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Wednesday, July 22, 2009 | Nearly three years ago, politicians and nonprofits announced a regional plan to end chronic homelessness with a flourish of rhetoric and striking promises about new paradigms for dealing with homeless people in San Diego.

The plan got off to a slow, quiet start. In its first year, the chief committee met just once. The search for a person to become the plan’s commissioner took two years. The economy tanked, dwindling financing for building the promised 1,600 housing units combined with supportive services central to the plan.

The plan’s goal: End chronic homelessness by 2012.

“It was a grand idea but without any money it was a toothless tiger,” said Herb Johnson, president and CEO of the San Diego Rescue Mission, a local homeless services agency and shelter. “Without funding, it doesn’t land very well. There were just a lot of great ideas and well-intentioned committees meeting about things.”

But slowly, the plan is moving. Money is flowing to a few programs to move some people from the streets to housing where they can receive services. Another program treats medically weak patients in clean environments without using hospital beds. One program smoothes the transition for people moving off of social services. Another creates an East County center for connecting homeless people with services. The United Way, the nonprofit agency overseeing the regional plan, dispersed grants of more than $750,000 to five nonprofits for these programs earlier this year.

“We’ve started to make some order out of what had a little bit of chaos,” said Brian Maienschein, whom the United Way named commissioner of the plan in January after he ended his term as a San Diego city councilman.

In an era of major economic instability, where tent cities spring up on the streets of San Diego and where families double or triple up after losing their homes to foreclosure, the issue of homelessness has attracted some extra attention of late.

Beyond funding challenges wrought by the weakened general economy, the plan faces hurdles to garner support from the community and to wring some funds from tight government coffers.

But it’s not the only movement in the region’s approach to homelessness. The city of San Diego is a month away from picking a plan for a new one-stop center where homeless and extremely low- income residents could be linked to housing and services. The city also wants emergency shelter beds and permanent supportive units built as part of the proposal. The city is mum on the proposals that have come in but expects to send one on for review by September.

The movement encourages some longtime service providers.

“It’s a crappy economy to have the expectations we would’ve had five years ago, but still, it’s more than I’ve seen done in 23 years,” said Bob McElroy, president and CEO of the Alpha Project, a major local homeless services agency that often contracts with the city to set up an emergency shelter for the winter months — a program this new project is slated to supplant.

“I’m still kind of in shock that it looks like something’s going to be implemented here in the not-too-distant future,” McElroy said. “What the size and scope of it is remains to be seen, but if we’re getting one person off the streets, it’s a good thing.”

The San Diego region launched its chronic homelessness efforts, headed by the United Way, in 2004 in the midst of an unprecedented period of gangbusters growth in the housing market and surrounding economy.

Dene Oliver of developer OliverMcMillan was the task force’s chairman, and pulled together committees of city and county staff, volunteers, businesspeople and professionals from the healthcare and legal professions. They met for years to discuss housing, employment, health services, justice services, outreach and prevention programs to be associated with the plan before it was announced in 2006.

Now they’re hoping to put some of those ideas into practice.

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. That subpopulation is a minority in the homeless population, but eats up half of the homeless support resources, organizers said when the plan was released.

By removing such individuals from the streets and linking them with ongoing services — like caseworkers, job search help, healthcare, substance abuse counseling, childcare, mental health therapy — organizers hope to cut the costs associated with serving such cases in high-cost locations such as emergency rooms and justice facilities.

The goal, beyond eliminating those emergency expenses, is to help each individual transition from the streets to stability, becoming and staying physically and emotionally healthy.

When the plan was released, organizers estimated there were about 1,400 chronically homeless people living in San Diego County. The plan’s initial deadline — ending chronic homelessness by 2012 — feels a bit soon.

“Anytime you say ‘to end a problem,’ I think, it’s exceedingly difficult,” Maienschein said. “In the meantime, if we get really, really close, that’ll be good enough.”

Some programs that seemed peripheral to the main housing thrust of the chronic homelessness plan three years ago have stepped into the spotlight.

Johnson’s Rescue Mission received one of the five grants from the United Way earlier this year, for $261,000. With that money, the agency has dedicated 28 beds so far to recuperative care for homeless people dealing with medical conditions — anything from wound care to chronic pain to injections. Without this setup, a patient might instead wind up in an emergency room outfitted with equipment and service unnecessary for that patient, and where costs might reach more than $2,000 a day, Johnson said.

“For homeless people you can’t treat them for three hours and then put them back out into a non-sterile environment,” he said. “It really seemed as though this was a bell that no one was really ringing anywhere.”

McElroy’s group secured $332,000 for street outreach and case management staff for The Hotel Metro, a single-resident-occupancy residential complex.

Another pot of more than $6.1 million was recently allocated to San Diego out of the federal government’s Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program under HUD.

The City Council is slated next week to discuss the dispersal of that money. The Housing Commission’s draft plan for that money would provide some short-term rent subsidies to at least 350 families to try to keep them from becoming homeless.

Maienschein said the down economy gives many homeowners in the region a better understanding of homelessness.

“I think there are a lot of people living in really big houses in really nice neighborhoods who are realizing they’re not that far from homelessness themselves,” Maienschein said. “I think it’s much harder to ignore now.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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