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From homelessness to jail deaths to climate: What San Diego supervisors did in 2022 and have planned for 2023

An aerial view of a row of people standing behind a man speaking at a podium, before assembled journalists with cameras.
San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher speaks at a press conference at the San Diego County Administration Building on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022.
(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Their goal, said Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, is to ‘make San Diego a more livable place.’

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San Diego County supervisors expanded behavioral health services, invested in homeless shelters and moved to curb climate change over the past year — actions they say reflect a philosophical shift toward greater county involvement in such efforts.

Where previous boards had focused largely on land use policy and county infrastructure, this one — whose membership will remain unchanged in 2023 — has vastly expanded the county’s role in social services and environmental protection.

The goal, said Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, is to “make San Diego a more livable place, a more just place ... a more inclusive place and a more sustainable place.”

In interviews with The San Diego Union Tribune, she, outgoing Board Chair Nathan Fletcher, Supervisor Joel Anderson and Vice-Chair Nora Vargas reflected on their work in 2022 and goals for the new year. Supervisor Jim Desmond declined to participate.

Supervisor pushed to boost mental health care, social services and bring more attention to underserved communities

Fletcher is stepping down as chair after two years in the position and has nominated Vargas for the seat when the board next meets in January. With the change in leadership, supervisors said they anticipate moving to address homelessness and housing shortages, finalize plans for a transition to renewable energy and expand services for children, seniors and veterans.

“I want to see the county continue being the regional leader in tackling the biggest challenges San Diego faces,” Fletcher said.

Here is a look back at the county’s 2022, and its plans for 2023.

Behavioral health

The board’s most ambitious project of 2022 has been overhauling the county’s behavioral health system, which includes mental health care and substance use treatment. Officials built facilities for psychiatric emergencies and in-patient treatment and tasked teams of clinicians to respond to mental health crises in lieu of law enforcement.

Central to that effort are crisis stabilization centers — facilities where patients can remain under observation while receiving initial treatment outside of busy hospital emergency rooms. The goal is to spot and treat mental health problems early before more severe symptoms appear.

After the first such standalone facility opened in Vista in 2021, the county added a second in Oceanside in April at the North Coastal Live Well Center, and a third is planned for East County.

People walk through a glass-walled waiting area of a health care facility.
County and Oceanside city officials tour the new crisis stabilization unit at North Coastal Live Well Center on April 18, 2022. The facility provides community-based 24/7 walk-in mental health and substance use services for those in crisis, with stays of less than 24 hours.
(Don Boomer/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The county also broke ground in October on a new 15-bed behavioral health unit at Tri-City Medical Center for inpatient psychiatric care. It is being built by the county but will be run by the hospital, and replaces a facility shuttered four years ago.

In addition, officials convened mobile crisis response teams to respond to psychiatric emergencies in the community, freeing law enforcement to handle crime.

A recent report found nearly 40 percent of the country’s largest law enforcement agencies recently adopted programs that send behavioral health specialists to some emergencies.

Each three-person teams include a mental health clinician, a case manager and a peer support specialist, each trained to stabilize patients and deescalate emergency situations. The teams were piloted in 2021, and in 2022 the county authorized law enforcement agencies to direct psychiatric calls to them, instead of dispatching officers.

Housing and homelessness

As more people become homeless in San Diego, the county added rent subsidies aimed at keeping vulnerable renters in their homes.

In February, the board unanimously approved a plan to provide rental subsidies of about $300 to older adults at risk of losing their homes, in order to make up the gaps between their income and housing costs.

“For a lot of folks in my district, they’re simply being priced out of where they live,” Anderson said.

‘There’s days when I’m really blessed, and days when I’m like, man, I don’t know how I’m going to get through this.’

The board also approved emergency housing including safe parking sites, camping lots and sleeping cabins — small, separate structures where people can sleep individually in place of large, open shelters.

County officials cleared a homeless encampment in unincorporated El Cajon and replaced it with a 16-space lot for people who live in cars, with bathrooms and other amenities.

A row of parked cars behind a chain-link fence.
Cars are parked in El Cajon’s first safe parking lot for homeless people.
(Hayne Palmour IV/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In addition, supervisors set aside $5 million of federal pandemic funds to help LGBTQ people at risk of homelessness, linking housing aid such as temporary housing, security deposits and move-in assistance with social services such as healthcare, behavioral health services and family reunification, Lawson-Remer said.

In May, the board pledged $10 million to help cities fund shelters, safe camping sites, cabins or other programs to help get people off the street, and in December it awarded $5 million of that to shelter programs in San Diego, Carlsbad, Chula Vista and Escondido.

Since 2020, when three of the five current board members took office, the county has also invested $154 million in 33 housing development projects that they expect to produce 2,697 affordable housing units, according to Lawson-Remer’s office. Since then, more than 205 have been built, and more than 650 are under construction.

