Homeless Housing, Assistance, and Prevention program. The coalition found success within the past several years and is working to continue building upon the successes to advocate for continued investment at the local level to address the ongoing challenge of homelessness, according to the release.

"We have been nationally noticed for the fact that every nickel the federal government has given to us in terms of vouchers and relief assistance we've used. That's helped thousands of people avoid homelessness or end their homelessness," Gloria said, noting that in the first two years he's been in office, his team has been able to increase shelter capacity by 70%, and "most nights we're no more than 90% occupancy."

"So, more beds, more occupied that means literally thousands of people off the street every single night," he said.

Gloria is doubling down on tackling San Diego's homeless problem with two proposed ordinances: one banning encampments on public property and stronger tenant protections.

He and City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn are proposing a new ordinance banning homeless encampments and directing the homeless to designated areas to park their vehicles or set up their tents, reported KNSD-TV. The proposed ordinance hasn't been introduced to the City Council yet. It's a controversial plan that some critics say ignores the law that already prohibits encampments and demonstrates Gloria's failure in addressing the homelessness crisis in San Diego, according to the city's Republican media outlet San Diego Newsdesk.

"Gloria's proposal is a failure to address the homelessness crisis in San Diego. Instead of providing adequate shelter for the unhoused, he has made this whole situation more difficult for all involved," the newspaper wrote, accusing the mayor's recent action on homelessness as "gearing up" for his reelection bid. Gloria's term ends in December 2024. "Mayor Todd Gloria's proposed ordinance is not a solution but a failure to address the homelessness crisis.

"Gloria's lack of leadership is not only a moral failure but also a practical one. Homelessness in San Diego is a crisis that affects everyone," the media outlet stated.

A couple of days after speaking at the BAYMEC brunch, Gloria introduced the Residential Tenant Protections Ordinance to Prevent Displacement and Homelessness April 18. The proposed ordinance strengthens renters' rights, shielding them from most evictions in order to stymie the growing homelessness problem.

Gloria did not respond to the B.A.R.'s request for comment by press time.

However, San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan disagrees with the criticism Gloria has received. Mahan, who was elected last year, spoke positively about Gloria's accomplishments, mentorship, and leadership among California's mayors at the BAYMEC event.

"It's incredibly helpful to have someone to look up to and learn from," Mahan told BAYMEC brunch attendees. "I've so enjoyed working with Todd, who's the fearless leader of the Big City Mayors where he has led us with clarity and conviction and a great dose of humor along the way."

That clarity produced results tackling the homeless issue that former San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo, and now Mahan appear to be replicating. Just last week Mahan unveiled the city's soon-to-be largest "quick-build" temporary housing community with wraparound services, reported San Jose Inside.

San Jose's homelessness problem — particularly among youth — was not lost on Gloria. The tech capital was ranked No. 1 in the United States with the highest population of homeless youth by the United Way in February.

The report noted San Jose had the highest population of Gen Z youth experiencing homelessness with nearly 85 unhoused Gen Zers for every 100,000 residents in the U.S. The report also noted that Black and Pacific Islander Americans were the most at risk for homelessness.

The report did not address LGBTQ youths' risks for homelessness or studies showing that queer youth make up the largest percentage of homeless youth.

The National Network for Youth cited research that found LGBTQ youth have a 120% higher risk of experiencing some form of homelessness and that up to 40% of the 4.2 million youth who experience homelessness identify as LGBTQ. Among youth who are queer Black, Indigenous or otherwise of color, 83% are at a higher risk for experiencing homelessness, with BIPOC queer youth at even higher risk of homelessness, when compared to their non-BIPOC counterparts.

The most recent studies about LGBTQ youth homelessness and homelessness among BIPOC youth, the youth network reported, showed anti-black racism, white supremacy, and housing discrimination put Black LGBTQ youth at significant risk of experiencing homelessness and create many roadblocks to exit homelessness. A 2015 survey highlighted that 20% of Black transgender people were unemployed and 38% in poverty, which are more than two times the average rate of non-transgender Black people. Anti-transgender stigmas, family rejection, and hostile political climates increase the chances of BIPOC LGBTQ youth staying in homeless situations.

When asked about the current homeless crisis and how LGBTQ youth were being counted, impacted, and being served, Gloria said, "We could talk all day about the issues around data collection for homelessness."

San Diego does its annual homelessness count mandated by the U.S. government every January.

