San Diego Tackles ‘Manmade Disaster’ of Homelessness

SAN DIEGO (CN) – In different public buildings in downtown San Diego on Monday, homelessness and how to tackle it was being discussed. The man accused of killing homeless San Diegans last summer was found competent to face criminal charges, while across the street the San Diego City Council held a special meeting to address the city’s growing homelessness and affordable-housing problems.

At what was supposed to be a competency trial to determine if Jon David Guerrero is in fact competent enough to understand criminal charges against him and participate in his case, defense attorney Dan Tandon told San Diego Superior Court Judge David Danielsen they agreed to the competency finding by state-appointed doctors and would proceed with the case.

Guerrero, who was never arraigned on murder and attempted murder charges in the brutal deaths of three homeless men and attacks on two others in a spree that started this past July, was sent to Patton State Hospital in October after he was found mentally incompetent to stand trial.

He was returned to San Diego on Jan. 19, after doctors said his competency had been restored.

Police investigators also revealed this year Guerrero is suspected of killing a fourth victim who was apparently hit on the head and knocked unconscious July 13, 2016, two days before Guerrero was arrested, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.

After the hearing, Deputy District Attorney Makenzie Harvey did not say whether the DA would seek an additional murder charge for the fourth victim.

Guerrero will continue to be held without bail. His arraignment is scheduled for April 4.

Across the street, hundreds of residents showed up for a special City Council meeting on homelessness called by Council President Myrtle Cole.

The marathon meeting last for hours, with dozens of people giving testimony on how homelessness has impacted their lives. Testimony came from those currently or formerly homeless as well as people who live in the downtown neighborhoods most impacted by what many at the meeting called a “public health crisis.”

San Diego has the fourth-highest homeless population in the United States, falling behind Seattle, Los Angeles and New York.

While some of the experts the City Council consulted at the meeting acknowledged the need to get supportive permanent housing – especially for the chronically homeless who have mental illness or substance abuse problems – many blamed the lack of affordable housing for the growing problem.

The city hands out vouchers to low-income and homeless residents to help supplement their rent, but many of those vouchers went unused last year because of San Diego’s extremely low vacancy rate, which fell to just 2 percent at its lowest.

Organizers and members of the Voices of Our City choir, a singing group mostly made up of homeless San Diegans, called on City Council members to vote to give amnesty to homeless people who’ve been ticketed by San Diego Police so that they don’t rack up hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines or end up jailed for living on the street.

According to the group, encroachment tickets handed out last year to homeless people blocking public sidewalks increased at the same rate homelessness did downtown.

Voices choir co-founder Steph Johnson called the growing homelessness problem a “manmade disaster” that has been exacerbated by the loss of 10,000 low-income housing units in the city since 2010. The number of unsheltered people downtown and deaths of homeless people on the streets – including those Guerrero is accused of killing – has grown significantly, Johnson said.

Many homeless advocates leaned on the city and county to use the $250 million pledged by both entities last year for a new stadium for the Chargers football team on building permanent supportive housing and addressing homelessness instead. The Chargers opted to leave San Diego for Los Angeles early this year.

Others suggested using the Chargers’ former home, Qualcomm Stadium, as a “Safe Park” and “Safe Camp” village for homeless people to live in while waiting for permanent housing. The stadium is the designated emergency shelter for the city and was used to house thousands of San Diegans who were displaced by the 2007 wildfires that tore through the county.

Some residents and businesses spoke about how homelessness has negatively impacted their neighborhoods, which are saddled with trash and, for some, increasing crime rates.

A legal representative for the Barrio Logan Association said businesses hired their own private security company to deter negative activity related to homelessness. He said Barrio Logan, the historic Mexican-American community that borders downtown, has been unfairly burdened with the negative impacts of homelessness and that “other neighborhoods need to step up and share in the responsibility.”

Councilwoman Cole said following public testimony there is a need for “front doors,” especially permanent supportive housing, but the biggest challenge facing the city in tackling homelessness is a lack of funding.

She proposed forming a select committee on homelessness, which the council voted unanimously to do. The issue will be taken up by the City Council’s rules committee at its April 5 meeting.

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