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Fall 2014, Lauren Flynn

Mental illness among top reason for homelessness in San Diego

With near-perfect weather and stunning beach scenery, San Diego might seem like the ideal place to live. But one major issue stands in the way of America’s Finest City becoming “America’s Perfect City.”

An annual study done by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows that San Diego has the third largest population of homeless people in major American cities. A similar study by county officials found that about one third of the San Diego homeless population suffers from a severe mental illness.

A homeless woman waits in front of the Salvation Army in Downtown San Diego.

A homeless woman waits in front of the Salvation Army in Downtown San Diego. (Photo by Lauren Flynn)


Sometimes, they keep to themselves and aren’t a problem. Other times, especially when they are clearly mentally ill or on drugs, they can be seen as a threat or nuisance.
A study done by the San Diego County Grand Jury between 2009 and 2010 found that almost 3,000 crimes committed by transients cost the county over $400,000.

San Diego Mesa College student Kathryn Reed, 20, said she stopped taking the trolley because she was afraid of the mentally ill man who regularly frequented the stop by her house.

“I was always really uncomfortable because I was afraid he’d hurt me,” Reed said. “I don’t know his situation. He could be mentally ill or he could be on drugs that make him violent. But I do feel bad because you know, you don’t want to stare, but you still want to look at him because he’s a person.”

Business owners are also worried about the homeless problem because of the potential loss of customers.

Fernando Rodriguez, a manager of the Barnes and Noble in Santee, says he had to ask a regular group of homeless people not to return to his store.

“They’re harmless, but people got uncomfortable and didn’t want to shop here anymore,” he said. “I had paying customers complain about the one guy who talks to himself, so they all had to go.”

Homelessness in San Diego compared to other major U.S. cities

With every recent mass killing in the United States, media professionals and investigators bring up the question of mental health.

San Diego County has had its share of school shootings (though, none in more than a decade) and is fourth on the Department of Homeland Security’s vulnerability to terrorism list, but the most pressing issue mental health presents to the county is homelessness.

Homeless camp in front of public library downtown

San Diego Public Library downtown attracts a number of homeless people. (Photo by Lauren Flynn.)

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development developed a plan to combat homelessness across America, called Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.

The Department conducts an annual study to look at trends in homeless populations across the country. The goal is to be able to tailor the national budget for ending homelessness based on how much money specific areas and demographics need.

Every year the Office of Community Planning and Development conducts the Annual Homeless Assessment Report in two parts. The first part is a count of the various demographics of the homeless population in cities across the country at a specific point in time.

Part one of the 2013 assessment was conducted on a single night in January 2013. The report found that San Diego City and County have more than 7,000 homeless people. The number means that San Diego has the third most homeless of all major US cities, only behind Los Angeles and New York, respectively.

Although the assessment found considerably more homeless individuals in these two cities, San Diego has a significantly greater amount of homeless veterans.

Veteran percentage chart

GRAPH: Homeless veterans by city. Source: Annual Homeless Assessment Report.

Kalie Standish, the associate director of community engagement at People Assisting the Homeless, said the program she works with, Connections Housing, frequently helps veterans.

“So much of our efforts are to ensure that individuals that served our country are being served,” she said.

Standish also said that since Connections Housing opened in March 2013, 172 veterans have found full time employment through the program.

San Diego ranks third behind New York and Los Angeles in the number of chronically homeless people—those who have been homeless for a year or longer. It is third to Fresno and Los Angeles in the number of homeless without shelter. A homeless person is considered to be unsheltered when their nighttime residence is a place not meant for human habitation.

The 2013 assessment showed that 90 percent of the 2,500 chronically homeless people in San Diego County regularly go without shelter.

Homelessness and mental health in San Diego

The San Diego County Regional Task Force on the Homeless conducts an annual study designed to gather information that is similar to the federal assessment, but is specific to the county.

Last year’s San Diego Regional Homeless Profile was conducted on the night of January 24, 2013.

At that point in time, the results of San Diego’s report were fairly similar to those in the national assessment.

What the local study includes that the national study does not are subgroups of homeless people living in San Diego. The task force estimated that on the night the study was conducted, about 33 percent of homeless people in the county suffered from a severe mental illness. More than twice as many mental illness sufferers were unsheltered than had shelter that night.

San Diego homelessness by the numbers

GRAPH: Homelessness in San Diego by the numbers. Source: San Diego Regional Homeless Profile. Created using

Although there were more chronic substance abusers than any other subgroup at 34 percent, the group with the largest percent of unsheltered people suffered from a severe mental illness.

How organizations are working to solve homelessness

PATH, 2-1-1 San Diego and the San Diego Rescue Mission are just a few of the organizations that offer assistance in finding homeless people the kind of help they need.

Standish said Connections Housing is the most influential organization downtown that works with the homeless and is a housing and support services program. She said its goal is to help people find the resources they need to transition from the streets to permanent housing they can maintain.

“I don’t refer to Connections Housing as a shelter,” Standish said. “I think there’s a lot of stigma and stereotype surrounding that word and I really like to emphasize that it’s not just housing people for one night.”

MULTIMEDIA: Kalie Standish discusses Connections Housing and mental health in downtown San Diego.

PATH is partnered with nearly 30 other non-profit groups and those who have successfully overcome their situations with the help of these groups to fix homelessness at its root cause.

At one of PATH’s partners, the San Diego Rescue Mission, one young woman found solace and a solution that kept her and her young daughter off the streets.

Diana Rodriguez said she found herself with nowhere to live after her mother kicked her out of the house for getting pregnant as a teenager. After a year of living with the father of her daughter, Rodriguez found herself depressed and without a roof over her head.

A homeless man and his dog downtown.

A homeless man and his dog walk near the San Diego Public Library downtown. (Photo by Lauren Flynn.)

“I didn’t know what to do,” said Rodriguez. “I kept telling myself I needed to help myself to help my daughter, but it took finding this place and getting help with being depressed to get really motivated.”

The San Diego Rescue Mission is funded through donations and helps people like Rodriguez through housing, education and mental health counseling programs. Standish says PATH is funded through a combination of outside donations and funding from the San Diego Housing Commission.



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