The Equity Factor

San Diego Hopes Two New Tools Will Curb Homelessness Crisis

"It's like trying to turn an aircraft carrier."

People living in tents in San Diego

Some homeless people live in tents and makeshift housing in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

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On Monday, San Diego’s City Council dealt a blow to Mayor Kevin Faulconer after voting 5-4 against bringing a higher hotel tax to a public vote. The move, supported by Faulconer, would have brought in an additional $10 million annually toward reducing the city’s deepening homelessness crisis. The defeat hasn’t shaken all advocates, amid reports that Faulconer’s office didn’t have a concrete spending plan for that total.

Instead, people working on homelessness in the city are betting high on two new developments: a little help from a national private firm, and new rules for accessing grant money that the city hopes will — finally — unify its many but fragmented homelessness champions.

That private firm, Focus Strategies, has worked with governments in 45 communities across the United States, including San Francisco, Seattle and cities in Silicon Valley, to tackle homelessness. In San Diego, a city that ranked fourth among U.S. metro areas with the highest homeless populations in 2015, the firm will interview nonprofit reps and city leaders across the region to build out a major plan set for debut in 2018.

It won’t be San Diego’s first framework — in 1997 the county offered up just over three pages of a homelessness policy — but it’ll be bigger than any previous pursuit. And following stark numbers from a federally mandated homelessness count at the start of 2017, city officials and nonprofits alike are recognizing that they can’t keep doing what they’ve always done before.

This year San Diego County cited a 68 percent increase in the number of people living on the street since 2007, amounting to a total of 5,621. Unsheltered chronically homeless individuals, or those living outdoors for more than a year who also have mental or physical disabilities, numbered 1,750 — a 148 percent spike from a decade ago.

At the city level, Downtown San Diego alone saw a homeless population jump of 27 percent just between 2016 and 2017. The entire city saw a spike of 10 percent from 2016, although the current number of people living on the streets was 2 percent less than what it was in 2012. Seventy-seven percent of those interviewed in 2017 became homeless while living in San Diego.

Christopher Ward, a city council member who’s part of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness and a city-funded homelessness committee created last month, says one recent success has been a 9 percent drop in the number of homeless veterans since 2016, and a 29 percent total drop in that population since 2012. That’s largely because of efforts like the Housing Our Heroes Initiative, which put $12.5 million in city, federal and San Diego Housing Commission funds toward getting landlords to offer city center apartments to veterans at below-market rates.

But getting all the organizations on the same page to address the other facets of homelessness hasn’t been as easy. “It’s like trying to turn an aircraft carrier,” says Ward. He estimates there are upward of 80 local nonprofits working on the issue throughout the region.

“Twelve months ago we had no political leadership or concerted effort to really take the reins of this or start calling the shots,” he says. Now — and for the first time ever — San Diego is seeing “an unprecedented coordination between all government, regional and nonprofit organizations.”

Part of that has to do with the growth of a major tool called the Homelessness Management Information System, and a new requirement that essentially makes its use mandatory for organizations in San Diego. When homeless individuals walk through the door at a housing facility or service provider, managers can now access their history in the county to see what services they’ve taken advantage of in the past, or who their case worker is. (As of last year, the San Diego Police Department was also given access to this database.)

The system’s been in development in San Diego over the past decade, but going forward, service providers will be required to communicate and coordinate through it if they want to qualify for grants or funding. “For those that don’t, or kind of want to do their own model — they’re going to become more and more the minority, and realize they’re going to have to change their model,” says Ward.

Michael McConnell, a homelessness advocate in the city, is optimistic about the new changes. He says what grabs most of the attention are the tarps and camping tents that line sidewalks in areas like the East Village, where a portion of the 5,621 unsheltered individuals registered throughout the county live.

Yet their homelessness management system is tracking nearly 17,000 people.

“They’re not all substance abusers or people with mental health issues,” says McConnell. “They’re living in their cars, or really just in need of a job or affordable housing to get out of homelessness.”

Focus Strategies will also be fundraising to help the city embrace more permanent housing solutions over short-term stays. According to Voice of San Diego, the city has a greater quantity of transitional housing units than the 20 most populated metro areas in the U.S., even as that model continues to fall out of favor with homelessness experts, and cities that embrace permanent housing as the first step to escape homelessness, like Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City, are seeing results.

San Diego’s initial embrace of this model, called Housing First, was a three-year campaign that ran between 2014 and 2017. It put $30 million in front of the nonprofits and led to housing successes in the veteran community. It also brought on the creation of 407 permanent supportive housing units throughout the county.

But McConnell and other San Diego advocates want cash injections like that to be more impactful; those 407 units would help just over 7 percent of the region’s current homeless. They’re hoping help from a third party can refresh the region’s strategy and build out a plan that assists everyone.

“It does seem like [Focus Strategies] is trying a more holistic approach,” he says. “But as anyone knows, it’s implementation. Anyone can write a plan, but that plan isn’t worth anything unless it implements a change.”

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City. 

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Tags: homelessnesssan diegosocial services

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