Wednesday, January 15, 2020
I vividly remember it.
I remember standing on the hot concrete.
The sun hits my eyes as I look up at the apartments next to me, thinking of the stories of everyone inside.
There is one story, in particular, I came to hear.
Then I see him walking up to me.
Someone most San Diegans will never know.
Someone I can’t wait to meet.
Smiling from ear to ear, wearing a crisp gray dress shirt, Brian approaches me with the confidence you’d expect from a Navy veteran.
What I don’t expect, is what he tells me next.
“Thank you,” he says.
“Thank you for cleaning up all the tents under the freeway.”
I’ve heard that from other San Diegans.
Never from someone like Brian.
Because the tents Brian’s talking about are where he used to live.
It’s where he did meth.
It’s where he bathed himself outdoors.
It’s where his jaw was shattered in a vicious assault.
And it’s where he finally began his journey to a permanent home.
“Drugs have always been a big part of my life,” he tells me.
“They were a habit I couldn’t break.”
Eventually, they became more important to Brian than keeping a roof over his head.
Brian knew his life was in danger, yet as time wore on he convinced himself he was satisfied living on the streets – because it meant he didn’t have to confront his addiction.
One day an officer from the new Neighborhood Policing Division approached him, and offered him a shelter bed.
At first, he hated the idea of going to one of our new bridge shelters.
It took some convincing.
Once there, case managers connected him to veteran benefits he didn’t know he had.
And supported him until he was housed in a former motel that we transformed into apartments for homeless veterans.
Today, Brian lives there.
And he’s an example for others looking to do the same.
As we stood outside his apartment, appreciating the garden he planted, Brian tells me he would still be living underneath the freeway if he wasn’t compelled to move to a shelter.
He couldn’t change the situation for himself. We had to help him make that change.
Brian’s story is our story.
It’s the story of every city struggling with homelessness.
Brian is here with us tonight.
Brian, as you continue your recovery, I want you to know that you make San Diego proud.
You’ve inspired me.
And you inspire our city to keep going.
A few years ago, Brian’s story wouldn’t have been possible.
Most everyone turned a blind eye to homelessness.
It was always someone else’s problem to fix.
Then the hepatitis A outbreak hit. And it became everyone’s problem.
Public health officials said they were doing everything by the book.
But people were dying. And things weren’t getting better.
I knew we needed a change.
So I took a good hard look in the mirror.
Our whole region needed to do more on homelessness.
I needed to do more.
We had been taking the same failed approach as every other California city.
An approach where everyone agrees we need to help homeless individuals.
But when it comes to actually doing something, there is always an excuse standing in the way.
When County doctors told us the outbreak had no end in sight, it was clear the time for excuses was over.
This was the moment I vowed that as long as I’m mayor we would do the right thing over the popular thing.
We would stand tall even if we stand alone.
We would begin a new normal: A massive adjustment in resources, responsibilities, and attitudes.
We deployed nurses and paramedics to every riverbed, canyon and street corner, and vaccinated more than one hundred thousand people.
We started a robust campaign to educate the public.
We began sanitizing our streets and sidewalks.
I took all those homeless ideas we were debating, threw away the excuses, and put the solutions into action.
We opened four new bridge shelters.
We expanded safe parking lots and storage centers.
We launched the largest expansion of homeless services in our City’s history.
We changed virtually everything.
And we have changed lives as a result.
We are the only major county in California where homelessness went down last year, instead of up.
San Diego no longer accepts a sidewalk, a riverbed or a tarp as a home.
So it’s troubling to see other cities now grappling with public health scares of their own.
My mayoral colleagues across the state are seeing rare diseases make a comeback in homeless encampments.
Different cities, different leadership, same crisis.
This isn’t just a coincidence.
These are the clear consequences of a larger government failure:
Unsanitary encampments in cities big and small;
A deficient mental health system;
Overwhelmed emergency rooms;
Laws that embolden drug abuse.
