SD Metro Cover Story: NBA Hall of Famer and San Diegan Bill Walton is Not Standing by Silent any Longer

The Homeless Problem        

As the economic hardships of the pandemic and global health crisis continue to challenge our region, with a disproportionate impact on our most vulnerable people, San Diego continues to see an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness. This cannot be ignored. The status quo is no longer acceptable. It’s time for sweeping changes.

It is time for the San Diego region, starting with its largest city, San Diego, to embrace wholeheartedly a whatever-it-takes attitude to tackle the many issues that impact homelessness and to bring homelessness, and all the peripheral problems it brings to our region, to an end. The streets cannot be a waiting room for the unsheltered to have a roof – any roof – over their heads.

Top Photo: Bill Walton, Dan Shea, and Drew Moser seek answers to San Diego’s homeless problem

“How Do We Fix It, You Ask? It’s Not the People’s Job to Fix It. It’s the Policymakers’ Responsibility to Fix It.” – Dan Shea 

At a widely-broadcast press conference held at the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, NBA Hall of Famer and native San Diegan who grew up in La Mesa and attended Helix High School, Bill Walton said of San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria: “You speak of the rights of the homeless, what about our rights? We follow the rules of a functioning society, why are others allowed to disregard those rules? Your lack of action is unacceptable, as is the conduct of the homeless population, particularly those who are not held accountable for their crimes. I completely understand and have great compassion for the people who have nowhere to turn except to the streets and parks, but there’s another element to this problem – it’s the homeless criminals who commit horrendous acts of violence and those who are in possession of the deadliest drug in the U.S. – fentanyl. These criminals are killing people.”

You can watch the press conference here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_1jHouKNJE

Because of Walton’s disgust over the mayor’s inaction, and as a long-time supporter of the Lucky Duck Foundation, he joined with the non-profit group at its press conference so he could show support for the foundation’s “Shamrocks & Shipwrecks” initiative and to also voice his own personal outrage over the homelessness crisis in San Diego. “Shamrocks & Shipwrecks” is an initiative that intends to hold regional elected leaders accountable on all issues related to homelessness. The ongoing initiative will publicly highlight political will and efficacy of elected leaders and their jurisdictions when addressing homelessness throughout San Diego County. The first shamrocks and shipwrecks will be announced December 8. “Homelessness throughout San Diego County has reached crisis levels. We call on regional elected leaders to take immediate action to shelter and provide critical services to the thousands of unsheltered San Diegans suffering from homelessness. And we are glad to accelerate their efforts by funding a multitude of strategies,” said Drew Moser, Executive Director of the Lucky Duck Foundation. “The level of action must escalate meaningfully and with a sense of urgency.”

Shamrocks & Shipwrecks Scoring Process 

The scoring system will be fact-based and is designed to emphasize high-impact programs and tangible action steps as well as call out missed opportunities and inaction of San Diego County’s elected leaders and their jurisdictions. The purpose is to showcase what is working so it can be replicated, and what is not working so it can be corrected or avoided. Strong actions that drive progress will earn “Shamrocks,” while ineffectiveness and inaction will earn “Shipwrecks.” Particular consideration will be given to tangible action taken to add urgently needed shelter beds; create and implement an annual inclement weather shelter plan; meaningfully address veteran and youth homelessness; and pursue and deploy government funding sources to increase the number of housing opportunities for homeless families.

Additionally, Lucky Duck Foundation will continue to partner and help accelerate the efforts of regional elected leaders by funding a variety of strategies, including but not limited to underwriting the cost to purchase and construct a bridge shelter to shelter hundreds of individuals; underwriting the cost to purchase pallet homes; helping convert underutilized government-owned properties; and a multitude of other efforts such as food & water outreach, employment and job training opportunities, and more. The public is encouraged to visit https://www.shamrocks.luckyduckfoundation.org to learn more and recommend which programs and elected officials should earn a “Shamrock” or a “Shipwreck.

When Lucky Duck Foundation co-founders Pat and Stephanie Kilkenny noticed a growing and urgent need for programs and services to alleviate the suffering of San Diegans experiencing homelessness, businessmen Peter Seidler and Dan Shea were simultaneously calling upon business and civic leaders, community members, politicians, and other key stakeholders to join them in taking action to address the issue in a best-in-class, fact-based manner. After extensively studying homelessness and collaborating with Peter and Dan, Pat and  Stephanie knew LDF could have an even greater impact if they focused the Foundation’s efforts squarely on homelessness, so the separate endeavors were merged for the sole purpose of focusing on the crisis as a unified entity. Shortly after making homelessness its sole focus, LDF purchased several large industrial tent structures to function as bridge shelters to quickly provide shelter for more than 650 individuals. And ever since, LDF has funded and activated several high-impact programs that alleviate the suffering of homelessness.

