San Diego has just attained a third-place national ranking – a distant third, to be sure.
Not for something cool, heroic or lofty.
It’s for the size of its homeless population -- just over 10,000 county-wide -- which is outranked only by those of New York and Los Angeles -- both four to six times larger -- according to a report just issued by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development.
While the HUD report doesn't say why this has come about, a visit to the San Diego’s 200-bunk emergency winter shelter in Barrio Logan -- operated by the nonprofit Alpha Project for the Homeless – yields some theories, if not quantifiable answers.
"There's a lot of resources here in San Diego,” says Janis Phillips, a shelter resident who is expected to be among more than 800 street people served by the shelter during its four-month run.
"They help us out,” Phillips adds. “We have this tent from Alpha Project. I feel we've got more of these going on than other places that could help the homeless. If you don't want to see us out in the street, help us."
Bob McElroy, the Alpha Project's founder, president and CEO, says this area's battle against homelessness has become a lot less uphill, thanks to increasingly enlightened local governments agencies, nonprofits and charity groups.
And, says McElroy: “Hey, it’s San Diego”, citing a moderate, year-round climate and mellow urban scene that make the city relatively accommodating to life on the streets.
But only up to a point.
"It is a retirement community; it's extremely expensive to live here,” says shelter resident Paula Meador. “You have to have money and you have to be productive."
And given that San Diego County is home to a large military community, the influx of down-on-their luck veterans is a big part of the growing homeless numbers, up 6 percent over last year.
"This is the only shelter for female veterans,” McElroy points out. “We have everything from Vietnam veterans, we have World War Two veterans in here. And we also have Iraq and Afghanistan veterans over here. These kids -- that's going to be an issue for decades to come."
But McElroy says he’s more optimistic about getting a good handle on homelessness that at any time in the Alpha Project’s quarter-century history of addressing the various problems.
"Compared to these other cities, we have a solvable issue here,” McElroy says. “ It just takes the political will to do it. That's the thing, and I'm hopeful for the first time in decades that the political will is there."
Next month, a year-round residential and treatment facility for 150 chronic cases will open in downtown's financial district.
But McElroy emphasizes that there are countless obstacles to overcoming all the financial and societal roadblocks.
The state's raid on San Diego's redevelopment money, he said, has taken 243 units of affordable housing for low-income people out of the picture.
Still, shelter resident Josh Holland -- who says he’s spent life on the streets in Miami, New Orleans and Los Angeles -- says San Diego is much more advanced in its investments and approaches than other cities.
"Here, they honestly baby (the homeless). They throw them Christmas parties,” Holland declared. “Dude, it's good here! I mean, I'm a homeless man -- and I like it."
Although armchair critics may see that as part of the problem, experts on homelessness say money spent to address the issues saves taxpayers much more, in what otherwise would be un-recouped public and private costs, from crime and punishment to medical care.