California has lost its way on homelessness, and it’s up to us to find our moral compass once again.
We have to be honest with ourselves about why so many people are living on the street.
We have to speak the truth about what causes homelessness, no matter how uncomfortable it is.
And we must have the courage to enact the solutions to fix it!
I’ll be blunt: academic theories on solving homelessness are inadequate for the scope and scale of our state’s crisis.
Many so-called experts say that we should only focus on housing to solve homelessness.
It’s a fine idea – except for the fact that it can take years to build one home, let alone 151,000 for every homeless person in California.
This “Housing only” ideology also ignores that tens of thousands of Californians aren’t homeless just because they lost a home.
They are homeless because they are losing their fight with mental illness or addiction.
So until we get the statewide housing reforms we desperately need.
We must find more solutions for the most challenging part of the homeless population:
People suffering from a substance abuse problem, a mental health issue, or both.
In San Diego, 50,000 emergency calls come in each year for people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or other crippling afflictions.
Diverting public safety resources away from crimes and other emergencies.
We cannot allow this to continue.
We’re talking about people who are someone’s brother, sister, mother or father, son or daughter.
They need help now!
So I’m pleased to announce tonight, that in partnership with the County of San Diego.
We will deploy mental health teams to all of the City’s bridge shelters.
Place people with severe addiction in residential care.
And follow it up with a significant increase in County resources – to make sure everyone who is struggling with addiction and mental illness is directly connected to housing and treatment.
As I said earlier, we all need to do more on homelessness.
So I am also excited to announce a public-private partnership to open the County’s first bridge shelter to support these mental health efforts.
These actions will provide a powerful resource for emergency first responders.
A reassurance for families afraid to walk certain streets.
A beacon of hope for troubled souls.
And proof that San Diego is acknowledging the reality of homelessness – and ready to lead on mental health!
For San Diego to keep turning the corner on homelessness, we also need to fix state laws.
Laws that eliminated our ability to effectively respond to this crisis;
Laws cities once relied on to encourage people to accept treatment or a shelter bed – instead of a jail bed.
A few years ago, Proposition 47, advertised as “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” turned cocaine, heroin, and meth into a slap on the wrist.
Then Prop 57, labeled “The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act,” doubled-down on this irresponsible approach.
If you think someone who is addicted to drugs and sleeping in a canyon is going to turn their life around without an intervention, you’re not being honest.
These laws are letting people slowly kill themselves right in front of our eyes.
These are cries for help, and folks are not going to change without consequences for their actions.
Some of the ideas behind these laws were well-intentioned.
But the voters were misled.
They were sold a bill of goods under the guise of criminal justice reform.
This failed experiment needs to end.
That’s why I will be working in 2020 and beyond to make sure our state's laws actually fulfill their intended purpose – to rehabilitate lives and keep neighborhoods safe.
It’s what voters were promised – and it’s what voters deserve.
It’s an election year, so we’ll be hearing a lot about these issues.
My name won’t be on the ballot so I can say whatever I want.
What I’m talking about tonight is obvious to almost anyone walking our streets, but considered politically incorrect by many insiders.
These are ideas that most people in power actually believe in, but are afraid to say, let alone do.
Drug laws that hurt people, tragic mental illness, public health scares, a historic housing shortage…
They all must be addressed to solve the homeless crisis.
They all affect cities like San Diego.
And they are all consequences of a larger government failure.
So I am building a coalition to craft a statewide initiative that brings solutions to our homeless crisis directly to California voters.
It’s time to get real about these problems.
It’s not acceptable to condone living outdoors in urban areas.
It’s not humane to let people with severe mental illness wander our streets.
It’s not responsible to turn a blind eye to drug abuse.
It’s time to clean up the unsafe homeless encampments that symbolize California’s failure to act.
To anyone who says it’s not compassionate to move a person off the street –
Ladies and gentlemen, I say it’s not compassionate to let a person die on it!
I know what some of you are thinking:
Isn’t this supposed to be a farewell speech?
