When I worked at the Oceanside Public Library, we had a binder of contact information for different social service providers in the area. If a patron needed clothes, help applying for jobs or a place to live, we crossed our fingers and gave them a list of places that we thought would match their situation.

None of us were trained social workers, but we felt compelled to help, knowing that the patron would soon begin a process of blindly knocking on agencies’ doors, looking for assistance.

“They would be bounced around and told, ‘hopefully someone calls you,’” said Megan Dunn, with Escondido-based Interfaith Community Services.

One critic of that system, homeless advocate Mike McConnell, says it often results in inefficient and ineffective work, with no ability to measure and learn from successes.

“Homeless services worked in this incredibly siloed system, where there’s no set of standards across the industry about how services are provided or outcomes are measured. Even within one agency, there can be lack of coordination between programs.”

That’s where the Alliance for Regional Solutions, an unincorporated group administered by Interfaith staff, wants to make improvements. The group is using its member agencies to build a network that ties service providers with homeless clients through a shared database, known as the Coordinated Assessment and Placement System. CAHP then uses a standard tool for assessing people’s needs, based off data provided on other clients and services.

Altogether, the system decides who the highest-priority cases are and assigns them to a service provider, which makes the web of social services accountable and transparent, and removes any temptation to prioritize homeless clients who may be easier to work with.

“It’s eliminating ‘cherry picking’ because of the outcomes a client would provide,” said Dunn, who coordinates the Coordinated Assessment and Placement System for the Alliance.

McConnell noted it also removes the duplicated effort that comes when people register themselves for housing with more than one organization at a time, to increase their chances of getting a place to live, which can be costly in an area where every dollar counts.

“Multiple times a client could have been in three projects, and just entered into a fourth,” he said. “We’re banging our heads against a wall.”

From a homeless person’s perspective, the process begins with someone reaching out on the street or by going into one of the participating agencies in North County or the city of San Diego. They complete an assessment, and social workers can see the person’s history to get a better sense of what kind of services they need.

They’re then matched with help, like a dating service, but the time to get a match depends on their level of need and the availability of services.

The San Diego Regional Continuum of Care, which oversees federal housing funds for the region, adopted CAHP to support its overall goal of ending veteran and chronic homeless, so not all populations, such as families, are going to be prioritized in a “first come-first served” way.

“Sadly, in many instances, it may be we don’t have a bed for them,” said Interfaith’s Greg Anglea, who serves as president of the Alliance for Regional Solutions.

One of the main issues is that more people are interested in getting services than there are beds available, and shelters in Escondido and Vista are already full.

Another issue, one with any data-driven system, is that it is only as good as the information that goes into it.

McConnell, the homeless advocate, said with some cities and agencies, the data is “being held hostage,” and that making the kinds of changes that introduce transparency and outside accountability is proving to be a stumbling block to getting more agencies on board.

“Sharing resources and giving up control of your agency’s resources is a huge shift in mentality,” he said.

CAHP began in San Diego in 2014 and launched in North County the following year, using the alliance as a framework of nine agencies and four shelters. In January, the Regional Continuum of Care adopted CAHP as a requirement for projects that put people in permanent housing.

Anglea described it as an evolving system, one that is still developing in stages throughout the county. Next week, CAHP will expand to agencies in South Bay and East County.

McConnell said the broader affordable housing crisis in the county is making it hard for people who have made an effort to get off the streets to actually do it.

“There’s people on the street who have a housing assistance voucher … and they really do have a hard time finding a landlord,” he said. “We know we can find places for those people to live, and it takes a very dedicated effort to find it.”

Also in the News

• If you haven’t noticed by now, it’s San Diego Homeless Awareness Day. Several local stories on homeless issues can be found here. (Medium)

• Homeless shelters in North County rely on private funds to stay open, while others are forced to close, as federal funding moves toward “housing first” programs. (KPBS)

• Housing vouchers just ain’t worth what they used to be, especially in Oceanside and Carlsbad (VOSD).

Ruarri Serpa is a freelance writer in Oceanside. Email him at ruarris@gmail.com and find him on Twitter at @RuarriS.

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