The 2022 List of San Diego’s Homelessness Influencers (For Better or Worse)

Politicians. Nonprofit leaders. Private sector voices. Legal experts. The media. Meet the people with the power to push the needle on our homelessness crisis

Media outlets regularly publish lists of individuals who are: The Sexiest. The Richest. Power Brokers. People to Watch. 40 Under 40.

The following has to be a first.

The San Diego Sun presents: “The 2022 List of San Diego’s Homelessness Influencers.”

It’s a pressing national issue, of course. According to a 2021 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: More than half a million people experienced homelessness on a single night in 2020. That was a 2.2 percent increase from 2019.

Nearly 40 percent of the people experiencing homelessness in that 2021 report were unsheltered.

Keep in mind, these numbers represent the souls who were found and counted. Many more individuals stay hidden in the shadows.

Homelessness is a seemingly intractable, polarizing, bottomless pit of an issue. It’s particularly vexing in San Diego, ranked fifth in the nation in number of homeless people, behind New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Jose/Santa Clara.

Here then, is the inaugural list of San Diegans who have the ability to make change, influence outcomes or shine a light on the issue.

Will they stay in their silos of influence? Or, reach out to one another, collaborate and make critical decisions under one umbrella vision?

For better or worse, here are the influencers with the power to spark change in 2022.


San Diego Director of Homelessness Strategies and Solutions Department Hafsa Kaka. (Courtesy photo)


Mayor of San Diego

In an interview with the San Diego Sun, and during his state of the city speech, Mayor Gloria has pointedly expressed that homelessness is his number-one priority. That aligns with the priorities of downtown residents. It’s the predominant quality-of-life issue for the community at large, and obviously for people experiencing homelessness. Gloria is working harder and with more passion than his predecessor. That’s faint praise. The mayor is making slow and steady progress on short-term and long-term goals. To pull the community out of the black hole of homelessness, Gloria needs to recommit daily, constantly and endlessly to the effort. He’s the point man.


San Diego Director of Homelessness Strategies and Solutions Department

Shortly after Gloria was elected to serve in 2020, he hired Kaka to direct a realigned and supposedly higher-powered city department. Kaka worked in similar capacities in other So Cal municipalities. She’s firmly behind the “housing-first” strategy to get people off the streets and assist them with wrap-around services (medical, psychological, etc.) and then offer assistance in becoming self-sufficient. Not the other way around, as has been unofficial political policy in San Diego. She answers to Gloria, but Kaka has been on the job long enough to start showing her shine.


Chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisor

A decade ago, Fletcher ran unsuccessfully for mayor of San Diego as a Republican, Independent and Democrat. He found a winning formula in 2018 and became the District 4 rep on the County Board of Supervisors. The board controls the purse strings for mental health programs but has been historically stinginess on spending for programs that benefit homeless people with mental-health issues. Fletcher has been slowly unloosening the purse strings. Today, the city and the county, under Gloria and Fletcher, are more aligned on the issue than in decades (more faint praise.) This should be a recipe for progress. Should.


Community Operations Officer, Department of Homeless Solutions and Equitable Communities (County Health & Human Services Agency)

It would be easier if government entities weren’t afraid to use the title Homelessness Czar. That’s essentially what Jiménez is for the county. A veteran within the political system, she’s recently been tasked to oversee the issue under Fletcher and the County Board. As of last year, the Board has been implementing a Framework to End Homelessness. The media-friendly verbiage will need a turbo-charged boost to overcome the county’s long history of neglect.


District 3 San Diego City Councilmember

Whitburn leads the city’s council district that include East Village, which has the highest percentage and visibility of people living unsheltered. An East Village resident, Whitburn says the problem is worse than it’s ever been. Elected in 2020, he points to small victories on council votes that bolster outreach and short- and long-term shelter. Observers point to Whitburn as an amiable individual who needs to speak louder and more forcibly on his district’s number-one priority.