In October, in the board’s first joint meeting with the San Diego City Council in 22 years, the county and city pledged to jointly build 10,000 units of subsidized housing on government-owned land, relax home-building regulation and consider more high-rise projects.

The two agencies aim to build 10,000 subsidized units on government-owned land, virtually all of them for low-income residents

Environment and climate

Climate change was another key priority, as the board drew up a blueprint for slashing greenhouse gas emissions and securing sustainable power.

In 2021, the board launched the county decarbonization framework — an ambitious plan to cut carbon emissions by scaling up production of solar and wind energy, electrifying buildings and expanding its electric vehicle charging network.

In the spring, officials explored how boosting local agricultural production and open space could help capture carbon and improve the region’s food supply. And in September they added new options for slashing emissions — including installing more rooftop and urban solar, buying power from the Imperial Valley and building new energy facilities on toxic brownfields.

Report spells out the balancing act local leaders must perform to make over the way the region powers its homes, roads and businesses

The county also joined San Diego Community Power, a local renewable energy provider. Unincorporated communities will begin receiving service from that system in 2023.

“We’re now on track to have all our county buildings electrified by 2030,” Lawson-Remer said. “We’re on track to move toward sustainable food procurement.”

Public safety

As climate change sparks hotter, drier weather conditions, the county invested in wildfire defense with a new firefighting helicopter and brush management in backcountry communities.

In May, the county made plans to buy a twin-engine Bell 412 EXP helicopter for use by the Sheriff’s Department. The $16 million aircraft will carry a 375-gallon water tank and be able to land in rough terrain. Officials said the twin-engine chopper, expected to arrive in 2023, is safer and will carry more water and people than the department’s existing aircraft.

A small group of men stand on a tarmac outside a helicopter.
County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher checked out a Bell 412 EPX helicopter at Gillespie Field.
(Courtesy of Edgar Ontiveros / Office of Chair Nathan Fletcher)

The county developed a plan to clear brush from backcountry roads to ensure safe evacuation paths and fire vehicle access, Anderson said. Supervisors also approved an “Ag Pass” system to let ranchers and farmers enter emergency evacuation zones to care for animals or crops.

In January, the board approved a measure to outlaw “ghost guns” — do-it-yourself firearms that lack serial numbers, making it harder for law enforcement to track them. The ban was approved on a party-line vote, with Democrats Fletcher, Vargas and Lawson-Remer in support and Republicans Desmond and Anderson opposed; Desmond said he was concerned about ghost guns but did not believe the measure would be effective.

One of the county’s most pressing ongoing public safety issues — the record numbers of people dying in San Diego jails — has centered on the Sheriff’s Department.

The board generally leaves department administration and policymaking to the elected sheriff. But the worsening crisis in county jails prompted supervisors to direct the county’s top administrator to work with the department on reducing the number of overdoses behind bars — a major cause of jail deaths.

The plan also called for the department to spend $11.6 million on incentives, pay differentials and other benefits to new and existing department employees, to help fill staffing shortages. It also set aside $200,000 for an enhanced body-scanning program to prevent drug smuggling into county jails.

The unanimous vote also boosts a body-scanning program to reduce illegal drugs being brought into jails and in-custody overdoses

2023 goals

As the board’s leadership changes hands, supervisors will continue to focus on key populations including veterans, seniors and children, Vargas said. “One of the reasons I ran for office is that I’m really focused on: How does government work for all and not just for some?” she said.

Vargas wants to expand the county’s free youth transit pass to cover anyone 25 and younger and hopes to boost funding for sports and other youth programming.

Housing, homelessness, infrastructure and climate justice are also top priorities, she said, and she aims to align climate goals and air quality improvement with economic development.

Anderson said he will work to shrink the so-called “digital divide” for backcountry communities by promoting development of rural broadband networks.

Meanwhile, the board expects to finalize its decarbonization framework in 2023, spelling out the steps needed to reach net carbon zero by 2045, and to create well-paid jobs in the new energy sectors.

“I’m focused on how we become a center of enterprise in the green economy,” Lawson-Remer said.

County officials are also planning to work to curb opioid addiction and overdoses with the help of $100 million they expect to reap from settlements with opioid manufacturers.

Expanded drug treatment, peer counseling and safe drug disposal systems are part of San Diego County’s plan for spending opioid settlement money it expects to be paid.

Under a blueprint they approved in October, they intend to expand addiction treatment, provide counseling and housing and create a system for safe disposal of unused prescription drugs.

The board will also consider joining similar class-action lawsuits over pollution and guns, supervisors said. Those could include actions against companies the county says have dumped toxins in San Diego communities and gun manufacturers it says have marketed to minors, Lawson-Remer said.


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