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  • In this Nov. 28, 2017, photo, a tent to house the homeless is seen in downtown San Diego. An unprecedented increase in people living on the streets is rocking cities along the West Coast from Washington to California. Facing an acute shortage of housing for the poor, San Diego is turning to tents to get people off the streets for now. The city diverted $6.5 million from its permanent housing budget to operate the giant tents. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • In this Sept. 19, 2017 photo, trash from homeless encampments lines an entrance ramp for Interstate Highway 5 in San Diego. In a place that bills itself as "America's Finest City," renowned for its sunny weather, surfing and fish tacos, spiraling real estate values have contributed to spiraling homelessness in San Diego. Most alarmingly, the explosive growth in the number of people living outdoors has contributed to a hepatitis A epidemic. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • In this Sept. 28, 2017 photo, a person sleeps under a blanket on a beach near the Ocean Beach Pier in San Diego. In a place that bills itself as "America's Finest City," renowned for its sunny weather, surfing and fish tacos, spiraling real estate values have contributed to spiraling homelessness. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • In this Oct. 26, 2017, image, the city-sanctioned tent encampment, below, sits on the edge of Balboa Park as the sun sets behind buildings downtown in San Diego. Facing an acute shortage of housing for the poor, San Diego is turning to tents to get people off the streets for now. The city diverted $6.5 million from its permanent housing budget to operate the giant tents. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • In this Sept. 19, 2017 photo, trash from homeless encampments lines a street in San Diego. In a place that bills itself as "America's Finest City," renowned for its sunny weather, surfing and fish tacos, spiraling real estate values have contributed to spiraling homelessness in San Diego. Most alarmingly, the explosive growth in the number of people living outdoors has contributed to a hepatitis A epidemic. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • In this Nov. 8, 2017, photo, Christine Wade sits among her children in front of their donated tent in the city-sanctioned encampment on a parking lot in San Diego. They are, from left, Shawnni, 12, Roland, 4, Rayahna, 3, Jaymason, 2, Brooklyn, 8, and Shaccoya, 14. The Wade family is among several hundred people living in the city's first campground open for the homeless, set up to curb the worst Hepatitis A outbreak in the United States in decades. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • In this Sept. 19, 2017 photo, Jose Salinas sprays a bleach solution on a downtown San Diego city street as part of the city's efforts to combat the recent Hepatitis A outbreak. In a place that bills itself as "America's Finest City," renowned for its sunny weather, surfing and fish tacos, spiraling real estate values have contributed to spiraling homelessness in San Diego. Most alarmingly, the explosive growth in the number of people living outdoors has contributed to a hepatitis A epidemic. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • In this Sept. 28, 2017, photo, Stephen Schofield looks on as police officials encourage him to get a Hepatitis A vaccination near where is living along the San Diego River in San Diego. A recent Hepatitis A outbreak - the worst epidemic of its kind in 20 years in the United States - reflects how much homelessness has become a crisis in San Diego, a top tourist destination known for its sunny weather, surfing and fish tacos that bills itself as "America's Finest City." (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • In this Oct. 18, 2017, photo, Christine Wade, left, sorts clothing as Roland, 4, cries and sisters Shawnni, 12, right, and Shaccoya, 14, draw in the family's tent provided by the city in a sanctioned encampment in San Diego. The Wade family is among several hundred people living in the city's first campground open for the homeless, set up to curb the worst Hepatitis A outbreak in the United States in decades. The new camp, in a parking lot on the edge of sprawling Balboa Park, reflects the severity of the homeless crisis gripping cities along the west coast. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • In this Oct. 25, 2017 photo, a man who declined to give his name pushes a broken bicycle from where he is living with two others below palm trees along Mission Bay in San Diego. Like other West Coast cities, San Diego is confronting a homeless crisis. Facing an acute shortage of housing for the poor, San Diego is turning to tents to get people off the streets for now. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • In this Oct. 26, 2017, photo, Christine Wade makes braids for Rayahna, 3, as Jaymason, 2, below left, Shawnni, 12, above left, and Shaccoya, 14, get ready to leave for school at dawn at the city-sanctioned tent encampment in San Diego. The Wade family is among several hundred people living in the city's first campground open for the homeless, set up to curb the worst Hepatitis A outbreak in the United States in decades. The new camp, in a parking lot on the edge of sprawling Balboa Park, reflects the severity of the homeless crisis gripping cities along the west coast. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • In this Oct. 24, 2017, photo, Shawnni Wade, 12, second from right, talks with a friend at Perkins Elementary School in San Diego. Perkins has a playground with a panoramic view of sleek high-rises and the shiny dome of the city's new central library; it also has a student body that is more than a quarter homeless, up from 4 percent three years ago. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • In this Oct. 26, 2017, photo, Christine Wade, left, hugs her daughter Shawnni, 12, as they arrive by van to Perkins Elementary School from the city-sanctioned tent encampment in San Diego. The Wade family is among several hundred people living in the city's first campground open for the homeless, set up to curb the worst Hepatitis A outbreak in the United States in decades. The new camp, in a parking lot on the edge of sprawling Balboa Park, reflects the severity of the homeless crisis gripping cities along the west coast. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • In this Nov. 28, 2017, image, Laurie Britton, owner of Cafe Virtuoso, pauses for a portrait as she works in her coffee shop in downtown San Diego. Britton has faced a deluge of problems related to the homeless population around her organic coffee roasting business. Since the city started cleaning up the streets, business has increased by 20 percent. She now welcomes the new giant tents to house the homeless - two of which will be within a block - if people end up in permanent housing. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • In this Dec. 1, 2017 photo, Verna Vasbinder prepares her her new bunk in the city's new Temporary Bridge Shelter for the homeless as her dog, Lucy Lui, looks on in downtown San Diego. Facing an acute shortage of housing for the poor, San Diego is turning to tents to get people off the streets for now. The city diverted $6.5 million from its permanent housing budget to operate the giant tents. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Thursday, December 07, 2017 9:13 pm