"This is a terrible time to do that," he said, explaining that it's cold out and every homeless person is doing everything they can to get out of the cold. "If you're not in the street that night, we don't count you."

Identity is self-reported, he said, but "it's not always reliable."

Gloria pointed out that the definitions of homelessness aren't nuanced enough, particularly among homeless youth. A fact former Bill Wilson Center CEO Sparky Harlan noted in the center's 2017 report, "Count Me! Hidden in Plain Sight: Documenting Homeless Youth Populations," which Santa Clara County's supervisors were implementing using voter-approved funds to tackle the growing homeless youth problem, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

Defining homelessness, especially among youth, is "one of my chief concerns," particularly LGBTQ youth and queer youth of color, Gloria said.

"I'm often in the position of talking to individuals who are absolutely homeless, but they don't understand that they actually meet the definition of being homeless," Gloria said. "They're couch surfing, and they don't understand they are doing it."

"We know that our community is overrepresented in our homeless population," he said. "We understand the causes and reasons for that, even in 2023 it is still difficult to come out in many circumstances and that rejection leads to people ending up on our streets. [The] question for mayors, like myself, what are you doing about it?"

As KGTV-TV reported in April, the city's LGBTQ community center has been tapped to open a 45-bed shelter for homeless LGBTQ+ youth. Until a permanent site is found for it, two interim locations set to open this summer in Clairemont and Point Loma will have 21 beds, reported the TV station. The city allocated $1.5 million for the first-of-its-kind initiative in San Diego.

"Oftentimes, when it comes to LGBTQ+ youth, they have been rejected by their own families. These types of programs are a real lifeline, right? They instill that hope in them, and we're going to be excited to see them on that first night when they come to us," Victor Esquivel, the center's director of housing and youth homeless services, told the station.

During his visit to San Jose Gloria had noted of the 18 cities in the County of San Diego, "Most don't have any shelter beds, most don't provide any kind of transitional housing or permanent supportive housing, but all of them have populations that are homeless. Everyone has to do their part.

"We need counties in the state to do more and that's part of the advocacy in Sacramento," he said about his lobbying California lawmakers for help solving San Diego's homelessness issues. "Every city has to do their part."

Taking "a comprehensive effort" through the initiatives he's spearheaded in America's Finest City has shown results and earned San Diego the designation of being one of only seven pro-housing cities in California by the state, he said, adding his city is the biggest by far to receive the designation, which can lead to more funding, "but importantly, every mayor has an opportunity to end someone's homelessness or make it more likely that a low- or middle-income worker can find housing stability."

Designations like the pro-housing city demarcation and policies "are critical to solving this particular issue," Gloria continued, stating he can't solve other cities' homeless problems, but he can and is working to solve San Diego's homeless and housing issues.

"We are pushing the envelope when it comes to housing production," he said.

"There's a lot of pushbacks on that but as I tell my constituents, 'If you want to complain to me about homelessness, you can also explain to me about your housing production,'" he said. "These are not consistent positions."

Other out mayors working on housing

Gloria isn't the only gay mayor focused on housing issues. The B.A.R. previously reported Monterey's newly elected first gay and Black Mayor Tyller Williamson and Pinole's new gay Black Mayor Devin Murphy are focused on affordable housing as prices skyrocket.

Williamson, who was honored with BAYMEC's Rich Gordon Elected Official of the Year Award April 16, told the B.A.R. he is focused on ramping up the planning process to meet the city of Monterey's new housing requirement. Under the state housing mandate, Monterey needs to construct nearly 3,700 units over the next eight years, up from 650 units.

"The state is requiring every jurisdiction to produce a valid housing element by December of 2023. We haven't even begun engaging with our larger community around what that looks like," Williamson said during an interview in mid-November. "I want to really make sure we have a public and transparent process for creating our housing element and working with our community on that."

Murphy told the B.A.R. in December 2022 that Pinole's Regional Housing Needs Allocation of 500 new units is an achievable target. The city is already on its way to meeting the goal with nearly half, 223 units, approved for a new five-story residential building set to begin construction in mid-2023, he told the newspaper. Pinole is one of the East Bay's smaller cities.

He also noted that his city was able to secure state funding for the Pinole Satellite Affordable Housing Associates development. Ground should also be broken for that project sometime next summer.

"We are very happy about this! This is a 100% affordable housing project, where 33 new low-income housing units will be built," said Murphy.

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