Changes Help San Diego Homeless, But Long Road Remains Ahead Advocates for the people living on the city's streets were very skeptical two years ago that much could be done. But some substantial progress has been made since then. Now, as new people turn to the streets, can the county still help?

Changes Help San Diego Homeless, But Long Road Remains Ahead

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Homelessness remains one this nation's most persistent problems. The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently counted more than 630,000 homeless Americans and we're going to hear now about one city's efforts to find a solution.


Two years ago, we reported on an ambitious campaign to end homelessness in San Diego, a city with one of the largest homeless populations in the entire country. At the time, even advocates, like Bob McElroy, who runs a shelter, were skeptical.

BOB MCELROY: We can solve the problem. We're not allowed to do that because of politics.

GREENE: And this month, we return to San Diego to see what's changed since the campaign to end homelessness began. NPR's Pam Fessler has the story.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: For Wanda Rayborn, things have definitely changed. Two years ago, Rayborn, age 63, was living under a tree. Now, she has an efficiency in a newly renovated high-rise in downtown San Diego.


FESSLER: She's laughing because I look so shocked when she opens the door. Did you do that?

WANDA RAYBORN: Yes, ma'am. Just over the couple months. So far, I just restored and...

FESSLER: The apartment is meticulously decorated in black and white with splashes of red, like something out of a home store catalog. She has accent pillows on the leather couch she got for 40 bucks. There are potted plants, a daybed covered in stuffed animals and a metal dog that says "welcome."

RAYBORN: I wanted to make it really feel home.

FESSLER: Two years ago, this facility was just being talked about as part of a campaign by business and community leaders to end homelessness in downtown San Diego. Now, it houses 223 people who used to live on the street. It provides health care, counseling and other services. And a hotel nearby has been renovated for mentally disabled adults who are at risk of homelessness. Similar projects are in the works.

MCELROY: I'm kind of in shock still. I wish it was happened 20 years ago. We'd have been somewhere, but I haven't seen this political will in 26 years.

FESSLER: That's our skeptic Bob McElroy. Today, he sits in a huge tent which houses a thousand homeless men and women over the winter. McElroy says this year, for the first time ever, he didn't have to fight city hall to set up the tent. Even more amazing, the mayor and city council have agreed to keep the shelter open an additional three months.

McElroy says there's been a political sea change since November.

MCELROY: The mayor came down here uninvited, before he was even elected, and is hanging out with folks. Then, Bronywn, his fiance, has been down here every weekend.

FESSLER: That's Bronywn Ingram, fiance of the new mayor, Democrat Bob Filner. She says they've both made ending homelessness a top priority.

BRONYWN INGRAM: What I decided to do right after the election is to just go out onto the streets and start learning. Just - I needed to learn. And that's how you can make little connections here and there that start to make a difference.

FESSLER: And people say Ingram has made a difference, opening up a veteran shelter to women vets for the first time, securing storage bins where the homeless can keep their belongings. More importantly, people here now have hope, as they do in other cities with similar efforts to tackle long-term homelessness. That, of course is the good news.

The bad news is that even though more than 600 people have been housed through the San Diego campaign so far, the city's homeless population continues to grow.

DAVID ROSS: There's still people laying out here. Has there been any changes? There's been a lot of conversation about changes that might happen.

FESSLER: David Ross is widely known here as Waterman Dave. He goes out nightly, handing out bottles of water to the homeless and is their fiercest advocate. He notes that there are still over 6,000 homeless people in the San Diego.

ROSS: As we speak, there is more homeless moving in here. There's more veterans coming back from Iraq that are PTSD-affected.

FESSLER: And many have no place to go. Indeed, sidewalks here are still lined with makeshift tents and sleeping bags. Four latrines that serve the homeless are overflowing with excrement and soiled clothes. People here clearly need help.

ROSS: Hey, guys. I've got some water and some chips and some sandwiches. Anybody want any?

FESSLER: City leaders say they realize there's still a big problem. They hope what they've done so far can be replicated around the city. But that might be wishful thinking. State and federal funds used for the $38 million facility where Wanda Rayborn lives are no longer available because of budget cuts.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is our computer lab. It's a component to our job center, which right now...

FESSLER: Among those who recently toured the building were local law enforcement officials worried about a new challenge: thousands of inmates being released from California's overcrowded prison system. Bonnie Dumanis is San Diego County district attorney.

BONNIE DUMANIS: Because those people coming out of prison don't necessarily have a home. It's their last address. But their family may not want them when they've been in prison.

FESSLER: And that means, just as San Diego is making progress, it might have to deal with a whole new set of people living on the streets. Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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