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NBA legend Bill Walton lambasts San Diego mayor over homelessness. 'This is a shipwreck'

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 9/28/2022 Gary Warth
Bill Walton reacts during his statement given about the city's handling of homelessness . Walton was speaking at the Lucky Duck Lucky Duck Foundation press conference held at USD Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022 in San Diego, CA. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune) © Provided by San Diego Union Tribune Bill Walton reacts during his statement given about the city's handling of homelessness . Walton was speaking at the Lucky Duck Lucky Duck Foundation press conference held at USD Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022 in San Diego, CA. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A San Diego philanthropic group is launching an initiative it says will hold elected officials accountable for what they are doing to end the homelessness crisis.

Heads of The Lucky Duck Foundation were joined by NBA legend and San Diego native Bill Walton at the University of San Diego on Tuesday morning to reveal plans for its first "Shamrocks & Shipwrecks" initiative, similar to the Orchids & Onions awards that recognize the best and worst local architecture.

Foundation Executive Director Drew Moser said an undetermined number of people will be named on Dec. 8 based on a fact-based scoring system.

"It will be ongoing, and it's designed to emphasize high-impact programs and tangible actions as well as call out inaction or missed opportunities of San Diego County's elected leaders and their jurisdictions," Moser said. "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."

Moser said the public can weigh in on who should be on the list by visiting https://www.shamrocks.luckyduckfoundation.org/.

While the list has not yet been compiled, Walton appeared to nominate San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria for a "shipwreck" recognition.

"A few years back, our mayor, Todd Gloria, decided that the park would be a terrific place for a massive homeless encampment with its accompanying nightmares of enormous amounts of trash, safety issues, lack of sanitation, health problems and security issues," he said, referring to an area of Balboa Park near his home in Hillcrest. "This is absurd and insane. This is a shipwreck."

Walton said he has worked behind the scenes with the Lucky Duck Foundation for some time, but has decided to make a public statement after emails he wrote to Gloria were published in the press.

In a series of emails sent between Aug. 9 and Sept. 2, Walton pleaded with Gloria to do something about the homeless encampments near his home and around three bicycle trails he uses as an avid cyclist. He wrote about being chased and threatened by homeless people in the park, and how he had to turn his home of 43 years into a "fortress" to ensure his safety.

On Tuesday, Walton said the mayor had responded to his emails with a 45-minute phone conversation that left him unsatisfied.

"It was less than useless," he said about the conversation. "It was a massive and stupefying exercise in futility. Todd Gloria governs by the changing winds of social media. Todd Gloria, in our conversations, prefaces every conversations with 'This is not an excuse,' then he goes on to make yet another excuse."

In response to Walton's statements, Gloria's office released a long response that called the news conference "a tantrum full of self-aggrandizing hyperbole and outright lies."

"San Diegans are frustrated with the worsening homelessness crisis, and Mayor Gloria shares that frustration," wrote Gloria's Director of Communications Rachel Laing. "But unlike Mr. Walton, Mayor Gloria is translating that frustration into decisive, sustained action to improve the situation. To say that he has done nothing on homelessness is objectively false."

Laing wrote that homelessness has been the mayor's top priority since taking office in December 2020, and since then he has dramatically increased and diversified the city's shelter beds, launched and expanded street outreach, initiated 18 different policy reforms on affordable housing, invested city funds into 10 affordable housing projects, championed efforts at the state level to enhance access to mental health care, and stepped up sidewalk cleanups and law enforcement at encampments.

“Finally, Mayor Gloria is clear-eyed and has been completely honest with the public about the enormity of the challenge our city is facing," she wrote. "It’s unfortunate Bill Walton is quitting on San Diego, but you can be damned sure Todd Gloria never will.”

Moser and Lucky Duck Foundation board member Dan Shea said the efforts by Gloria's administration have not been enough. Shea said the city must do more than promising to open small shelters, such as the planned shelter in the old Central Library, which could provide 23 beds during inclement weather.

Walton was more pointed in his criticism.

"Are we to believe his hot air or our own eyes?" he said. "Things are worse now than ever before. And our lives are being dictated by an out of control and unruly homeless population. Every time I go out on my bike I'm threatened, chased, attacked and assaulted by homeless people."

When asked during the press conference what he would like Gloria to do, Walton did not offer specifics.

"What I want the city to do is their job," he said, "What is their basic job? To provide a safe and secure, healthy, clean environment for us to live, work and play. That does not mean allow massive homeless encampments that disrupt everything."

Asked if there is a concrete plan they would like to see the city to pursue, Shea said it is up to politicians to come up with a plan, but a simple answer was to provide more beds.

When asked how cities should handle homeless people who say they do not want to go into shelters, Shea said the city should start by offering shelter beds to those who do want to go in, and begin enforcing laws that they're supposed to enforce.

"There's something wrong with our politicians," he said. "They're the ones making the laws. If the laws aren't strong enough, change them. If they are strong enough, enforce them."

The foundation has been instrumental in pushing the city of San Diego to open bridge shelters for homeless people and it has funded several smaller programs to make life safer and more bearable for people living without shelter.

While the nonprofit has worked with elected officials on past initiatives — most recently the Lucky Duck Foundation provided the large tent that is serving as a 150-bed shelter operated jointly by the city and county of San Diego — it also has been critical of the city's perceived slow response to address homelessness.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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