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How to Turn Around the Homelessness Crisis

Dignity & Safety: San Diego’s Lesson on Homelessness

May 2021


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If you’re looking for an absolutely surefire way to make someone squirm, here’s a trick: Ask them about homelessness in their neighborhood. Chances are two things will happen. First, they’ll express their sympathy and then ... they’ll immediately express their discomfort.


“I have no problem taking care of these people, but to put them in my back door ... I’m petrified.”


“Who's going to be friendly and who’s not? Even if it’s 1 out of 100, and they start hurting people — that’s not acceptable in my neighborhood.”


“I’m trying to maintain my empathy, but when people are combative with you about just picking up your own trash ... ”

Now, those conversations may seem awkward or even, in some cases, insincere. But they reflect a real tension that we too often try to ignore.

Homelessness in America represents a genuine humanitarian crisis. Every night, an estimated 200,000 Americans are sleeping on park benches, or in cars, or on sidewalks. i

We don’t want to just exile people who have no place to stay, but at the same time homelessness really does have negative effects on communities — from violence to disorder to outbreaks of rare and dangerous diseases .

During the COVID-19 outbreak, for example, New York City moved hundreds of homeless citizens to hotels in the city’s Upper West Side. These were the results:


“Many on the Upper West Side have noticed a drastic decline in their quality of life. They argue this once family-friendly neighborhood is being taken over by violence, drugs, public urination, open prostitution ... ”

Does compassion for the homeless require tolerating this kind of disorder? Or is there a way to care for the neediest among us without sacrificing entire neighborhoods in the process? It’s a question many of us feel squeamish about asking — but the answer will shape the future of our cities.

If you want to understand the issues at work here, there’s no better place to look than California. Of the 10 cities in America with the largest homeless populations, six of them are in The Golden State. ii

While 12% of Americans live in California, its share of the nation’s unsheltered homeless population — the ones living on the streets — is 47%.iii

How does this happen in such a prosperous state? After all, if it was an independent nation, California would be the fifth-wealthiest country in the world.

But that’s the tricky part: This isn’t purely a matter of money. In fact, Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state,iv actually has the country’s lowest levels of homelessness. v

The math here is revealing. We spend $30,000 to $50,000 in taxpayer money per homeless person every year — in a country where the median income is less than $34,000 a If money alone were the answer, we would have solved the problem by now. But what we do with that money is in many ways more important than how much we’re spending.

Advocates for the homeless often say those funds should be focused on providing enough affordable housing. But while it’s true that many cities with homelessness problems have affordability issues, many of the homeless have problems that run much deeper than not being able to make rent.

A 2019 study from UCLA discovered that 75% of the nation’s unsheltered homeless had a substance abuse problem and 78% suffered from a mental health condition. vii Those are issues that can’t just be solved by putting a roof over someone’s head. And that’s why just throwing money at the problem rarely does much to help the homeless or the community.

In 2019, homelessness increased by 16% in Los Angelesviii and 30% in San Franciscoix — at a time when both cities were actually increasing the amount of money they spent on the problem. But here’s where things got interesting: While homeless was exploding throughout the rest of California, it was actually going down in San Diegox ... despite the fact that the city has long been one of the biggest homelessness hot spots in the country.

How did they do it? San Diego focused both on the dignity of homeless individuals and citizens’ rights to safe, clean public spaces.

So the city removed homeless encampments, and picked up over 4,000 tons of trash from public spaces — but it also set up storage units so that the homeless wouldn’t lose their possessions, as often happens in other cities.

San Diego began moving the homeless out of open-air encampments marked by drug abuse and disease — but it spent millions of dollars to create new shelters that help them access not just housing, but also healthcare and mental health services.

The city also utilized a program that has connected nearly 3,000 homeless individuals with long-lost friends and family — because one of the keys to keeping people off the streets is reconnecting them to the people who love them.

San Diego hasn’t solved their homeless problem, but they’ve made real progress. And they’ve also proven a valuable concept: You can reject social disorder and display genuine compassion for the homeless at the same time. It’s a lesson we should apply in more of our cities. Because the public shouldn’t accept anything less. And the homeless don’t deserve anything less.




  1. White House Council of Economic Advisers
    “The State of Homelessness in America”
  2. Forbes
    "American Cities with the Highest Homeless Populations (Niall McCarthy) 
  3. United States Census Bureau
    “2018 Poverty Rate in the United States”
  4. Associated Press
    HUD Reporting 2.7% Uptick in Homeless Population" (Kevin Freking) 
  5. United States Interagency Council on Homelessness
    Ending Chronic Homelessness
  6. California Policy Lab
    “Health Conditions Among Unsheltered Adults in the U.S.”
  7. Los Angeles Times
    "Homelessness jumps 12% in L.A. County and 16% in the city; officials ‘stunned’” (Benjamin Oreskes, Doug Smith)
  8. New York Times
    “San Francisco’s Homeless Population Is Much Bigger Than Thought, City Data Suggests” (Jill Cowan)
  9. San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness
    WeAllCount (2020 PIT Results)

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