You expected me to stand up here and rattle off some highlights.
Speak a little Spanish.
Declare the State of the City is strong – which it is.
And then walk out of here to a Van Halen song.
I’m not going to do that. At least not yet.
Because this will be a year of action.
As far as I’m concerned, we’re in the fourth quarter.
There is work to do, and we’re not slowing down.
And if I ever do feel like taking a break, I’ll think of my friend Betty.
Betty is a proud San Diegan who is 99 years young. She turns 100 next month.
And she’s watching us from home right now.
Please give it up for Betty Morse.
Betty and I met one evening when she heard some commotion outside her home.
It was the day of the Ocean Beach Holiday Parade, and she came outside to see who on Earth was making such a racket.
It was me.
My team and I were having way too much fun getting ready for the parade.
But she wasn’t mad. She ended up bringing us snacks.
Turns out Betty is the sweetest person you’ll ever meet.
We developed a friendship. And Betty has joined us at the parade every year since.
About a year ago Betty got a call from her landlord. She was being forced out of her apartment.
Her heart sank.
She’s on a fixed income in a modest one-bedroom.
She looked around and couldn’t find another place she could afford. Everything was just too expensive.
The media somehow got wind of Betty’s story and wouldn’t you know it!
The landlord suddenly had a change of heart.
Unfortunately, far too many San Diegans confront the same challenges as Betty each and every day.
Behind the housing crisis are people in crisis.
We are in this predicament because for far too long we have been caught up in a false debate:
Housing versus communities.
We are conditioned to believe communities that get more homes lose – and communities that stay the same win.
Well, people who need housing – people like Betty – don’t care about that debate.
They are our community.
I’m proud that when it comes to new housing, San Diego is leading California by saying “Yes! In My Backyard!”
Together with my colleagues on the City Council, we passed sweeping reforms last year that removed government barriers to new homes, eliminated expensive parking mandates, sped up approval for homeless housing, and even let churches build units on their property.
I’m also proud that we have directed billions of dollars to neighborhood infrastructure.
With a focus on making us One San Diego, where every community is thriving.
Through upgrades like 14 new and improved fire stations, more than 50 new and improved parks, and over 1,500 miles of roads repaired by the end of this year.
Until now we’ve been treating neighborhood improvements and home building like they are two separate things.
When in reality they should be part of the same conversation
We need to bring the ideas of housing and community together in a way that’s never been done before.
That’s exactly the vision I will deliver to the City Council this spring with Complete Communities…
San Diego’s first comprehensive program to build out the four pillars of a neighborhood:
Infrastructure, parks, transportation and homes – everything we need for a complete community.
We’re going to simplify fees and modernize how we fund community improvements so we can deliver infrastructure now – not 30 years from now;
We’re going to make sure that every San Diego family is just a few blocks away from a pocket park or plaza.
And prioritize these investments in communities that need it the most.
We’re going to connect our communities with a convenient mobility network of sidewalks, bike lanes and transit.
Helping us reduce traffic and achieve our Climate Action Plan goals;
And, finally, we’re going to incentivize developers to fund these improvements, and build more of the housing we want near major transit stops and job centers.
More affordable units for low-income residents.
More housing for homeless individuals.
And smaller, less expensive homes that San Diegans have been clamoring for.
Homes that people like Betty can afford.
Infrastructure, parks, transportation and homes – built sustainably, equitably, and quickly.
This is how we move past that tired debate, and build our better future.
Together, let’s turn our One San Diego pledge into official City policy;
Let’s make sure the more homes we build, the better our neighborhoods get;
Let’s rethink everything – so “Yes In My Backyard” also means “Yes” to more parks, more sidewalks, and more of the things our neighborhoods need!
Let’s say “Yes” to housing and “Yes” to complete communities!
Speaking of the complete package, on March 3rd San Diegans will have the chance to approve Measure C and say “Yes! For a Better San Diego.”
This initiative to reduce homelessness, fix streets and modernize and expand the convention center is the most important measure on the ballot.