San Diego Housing Commission President & CEO

Gentry has headed the quasi-governmental Housing Commission since 2008. The agency has 340 employees and a $500 million budget. SDHC owns or manages more than 4,000 housing units and provides rental assistance to some 15,000 families. City decision makers are beginning to wonder if the leadership status quo is achieving satisfactory results. In 2021, Gentry’s agency was questioned about conflict of interest over the purchase of hotels converted into long-range supportive housing. Grumblings abound.


Voices of Our City Choir Executive/Music Director Steph Johnson (center, left) on set with “America’s Got Talent” host Terry Crews. (Courtesy photo)


President, San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness

San Diego’s Regional Task Force is similar to bodies created all over the nation. They are a U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development-designated agency responsible for collecting homelessness data and doing the annual Point-in-Time Count (coming February 24). Kohler gets satisfactory marks for overseeing an octopus-like organization that could easily be overwhelmed by red tape.


Executive Director, San Diego Housing Federation

For 30 years, the Housing Federation has been an alliance of smaller community member groups with the common goal of providing affordable housing to neglected neighborhoods. Russell has served as executive director for six years. He helped spearhead the $900-million affordable housing bond proposal that made its way onto the 2020 Ballot (which ultimately failed in the hands of voters).


President & CEO of Alpha Project

McElroy has served as the top dog since founding the Alpha Project advocacy agency in 1986. With a football player’s frame and a booming voice, he commands a room. McElroy has earned the respect of politicians and the public with hands-on oversight of projects and initiatives. He’s also widely known by the city’s unsheltered population. His organization financed and managed the ground-up construction of Alpha Square. This East Village residential property provides 203 furnished studio apartments for homeless and low-income individuals.


President & CEO of Father Joe’s Villages

Father Joe’s Villages is the area’s largest shelter and housing provider, and also runs a health clinic. Vargas runs the operation quietly but vigilantly. A bit of good news is on the horizon. Father Joe’s Villages is preparing to open the 407-room Saint Teresa of Calcutta affordable housing project in East Village. The planned ribbon cutting on February 8 is a big deal. The $145-million building is expected to be fully occupied by March. It’s part of a long-term Turning the Key initiative to create 2,000 new affordable units.


CEO, Downtown San Diego Partnership

This membership organization is driven by the needs of downtown’s business community. Reducing homelessness is an important but ancillary objective for Brennan and the Partnership. DSDP has a Clean & Safe program that patrols the city and provides observational services. The Partnership does a monthly Unsheltered Street Homeless Count. And, it’s Family Reunification Program offers free transportation to local unsheltered people who have verified family or a support system available in other parts of the country.


Musical and Executive Director, Voices of Our City Choir

Formed as a choir for people experiencing homelessness in 2016, Voices of Our City has morphed into a nonprofit, providing food services and pathways to housing. Steph Johnson has seen the group blossom on two different stages. (Full disclosure: I’m helping Johnson write a memoir.) As a choir, they made it to the semifinals on the NBC-TV show America’s Got Talent. Johnson has advocated for her unsheltered neighbors on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and The Kelly Clarkson Show. The nonprofit has developed programs to help feed homeless individuals and has assisted 80 choir members in finding housing.

San Diego Sun advertising and sponsorship opportunities are on the way in 2022. EMAIL queries to


Tuesday Group founders Dan Shea and Peter Seidler. (Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle)


Founders, The Tuesday Group

Seidler is owner/chairman of the San Diego Padres. Shea is a partner in Paradigm Investment Group, which owns more than 100 restaurants across the country. The pair founded The Tuesday Group in 2016 with the goal of aiding, pushing and prodding politicians to act quickly in providing services and housing for unsheltered San Diegans. Joined by a bevy of the most well-connected and influential local business and civic leaders, The Tuesday Group advocated for (temporarily) opening the San Diego Convention Center and Golden Hall (still ongoing) as homeless shelters. The organization also spurred the purchase and usage of massive bridge shelters that have been utilized downtown and in other areas of Greater San Diego.


