Friday, Nov. 3, 2006 | As the nights cool in the region, homelessness issues are heating up. ‘The tent’ shelter opened with great fanfare Wednesday, providing beds and medical services for more than 200 people. And last week a plan was passed by the San Diego City Council to work with regional organizations to place the region’s most severe homeless cases in supportive housing.

But the apparent success of these types of programs and plans doesn’t obliterate a huge concern – funding.

For the past several years, the city of San Diego has declared an emergency for its homeless services in order to fund a winter shelter program, including the fabric-walled shelter in Barrio Logan. But the question of a more permanent shelter program has been perpetually tabled every year until the next autumn, and the cycle has continued. Now, with the city in dire financial straits and the mayor promising some major belt-tightening, the prospect of such a permanent program being funded in any significant way by the city is highly unlikely.

Fred Sainz, spokesperson for Mayor Jerry Sanders, has made it clear in recent weeks that funding social services like these do not fall into the city’s core mission. He pointed to “mission creep” – the tendency city officials have had in recent years to promise funding they didn’t really have – as an example of the poor financial management that has characterized the city’s government.

“We understand the priority of this, its significance to many issues,” he said. “The unfortunate reality is that we don’t have any money for it.”

With the mayor reexamining the future size and scope of city government in his attempt to turn the city’s finances around, the city’s homeless programs could be left out in the cold. They would be one of the more visible early casualties of the city’s financial crunch. “Once people understand the enormity of the problem involved in order for the city to survive, they’ll see that we have to fundamentally reprioritize the kinds of things the city involves itself in,” Sainz said.

And the city likely won’t be getting any help from the county in building a shelter. Even though the county is responsible for providing social services, officials say the funds they receive from state and federal sources restrict them from funding the construction of shelters.

“Generally, the county’s position is that the county funds services, not structures,” said Walt Ekard, the county’s chief administrative officer. “If you build it, we will come.”

But the city of San Diego’s financial straits make “building it” nearly impossible. In fact, the $445,000 promised by the City Council for the emergency winter shelter program meant the Housing Commission had to dip into its reserves – a practice that officials say will not continue next year.

“With the finger-pointing and the ‘No, you do it,’ ‘No, you do it,’ kind of thing, I’m concerned about the future of funding for the winter shelter,” said Rosemary Johnston, president of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.

Johnston estimates the county’s homeless population to number between 10,000 and 20,000 over the course of a year. About half of those are within the city of San Diego, she said.

The state and federal money that the county receives for funding social services – including those used by homeless individuals – comes with stipulations for its use, county officials say. Funds may be designated with target groups as general as “the mentally ill” or as specific as “substance-abusing pregnant women that are homeless,” said Rene Santiago, deputy director for health and human services for the county.

And many of those services, such as substance abuse programs, have a mixed clientele, some with homes, some without. So it is tricky to trace what funds are directly serving homeless people.

“The history of the city and county’s relationship has been fractious for many years,” Johnson said. “What I see that often happens in other cities, is that nobody starts paying attention to winter funding until about October. And then the cities start pointing fingers at each other.”

The questions over the city’s future as a financier of homeless shelters come at a time when privately funded shelters have experienced difficulty garnering adequate funding. In August, Father Joe Carroll, president of St. Vincent de Paul Village, said declining donations were forcing cutbacks in his homeless services network for the first time in more than two decades.

The plan to end chronic homelessness passed by the City Council last week was the result of a city-county collaborative planning committee. That fact alone encourages Pat Leslie, who facilitates a group of homeless service providers called the Regional Continuum of Care Council. But she said it’s not enough for the Mayor’s Office to support these programs in word only.

“Both the city and the county have specific homeless policies,” she said. “Why is there a shift now with the Mayor’s Office being so clear, saying now this isn’t their responsibility? Does our work stop at planning?”

But Sharon Johnson, the city’s homeless services coordinator, has been extremely involved in setting up the winter shelter program and assembling health services to be involved. That’s something she’s worked very closely with county officials on, she said.

Sainz said the mayor stands in moral support with those delivering services to the homeless. “There’s … a difference between issues we put money into and issues that we monitor and participate in,” he said.

The relationships in funding these services among agencies, cities and counties seem tenuous at best. And many providers are worried about the people for whom these services exist.

What will happen if funding starts dwindling?

“I think what will happen is that homeless people will become more visible,” said Johnston, of the task force. “The complaint level will rise. People will demand it.”

Correction: Rosemary Johnston’s name was mispelled in the original version of this story. We regret the error.

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