A broad coalition of San Diegans from the left, right and center came together to put it before voters.
And I urge you to vote “yes.”
Not just because it’s the right thing for San Diego but because there is no good reason to vote “no.”
If you think the City is doing a wonderful job on road repair and want us to keep it up, vote “yes.”
If you don’t think the City is doing a wonderful job on road repair and want us to go faster, vote “yes.”
If you want to see me continue taking bold action on homelessness, vote “yes.”
If you want to see the next mayor continue taking bold action on homelessness, vote “yes.”
If you recognize the convention center supports tens of thousands of local jobs, vote “yes.”
And if you can’t believe this is the 10th State of the City when a mayor talks about the convention center expansion, you can make it the last time by voting “yes” on Measure C!
This is no easy lift. And I know San Diegans will make the right choice.
Just think of all the times we’ve stood up and said “yes” where others have said “no” – and together, did things people said couldn’t be done in San Diego.
Experts doubted we could ever escape the shadow of pension scandal and potential bankruptcy.
Now our budgets are structurally balanced, reserves are growing, and credit ratings healthy.
People never expected we would modernize local government.
Now you can get a permit, report a pothole, or track City spending all from your phone.
They said we shouldn’t focus on expanding learning opportunities.
Instead, we tutored thousands of children and kept neighborhood libraries open longer than ever before.
Few thought it was possible to rebuild the San Diego Police Department’s dwindling ranks.
Now seasoned officers are returning and we just welcomed the largest police academy in 25 years.
Who would believe we’d ever link transit to San Diego International Airport.
Now we’ve struck a deal with the U.S. Navy on a transportation hub to finally connect the trolley to the airport!
It seemed like we would never get Washington and Mexico City to acknowledge the sewage flowing from the Tijuana River Valley.
And now after years of making calls, casting votes, and walking the halls of both capitols, we are on the verge of securing hundreds of millions in federal dollars to clean it up – once and for all!
Sometimes government makes the easy things look hard.
But I like to think that over the past few years, we’ve made some of the hard things look just a little easier.
We’ll be the only big city in America to repair half of our entire street network.
We’re passing some of the most aggressive housing reforms in California.
We brought Democrats and Republicans together to approve a bipartisan Climate Action Plan.
We slashed greenhouse gases by nearly a quarter.
We were the nation’s first big city to move toward 100 percent renewable power.
And San Diego is now the largest city in America to buck the status quo and switch to community choice energy!
The day I took my oath of office, I vowed to you that San Diego would write its comeback story.
Together, we have written it. San Diego is back.
It is recovered, reformed and revitalized.
Now, San Diego is leading.
Housing. Homelessness. Climate Action. Government efficiency. Fiscal reform.
Our efforts are winning national awards, and now other cities look at us – no longer as a cautionary tale, but as a big city that is solving the difficult issues people confront every day.
When we set aside political partisanship and lead with pride, there is nothing we cannot do.
It takes collaboration, cooperation, and decisive action to find real solutions to real problems to get real results.
To help people like Brian and Betty and countless others.
You know, mayors will often get the credit.
But nothing gets done without a dedicated team of individuals who go out and make things happen.
So I’ve asked a few of them to join me on stage tonight.
We are a city of hope, of innovation, of opportunity.
It’s because our City employees and community partners work day and night to make San Diego a better place.
These are some of the public servants who protect our beaches, fight our fires, pave our streets, care for the homeless, serve our residents, and keep our community safe.
Ladies and gentlemen, these are the people who get it done for San Diego.
Together, we have restored integrity to City Hall.
Respect to our neighborhoods.
And dignity to San Diego.
And we’re not done.
2020 is going to be another year of action.
We’re going to embrace complete communities!
Say “yes” to homeless solutions, road repairs and jobs!
Tackle our region’s mental health crisis!
And fight to keep our neighborhoods safe!
We are going to finish strong!
And there’s no better time to start than right now!