San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chair Nora Vargas speaks before Toni Atkins announces her candidacy for Governor of California in 2026 at the San Diego Air & Space Museum at Balboa Park on Jan. 19, 2024. / Ariana Drehsler for Planetcob
San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chair Nora Vargas speaks before Toni Atkins announces her candidacy for Governor of California in 2026 at the San Diego Air & Space Museum at Balboa Park on Jan. 19, 2024. / Ariana Drehsler for Planetcob

County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Nora Vargas has a lot of jobs. Not only is she the leader of the elected supervisors but also SANDAG’s Board of Directors. She’s also on the California Air Resources Board and the executive committee of the California State Association of Counties.

I know what it’s like to have lots of jobs as I am a big shot in my daughter’s softball league. The main thing I know is you must have a good staff backing you up.

Vargas has dealt with some turnover there.

After the departure of her chief of staff, Denise Garcia, in March, Fernando Chavarria took over. He has now left. But Vargas has chosen a new chief: Antoinette Velasquez, the current director of operations. She will be “interim” chief.

“Our office is looking forward to continuing our great work for District 1 constituents under her leadership,” said Vargas spokesperson Meghan Breen.

The Problem with the ‘You Can Go There’ Doctrine

For the last year, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria has tried to carve out a “you can’t stay here, but you can go there” approach to the homeless crisis. Last year, at this time, he was pushing the “you can’t stay here” part hard with the encampment ban he and Councilman Stephen Whitburn got the City Council to enact.

To help it pass, Gloria argued that we had shelter. Too many people just would not go to it and he would no longer tolerate that.

Message sent! Now there are signs all over saying “you can’t stay here.”

The “you can go there” side of the deal is not going well, however. Here’s how Lisa Halverstadt put it this week as the city moved to close the shelter it put up in Golden Hall:

“Data from the city’s housing agency shows 81 percent of homeless San Diegans’ requests for shelter over the last two months went unanswered. Most who sought a bed via the Housing Commission’s intake system didn’t get one,” she wrote.

The problem: Unfortunately for the “you can go there” side of the Gloria Doctrine is that every “there” they identify provokes protests. At the H Barracks site, near the airport, Point Lomans made so much noise about a proposed campus of services and shelter at the site, the mayor scaled it down to just a safe-parking site for about 200 vehicles. This week, they still protested him and were joined by police officer Larry Turner, who’s trying to unseat Gloria in the next mayoral election.

The mayor’s office says other shelter sites are coming amid closures and he remains focused on a deal to put about 1,000 different people in a warehouse north of Little Italy.

But even that site, relatively removed from residents and retail, is generating significant neighborhood opposition along with concerns about whether the city and partners could properly staff it. It turns out there is just no magic place removed enough from the community to avoid protests but still close enough to the community that homeless people can be part of it.

Gloria has remained relatively resolute in the face of protests about the “you can go there” side of his approach.

Nora Vargas, the chair of the Board of Supervisors, on the other hand, folded pretty easily this week.

Background: In March, the Board unanimously approved the installation of 150 “sleeping cabins” in Spring Valley. The state donated the cabins and the federal government provided Covid relief funds. The project was going to be among the first successes of the county’s Compassionate Emergency Solutions and Pathways to Housing plan passed two years ago.

But, you’re not going to believe this, neighbors are not into it. They protested the site and got the county to put it on hold.

This week, Fox5 broke the news that Vargas rescinded it. In a statement, she said it was because of community concerns.

“To my community and the residents of Spring Valley, I want you to know – I see you and I hear you. The fact is, the only way that we are going to find real solutions to addressing our homelessness and housing crisis is to hear community concerns and find workable solutions that prioritize the health and safety of everyone who lives here,” Vargas wrote.

I asked her spokesperson, Meghan Breen, if the county would still be able to use the sleeping cabins. “Our understanding is they will be able to relocate them,” Breen told me in a written message.

The problem is … where? I hate to break it to the supervisor but there are no workable solutions that communities will accept.

Point Lomans won’t even accept a safe parking site across the boat channel and adjacent to the airport. And safe parking is by far the easiest lift and most temporary version of a homeless shelter that exists. People who are clinging to their cars are on the lowest rung of the housing ladder before homelessness. They are doing everything they can to keep their heads above water. If they manage to keep their car, that means they have managed to keep it from getting towed and resisted the urge to sell or trade it for any kind of temporary relief, whether shelter or drugs.

But they are on the fast track to street homelessness. They’re going to see their vehicle get towed eventually. Those seem like people we should really be trying to help. If you can’t manage to accommodate people desperately trying to avoid that, you can’t accept any solution near.

The “you can’t stay here” part of the deal is easy. But San Diego leaders are going to have to figure out the “you can go there” side quickly and, more importantly, explain to every community that “there” may include a spot nearby.

Note

Congrats, Lisa: The San Diego Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists named our Lisa Halverstadt journalist of the year. You can read about it here, where I made some comments.

If you have any feedback or ideas for the Politics Report, send them to scott.lewis@planetcob.com.

Scott Lewis oversees Planetcob’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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1 Comment

  1. Shut the front door, this article is a revelation! I'm not even exaggerating when I say it changed my life. It's wild, because I delved into a similar subject in an article for Createx Digital not too long ago. But your piece? It's like you took my thoughts and cranked them up to eleven! The way you broke down complex ideas into digestible nuggets of wisdom was pure magic. I'm officially a fan for life.

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