Executive Director, The Lucky Duck Foundation

Moser is both the facilitator of Tuesday Group meetings and executive director of the Lucky Duck Foundation. The nonprofit was founded more than 15 years ago by husband-and-wife team Pat and Stephanie Kilkenny. In 2017, Peter Seidler and Dan Shea convinced them to affiliate with The Tuesday Group and focus their efforts on homelessness. Lucky Duck has a long list of programs and services it delivers. Along with direct outreach, the nonprofit offers a food-and-water delivery service, jobs training, monthly symposiums and other cost-effective, “best-in-class” initiatives.


Homelessness advocate

If you’ve recently seen a photo or read a story on Facebook (Homelessness News San Diego) or Twitter (HomelessnessSD) about the struggles of unsheltered San Diegans, it was likely posted by this prominent advocate. Vocal and independent, he’s highly critical of organized local efforts to abate homelessness. McConnell, a retired former owner of La Jolla Coin Shop, walks the streets daily looking for evidence of abuse and mistreatment. Formerly a member of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, McConnell now leans toward grassroots groups that he believes get more tangible results.


Consultant, Lived Experience Advisors

Before he joined Voices of Our City Choir—and ultimately became director of operations and advocacy—Brady was living homeless on San Diego streets. Today, no longer with Voices of Our City, he’s a passionate and authentic voice who leads the consulting group Lived Experience Advisors. A former business executive and entrepreneur, Brady sits on several boards and local organizations focused on homelessness. He has advised leaders at the city and country level, served on the board of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness and on the Steering Committee for San Diego’s Homeless Court.


San Diego County Deputy Public Defender Matt Wechter.


Deputy Public Defender, San Diego Office of the Public Defender

As a liaison between the Superior Court, District Attorney, City Attorney and Homeless Court Providers, Wechter represents the homeless population in monthly court sessions. “Homeless Court” is a means for people without a budget to get an attorney and have misdemeanor tickets erased—provided clients have proof they are participating in a program aimed at getting their life back on track. It’s an important way to help people dig themselves out of a quicksand-like money pit.


Superior Court Judge, San Diego County

Pre-COVID, Bruce-Lyle (pictured in the cover photo) presided over San Diego’s Homeless Court. Today, she supervises the proceedings. On a state level, the judge participated in a 2021 Work Group on Homelessness that reported to the Judicial Court of California. Her passion for collaborative courts has been evidenced in the hugs she was known to give out to Homeless Court defendants whose tickets she waived after reading their “brag sheets” provided by sponsoring service providers.


Lawyer & Homelessness Advocate, Dreher Law Firm

Few devote more legal expertise to homelessness causes on a pro bono basis than Dreher. He defended the late “Water Man” Dave Ross in court, overturned the city’s practice of throwing away people’s belongings when they were sleeping unsheltered, and fought to curtail police issuing encroachment tickets to people experiencing homelessness. Dreher also helped Voices of Our City Choir file the paperwork to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.


Photo by Getty Images.


Reporter, San Diego Union-Tribune

The Union-Tribune news staff has been decimated over the past decade. Luckily for readers seeking the latest news about homelessness, Warth is still working the beat for the newspaper. The nine-year U-T veteran is regularly the first to report on new reports, policy changes and current events on the issue.


Reporter, Voice of San Diego

Online nonprofit news source Voice of San Diego doesn’t report on all the local news happenings—but they do drill down on certain topics. Halverstadt is the experienced pro who solidly pieces together current and historical events, giving breadth to the big picture on stories about homelessness.


All Other News Outlets

Multi-platform efforts by KPBS and online stories from Times of San Diego show some effort devoted to homelessness storytelling. Sasha Foo and John Soderman, who reported with surprising nuance on the issue for independent/conservative-leaning KUSI, are gone from the airwaves. Too bad. Too-often, local network affiliates offer reactive, fleeting or superficial coverage. We can all do better. SDSun



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