Tents considered blessing for homeless in San Diego

By JULIE WATSON Associated Press

SAN DIEGO (AP) For Christine Wade, the tent she shared with six children, pitched in an asphalt parking lot, was far better than their previous home a shelter where rats ate through the family's bags of clothes.

"It's peaceful here," Wade, 31 and eight months pregnant, said in an October interview at the campground.

A tent, of course, is not a home. But for these San Diegans, it is a blessing.

Like other major cities all along the West Coast, San Diego is struggling with a homeless crisis. In a place that bills itself as "America's Finest City," spiraling real estate values have contributed to spiraling homelessness, leaving more than 3,200 people living on the streets or in their cars.

Most alarmingly, the deplorable sanitary conditions help spread a liver-damaging virus that lives in feces, contributing to the deadliest U.S. hepatitis A epidemic in 20 years.

"Some of the most vulnerable are dying in the streets in one of the most desirable and livable regions in America," a San Diego County grand jury wrote in its report in June reiterating recommendations it gave the city over the past decade to address homelessness.

San Diego has struggled to do that. Two years ago, Mayor Kevin Faulconer closed a downtown tent shelter that operated for 29 years during winter months. He promised a "game changer" a new, permanent facility with services to funnel people to housing.

But it wasn't enough.

The result? Legions of Californians without shelter. A spreading contagion. And an extraordinary challenge to the city's sunny identity that threatens its key tourism industry.

For now, San Diego again is turning to tents. The campground where the Wades lived served 200 residents but was only temporary; this month, officials are opening three industrial-sized tents that will house a total of 700 people.

There are plans afoot to build housing. But to deal with the immediate emergency, the city had to take $6.5 million that had been budgeted for permanent homes to operate the giant tents.

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"The people of San Diego need to decide what they want the city to look like," said Gordon Walker, the head of San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless. "San Francisco has essentially given up its streets to the homeless. It could go either way here. The real issue is we don't have enough housing."

Last year, the number of people living outdoors in San Diego jumped 18 percent over the previous year, according to an annual count taken in January. More than 400 makeshift shelters covered downtown sidewalks alongside new apartment high-rises.

In October, Faulconer teamed with the homeless services provider, Alpha Project, to open the Balboa Park campground where the Wades found shelter. The city installed public washing stations, opened 24-hour restrooms and scrubbed streets with a bleach solution.

Police also cited people. Within weeks, the nearly 400 tents and tarps downtown disappeared.

Meanwhile, the number of encampments along the banks of the San Diego River doubled.

The San Diego River Park Foundation whose mission is to preserve the river that feeds into the Pacific spent $115,000 removing 250,000 pounds of trash left by the homeless camps this year.

Director Rob Hutsel said potential donors ask him when he talks about plans for a 52-mile-long river park and trail system: "What about the homeless? Don't build a park. It'll just bring in more."

"There shouldn't be any thought about building a park," he said. "That's so unfortunate."

The mayor has earmarked more than $80 million to reduce homelessness over the next three years.

"Ultimately the goal is to put everyone in a home who wants to be," Faulconer said.

But units need to be built, and the temporary solution is expensive. At a cost of $1,700 per person per month, $6.5 million will cover seven months, but the tents may need to remain open for up to two years, according to the San Diego Housing Commission's head, Rick Gentry.

Meanwhile, San Diego County has spent $4 million to contain the hepatitis outbreak that has killed 20 people and sickened more than 560 in the past year.

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At Perkins Elementary School, the student body is more than a quarter homeless, up from 4 percent three years ago.

Shawnni Wade was a straight-A student as a third grader. But when her family's troubles escalated, she left the school; now, she's returned as a seventh grader.

"It's weird to be back," said the girl with bright green eyes and a sly smile.

But then, little about this 12-year-old girl's life has been normal.

Christine Wade blames her ex-husband's drug addiction. After they divorced, he let Wade care for his two daughters. She rented a kitchenette. But then she lost her job, and Wade discovered she was pregnant.

She could find space only in the rat-infested shelter, where the family lived before landing in the campground.

Then, a few weeks ago, Wade was hospitalized with an infection. She could not return to the campground, so the family moved into yet another shelter.

A caseworker is now helping her find a home. She hopes to have one before next month, when she expects to give birth to a son.

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Follow AP's complete coverage of the West Coast homeless crisis here: https://apnews.com/tag/HomelessCrisis