San Diego Mayor Missing Immediacy on Homelessness Solutions

Todd Gloria’s annual “State of the City” speech is short on ideas that quickly address downtown’s growing unsheltered population
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria delivered his annual State of the City address on January 11, 2023.

On multiple fronts, Todd Gloria is affecting positive change as mayor of San Diego. The former local city council member and state assemblymember is intelligent, engaged and ethereally likable.

In a Democratic-majority city, it’s highly likely he’ll win re-election in 2024.

His Achilles heel is a measured approach to no-end-in-sight homelessness. 

Elected mayor in 2020, he delivered his first live “State of the City” speech on January 11, 2023. His first two annual addresses went out via Zoom, per COVID protocols.

Traditionally, mayoral addresses had been held downtown at the 1,339-seat Balboa Theatre. This year’s site was three blocks away at the more spacious, 2,939-seat Civic Theatre.

There were no curtain calls.

Overall, this State of the City presentation was a slick performance. TikTok stars Kiran + Nivi delivered a viral-worthy version of the National Anthem. A new city poet laureate was revealed. (He spiel-ed; spoke far afield; rhymes he did wield…) 

And it couldn’t have been a coincidence that the pre-speech musical soundtrack in the theater included “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” It subliminally connected to one of Mayor Gloria’s oratorical closing lines: “…our city — has the resilience, resolve, and grit to scale this mountain.”

Out in the audience, here’s what I heard.

The mayor garnered polite applause when he lauded his administration’s efforts on: Infrastructure improvements. Road repairs. Building neighborhood parks. Hiring and retaining first-responders. Public safety. Fentanyl abuse.   

All those things were highlighted (and some came with video b-roll) during the first 20 minutes. It took that long for Mayor Gloria to get to homelessness.

Homelessness, he has stated again and again, is his number-one priority.  

Call me a media dinosaur, but he was burying the lead.

Sure, the State of the City address is largely promotional in nature. Mayors don’t step up to the stage lectern under theater spotlights to expose their weaknesses so rivals can exploit them. 

However, Mayor Gloria missed his shot. 

He tried but didn’t sell the notion he’s a politician in a powerful post doing everything possible, nor acting with immediacy, to alleviate the problems of city sidewalks filled with human beings living in tents. 

Or, of the citizens and the workforce coexisting with those unsheltered souls.

Downtown San Diego is awash in mini tent encampments. The Downtown San Diego Partnership counted 1,839 people experiencing homelessness in December (just in the 92101 ZIP Code). The number has been rising steadily all year. 

Greater San Diego includes (at least) 8,427 sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. That’s per an official canvassing, and ranks the city fifth in the nation.

To begin his State of the City recognition of homelessness, Mayor Gloria lauded a local couple for getting off drugs, off the streets and into a sober-living facility.

“We are rooting for you,” the mayor said to Natasha and Gabriel Martin, who participated in a moving video and were in attendance at the Civic Theatre.

Gloria then thoughtfully elucidated what not everybody realizes about homelessness: 

“Each unsheltered person has a unique set of circumstances that caused their homelessness.

Job loss, eviction, simply not making enough to afford a place to live.

And of course, there’s addiction, trauma, and mental illness.”


The mayor pointed out he’s working with the state to push for conservatorship reform. A CARE Court plan would connect unsheltered people with untreated mental illness to court-mandated support.

That plan has supporters and detractors. Whatever your opinion, it’s a lifeline still miles from implementation.

Gloria also pointed to shelter offerings the city has added, amounting to 658 beds–a 61-percent increase over two years.

Keep in mind there are currently 1,839 people sleeping in tents in the urban core. The city’s new shelter beds are a blessing, but equate to an ounce of cure for a pound of problem.

The mayor also touted putting thousands of units of affordable housing into the pipeline. Mostly for the middle classes. Good start. That’s a knife-to-a-gunfight scenario, however, and not going to push the needle on unsheltered numbers for years. 

Lucky Duck Foundation press conference on January 11, 2023, with Dan Shea and Drew Moser.

On the morning of the State of the City, two stories on shorter-term homelessness fixes were making waves. 

In one, a front-line veteran of San Diego’s homelessness issues reported being frustrated by a recent lack of progress.

Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy told KPBS, “…shelters are at capacity, and new ones proposed by the city are not always well-planned.”

McElroy has been running Alpha Project for 30-plus years. His organization had been selected to run a “safe campground” downtown for seniors that had widespread business community support. 

McElroy said he couldn’t run the campground with the budget the city was proposing.

On tackling the issue, McElroy said, “You’ve got to be gutsy enough to do things in a grander way.”

Translation: You = Mayor Gloria.

Also on the morning of the State of the City, the Lucky Duck Foundation, a nonprofit solely focused on homelessness issues, held a press conference.  

The Foundation proposed the siting of two 250-bed “sprung-shelters” in a largely unused Balboa Park parking lot. The proposed shelters would be for youths and seniors.

Lucky Duck’s massive tents have been in the news in the past. They’re already in use around the city. Executive committee member Dan Shea says the tents could go up in a matter of months and cost pennies on the dollar to operate.

Shea has continually urged the city to move more quickly to address the unsheltered population.

To promote that goal, Lucky Duck started a “Shamrocks & Shipwrecks” recognition program late last year. It calls out politicians or political organizations with designations for good (Shamrocks) or ineffective (Shipwrecks) programs aimed at homelessness. 

The City of San Diego is the only political body with three Shipwrecks.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria.

In front of the Civic Theatre crowd during the State of the City, Mayor Gloria closed his address with breaking news. He’d signed an executive order earlier in the day. It directed city departments to approve 100 percent of currently proposed affordable housing projects within 30 days.

It typically takes up to six months, the mayor effused.

Six months to start housing projects that will take years to complete. 

“Homelessness is a housing issue,” Gloria reiterated.

True, but it’s not the only solution. People living in tents today aren’t getting a hand up by green-lighting affordable apartments that’ll be ready to rent within the decade. 

Long-term and short-term solutions need to work in tandem.

Meanwhile, downtown is apparently still under a mayoral mandate that decrees all those tents be taken down during the day.

Tents can be pitched at night, so the mayoral order goes.

I’ll spare you the facetious closer. Tents are everywhere, 24/7.

Know that the mayor disapproves, and seems to expect these urban campers to move into affordable housing.

Eventually. Perhaps after he’s termed out as mayor.  SDSun

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