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Few issues in my experience draw as much sympathy, frustration and passion as homelessness. It is a problem that touches us all and for which all community members are desperate for a solution. I believe strongly that no person should have to live on the streets. As Council member for District Three, one of the most impacted areas in the county, and as the chair of the regional body that administers San Diego’s share of federal homeless dollars, I am confident that the way we end homelessness is through the housing first model, which prioritizes getting homeless people housed quickly rather than focusing on temporary shelter or interventions.
It is often one’s experiences with the homeless that inform how they approach the issue. Many volunteer to distribute meals once a week or build relationships with local homeless they see day to day, giving them a few dollars or leftovers in hope of making their unfortunate circumstances a little better. Others are homeowners or people running small businesses who sympathize with the homeless, but feel uncomfortable with a temporary shelter or tent in front of their properties. Some residents have experiences they’ve shared where they feel unsafe and their first reaction is to call the police to help.
These reactions are understandable, but we must separate illegal activity in our neighborhoods from persons who are experiencing homelessness. It is not illegal to be homeless. The police are charged with protecting our communities and keeping us all safe, and I encourage San Diegans to call the police when illegal activity is occurring. However, our officers’ duty is to enforce the law, not to clear the streets of people who are homeless. Moving a homeless individual along who has committed no crime is not only a violation of that person’s civil rights, it also doesn’t address the problem and simply shifts it somewhere else.
We must avoid the pitfall of thinking that criminalizing homelessness is a solution, and focus on underlying issues to break the cycle of homelessness for our most vulnerable neighbors. The San Diego Police Department is composed of some of the most hardworking and caring individuals I have had the honor of working with during my time at the city. It is unfair to San Diego’s residents, our officers and to San Diego’s unhoused population to expect law enforcement to solve this problem. Ultimately, it is myself, the mayor and other regional leaders who need to provide the housing, the mental health and substance-abuse services and the policy direction to implement a strategy that helps us end homelessness.
The housing first model is working to address this issue in states and cities around the nation, who are declaring an end to homelessness. The key tenet of this model is to place individuals not in a temporary shelter but into permanent housing as quickly as possible. Housing is supplemented by wraparound services, including case management, mental health counseling and job training, to help individuals overcome issues that are impeding their path toward life off the streets.
Connecticut, Phoenix and New Orleans have ended veteran homelessness using this strategy, and Utah reduced overall homelessness by 91 percent. Emulating this model, the city, in collaboration with the San Diego Housing Commission, this year unveiled a strategy to house 1,000 veterans, by augmenting federal vouchers and giving landlords incentives to get men and women who served our nation an opportunity to secure very limited housing inventory. The County Board of Supervisors is implementing Project One for All, a historic initiative that will provide housing and services to all seriously mentally ill homeless individuals in the county.
Nationally, San Diego County is fourth in homeless population with almost 9,000 individuals sleeping on our streets and in our shelters. Last year, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro visited an affordable housing project in San Diego and committed to taking a step toward re-evaluating the federal formula for homeless program funding for the first time in decades. Under the current formula, San Diego is 23rd in the amount of funding it receives compared with other cities. To meet our goals, it is vital to secure the necessary funding to provide housing and services.
When it comes to housing the homeless, calling the police, distributing meals or connecting them to a shelter for a few nights aren’t real solutions. Programs like the San Diego Homeless Outreach Team and the Serial Inebriate Program work because they connect individuals with permanent supportive housing, and the services that can help end the cycle of homelessness for good. Meals and materials that are distributed should be connected with programs and services that can help address greater needs.
The way we end homelessness is not by making life on the streets marginally better, it is by working together, leveraging our resources and providing permanent supportive housing which gets people off the streets.
Todd Gloria is a member of the San Diego City Council, chair of the San Diego Regional Continuum of Care and a candidate for the state Assembly.