Dan Shea said he and Peter Seidler, owner of the Padres, have been urging government leaders to take decisive, measurable action towards correcting San Diego’s homeless situation, “the sheer frustration over the lack of action, accountability, and fact-based results towards meaningfully reducing homelessness spans years of political powers in both parties.” He says that for years they urged then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer to take more serious action to address the issue. Shea also said that he and Seidler talked to Faulconer for three years about opening up Golden Hall to house the unsheltered. “This issue has gone on for way too long,” said Shea. “Obviously, whatever they say is being done is not working, period. It’s time to change course and right the ship.”

You can read about their efforts here: Mayor Faulconer: City to Open Temporary ‘Bridge’ Shelters to Help the HomelessPitching a tent plan for San Diego’s homeless – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Additionally, Shea said that Lucky Duck Foundation reached out to Mayor Gloria’s office a week prior to going public with the press conference to announce the “Shamrocks & Shipwrecks” initiative. The approach at that point was not to call out any one city, but to announce the initiative that endeavors to hold all 18-San Diego County cities and the County accountable for the ways in which they address homelessness in their own jurisdictions. “We need an initiative that supports cities who are stepping up to serve their unhoused neighbors,” said LDF executive director Drew Moser. But, he said that the day before the press conference, the mayor’s office sent a communication to[1] the group outlining his achievements toward the homeless crisis which had unverified and questionable claims and a lot of rhetoric. So, given the sharp increase in homelessness throughout the City, LDF is are asking for clarity on exactly what the Mayor has achieved.

Following the press conference, Mayor Gloria’s press staff issued a statement saying in part: “Today’s ‘news conference’ was simply a tantrum full of self-aggrandizing hyperbole and outright lies.” Together, Walton and Shea said the if they are getting things wrong, they will absolutely “correct the record,” and asked only that the mayor provide information to support his statement that he has “dramatically increased and diversified the City’s network of shelter beds …”. In one Twitter post, the mayor stated that he got 150 beds placed in the Midway district, when in fact those 150 shelter beds are on county property.

After the press conference to announce Lucky Duck Foundation’s “Shamrocks & Shipwrecks” initiative, Walton said he appreciated the “incredible outpouring of kindness, support, encouragement and gratitude” he received. He said that the announcement was also unfortunately met with a “shameless and childish” attack on Lucky Duck Foundation from Mayor Gloria, calling both Walton and Shea ‘liars.’ “Lucky Duck Foundation and its programs work, and they’re willing to help, and I’m proudly with them, but they do not control the levels of enforcement power, nor the purse strings of our once great city,” said Walton.

The Hall of Famer started off the press conference by stating that he is “a native San Diegan, resident, engaged citizen, voter, and taxpayer.” He said he moved to the North Park/Hillcrest neighborhood 43 years ago, when he was just 26 years old. He said it was “his dream. A place with an expansive park with open, green space, spectacular views and all the encompassing wonders of nature and life.” He says that beloved public park has amassed an entirely unmanageable and unacceptable encampment of homeless individuals and is calling on public officials to “provide us with a safe, secure, healthy, and clean place for San Diegans to live, work and play. He says, and photos seem to prove, that there are no other parks in San Diego with the massive homeless encampments as seen in Balboa Park. Walton said that he reached out to the mayor on numerous occasions and only had one response from him via a 45-minute phone call and nothing was accomplished. He provided a link to all his correspondence to Mayor Gloria:

As a now-disabled individual, Walton said that he has been “attacked and assaulted daily” during his bike rides throughout the park – the bike which he calls his “wheelchair and lifeline.”

