Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2007 | Amid fanfare and grand descriptions of a pending revolution in the region’s care for its homeless population, the City Council unanimously approved a regional Plan to End Chronic Homelessness presented in October 2006.

More than a year later, the plan’s chief committee has met just once.

On another front, the perennial struggle to site the city’s winter homeless shelter transpired this year in a not-in-my-backyard showdown. On one side: Barrio Logan residents weary of the shelter’s three-year run in that neighborhood. On the other: recent immigrants to downtown’s gentrifying East Village who said the shelter had no place in a block surrounded by condo towers. The showdown delayed the opening of the shelter by more than two weeks; operators expect it to open by Saturday.

Some advocates for the homeless say the city’s difficulty with the temporary shelter underscores its delay in implementing the more long-term plan adopted last year. If political will is scarce to open the tent shelter, it’s even more difficult to scrounge up for a permanent solution, their argument goes.

“It’s politically not clear who’s going to own the plan,” said Judith Yates, vice president of the Hospital Association of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “All of the difficulty (with the winter shelter) certainly highlights what the real problems are. The inability to site that winter shelter has got to be the proof in the pudding.”

Others say the tent shelter negotiations should be kept out of the chronic homeless plan because they don’t necessarily overlap entirely. But all agree the plan has taken longer to get to this point than they anticipated last year.

The plan seeks to build or designate 2,000 housing units as homes for the chronically homeless, the most severe cases. Individuals are considered chronically homeless if they have a disabling condition and have either been homeless continually for a year or have been homeless at least four times in the past three years.

By removing such individuals from the streets and linking them with ongoing services, organizers hope to cut the costs associated with serving such cases in high-cost locations such as emergency rooms and justice facilities.

The region has been grappling with how to address this section of the homeless issue for several years. In 2004, the city and county launched the plan and designated the United Way as the convener of committees for housing, employment, health services, justice services, outreach and prevention programs to be associated with the plan. At that time, the county and all of its cities but Santee endorsed the development of a plan.

The plan was completed and presented to the San Diego City Council for approval in October 2006. The city has been the only governmental body to officially adopt the plan, said Doug Sawyer, president and CEO of the United Way of San Diego County. After that October meeting, organizers said they’d begin to assemble the implementation council — the plan’s chief committee.

To that end, the last reference on the plan calendar on that organization’s website is for January 2007: “Start developing an implementation plan under the direction of the implementation Council.”

But that council has only met once this year.

It took Sawyer and other organizers an additional six months to find a leader for that implementation council. The chair during the plan’s development, Dene Oliver of developer OliverMcMillan, had said he wouldn’t serve past the plan’s adoption by the City Council in October last year. But when another suitable, willing leader could not be found, his fellow organizers convinced him to continue as the head. After six months of cajoling, Oliver said yes in June.

“It was a real coup to get him in the midst of his busy life,” Sawyer said. “The delay is almost entirely in terms of getting the chairman in place. We thought it was much more important to get the right person than to move things along.”

Since then, said Carol Williams, Community Impact director for the United Way, there’s been more happening than meets the eye.

“It was a longer delay than any of us anticipated, but there’s been a lot of work going on behind the scenes,” Williams said. The implementation committee will meet again at the end of the month, and a handful of individual subcommittees are scheduling their first meetings, she said.

Oliver was out of town and unavailable to comment for this story.

Bob McElroy is president and CEO of the Alpha Project, a chief agency for the annual tent shelter. McElroy will lead one of the subcommittees for the plan. Though he acknowledged the same factors for the delay, he criticized how long it’s taken to get to this point.

“There’s no reason to let this go any longer,” he said. “You can’t just do that once a year; you have to be meeting every day.”

The questions and the delays and the shadow cast by the region’s difficulty to land on a shelter site each winter underscore a political theme in San Diego County, some say. For organizations indirectly involved, like hospitals, it can be frustrating to watch.

But Yates, of the hospital association, said politicians shouldn’t be held solely accountable for the sluggish approach to finding permanent solutions for the homeless. She called on their constituents to ask them to act.

“The San Diego region has a lack of a clear understanding of homelessness, of who’s in that homeless population and what steps could be taken. It isn’t typically thought of as a social problem,” she said.

Among the City Council members who unanimously approved the plan last October, there has been some movement. In his role as the chairman for the council’s Land Use and Housing Committee, Councilman Jim Madaffer is pushing concepts for a central intake facility and a potential blueprint for designating next year’s site for the tent shelter as early as possible. The delays in getting plans like this off paper and into reality are expected but still frustrating, he said.

“I think it just went from the dream world to the real world,” Madaffer said of the plan. “My frustration was that it seemed it was going nowhere fast.”

He said he was hearing “a lot of talk and not enough action.” From a few experiences talking with people on the streets at night, he said, the solutions suggested in the plan are urgently needed.

“A lot of these folks just need to get their feet on the ground and get placed in new jobs,” he said. “The overwhelming majority just need some help. I think the bottom line is, it’s important that the City Council … quit talking about it and start acting.”

McElroy included, the subcommittee leaders are itching to get started. Matthew Packard, vice president of development for St. Vincent de Paul Village, the agency headed by Father Joe Carroll, will lead one of the committees. He said the plan will be successful only if the rest of the services for the homeless aren’t neglected along the way.

“From my perspective, sometimes this plan (at the national level), it’s been kind of framed in this ‘one way or the highway’ kind of philosophy,” Packard said. “But I think more people locally are willing to acknowledge a variety of approaches are needed.”

The difficulty behind the winter shelter’s implementation concerns Pat Leslie, a sociology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University and a facilitator for a group of homeless direct-services providers called the Regional Continuum of Care council. But Leslie will chair one of the subcommittees focused on including case managers in the permanent supportive housing plan and says she’s excited to make some progress.

“From a community standpoint, the question is, ‘Are we all in this together?’” she said. “I really think we’re at the door of doing some wonderful things.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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