Lucky Duck Foundation and Bill Walton came together to say, “we cannot allow people to continue living on the streets, in the parks, at the schools, on the sidewalks, or on bike paths, many of whom are committing serious crimes. ”

When asked about what needs to be done to address this crisis, the first response was to say, “it’s not up to citizens to activate policies and legislation that will fix this, it’s up to our elected officials.” However, they did put forth areas that have been woefully neglected as a temporary solution, including:

  • Adding more immediately available beds such as bridge shelters, pallet homes, and other efficient, humane, and cost-effective strategies
  • Opening up the city’s parking garages at City Hall and surrounding public buildings
  • Opening all the other enormous array of government-owned properties – buildings, parking lots, industrial space vacant land for Bridge Shelters
  • Creating a region-wide application for the extraordinarily successful Stand Down program for veterans – replicate to include the general homeless population
  • Closing Balboa Park from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. every night (many other parks do it, with great success)
  • Real and equal enforcement of laws – the laws apply to everyone, and when politicians claim that the law does not allow them to enforce the law then they should change the law

 

Walton, Shea, and Lucky Duck Foundation said in a joint statement: “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about compassion with this issue. We have always taken a very compassionate view, especially for those who do not want to be homeless. But the misunderstanding is we do not have compassion for criminals. We do have compassion for people who are on the streets for all kinds of different reasons, including mental health issues. But we also need compassion for the citizens of San Diego who walk up and down the streets and are frightened about the behavior that persists. We applaud the county for identifying and converting an underutilized County-owned site so that a 150-bed mental health facility could be opened, which is one of the facilities owned by the Lucky Duck Foundation. It was the right thing for the county to do. But it’s not enough. There’s talk from elected leaders that ‘we’re going to put up 20 beds here, 30 beds there,’ but elected leaders are never going to get the job done with that kind of approach. Elected leaders cannot nibble at the issue. They must find meaningful ways to add beds and get people off the street. And importantly, we are prepared to help accelerate those efforts. We’re here to advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves. We’re here to correct the record that it is not about compassion for drug dealers, people selling fentanyl on the street, people who make San Diegans feel unsafe. We’re told that possession of illicit drugs among those living on the streets is not enforceable. Then that needs to be changed too. It’s time to recognize the difference between now-legalized marijuana and deadly fentanyl in terms of ‘possession.’ These criminal acts must be punishable. The citizens of the region deserve more compassion than the criminal element who terrorize people who work hard to create a life for themselves and their families.”

Mayor Gloria’s response to a reporter’s question about this issue can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emFYe4UXXcM 

Walton and Shea put forth the following points in response:

  • Todd Gloria did not do the work to secure the land for the 150-bed shelter. The County, specifically Supervisor Fletcher, did the initial work. It is a 150-bed mental health facility owned by Lucky Duck Foundation and is “on loan” to help address this crisis.
  • The mayor’s gratuitous attack on LDF comes after a good two-year relationship in which he saw the foundation as part of the potential solutions to come and the Mayor appeared pleased with the foundation’s funding of multiple programs to help towards a better San Diego. He never voiced anything negative about LDF until his defensive statement to change the narrative.
  • We never said, “nothing has been done.” This is myth created by the Mayor’s PR people paid for by the taxpayers to make him sound good, but it is not factual. We said, “not enough has been done,” and that is clear by simply looking at the streets surrounding downtown, Balboa Park, Mission Hills and elsewhere.
  • The mayor claims LDF did not put up a penny of the $5M “he” provided, which is technically correct. But what he fails to mention is the use of the foundation’s asset at no cost to government and the fact that LDF paid for construction of the asset in order to bring those 150 beds online.
  • He claims that he has done more than anyone on this issue for which we say he has not proven anything other than he claims he has. Are we to believe this, so therefore it must be true? We are asking for clarity on the numbers, not just claims about numbers. However, we are not calling anyone “liars,” we are simply asking for “clarity.” Show us the math, from start to finish, how that is an accurate statement. Show us the math, don’t make statements, and then expect everyone else to do the work to prove you right or wrong. Share the math so it can be publicly verified.
  • Todd Gloria claims the shelter beds “he” has created far outstrips what LDF has done, so please verify that as we cannot produce how you get to your “claims.” We would like to see that so we can applaud you, but your math is not clear. Please clarify. Not by PR people making (so far) unsubstantiated claims, but by actual facts. Reporting what you say does not make for facts, only that you said it. Let’s use real life data, and then we can lay this issue to rest.

The leadership and volunteers of the Lucky Duck Foundation, including Bill Walton, do not think it is too much to ask of not only Mayor Todd Gloria, but all the mayors, supervisors, and state elected officials to step up their game and turn the ship around for our homeless citizens and subsequently all of our citizens throughout the region. As Walton says, “It has never been about ‘not in our backyard.’ It has always been about shining a light on the need for real progress; it has always been about compassion for our fellow San Diegans; it has always really been about making San Diego America’s Finest City again. Getting reelected should not be the primary goal. Solving problems should be the primary goal.”

 

The article can be found on the SD Metro here.

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