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We have all come across the person in tattered clothes, sitting on the sidewalk with all of his earthly possessions in a shopping cart, arguing with some unseen antagonist. We often ask ourselves: Why can’t we do something about this?
At the core of San Diego’s homelessness crisis are many severely disabled residents who have lived on the streets for years, sometimes decades. The city and county’s current approach has focused mainly on helping self-sufficient people move into mainstream housing. But in the process, it has left too many of our severely disabled citizens on our streets.
According to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, 35 percent of our 5,000 unsheltered homeless are disabled and have lived on the street for more than a year. We will not make substantial progress on solving street homelessness until we deal with our disabled long-term homeless population.
The only real solution for this population is permanent supportive housing – housing with a voucher to pay a portion of the rent, coupled with supportive services to assist with their needs for as long as they need the support. With the exception of affordable housing units, the region already has most of the pieces in place for this. The task force has assessed the needs of the vast majority of the unsheltered homeless and identified the individuals who need permanent supportive housing. Plenty of federally funded vouchers are available. Funding for the supportive services is in place, or promised by the county supervisors. Now city and county leaders need to step up and help get affordable housing units that can be rented using the vouchers.
Admittedly, San Diego has a tight rental market. Other communities with tight rental markets, however, have found ways to obtain rental units for their disabled homeless. The first thing they did was focus their efforts on housing. San Diego seems reluctant to do that.
San Diego County Board of Supervisor Chairwoman Dianne Jacob barely mentioned homelessness or housing in her latest State of the County address. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer devoted about 20 percent of his 2017 State of the City address to homelessness and offered a half a dozen proposals, but did not make one concrete plan to create affordable housing for our homeless.
The mayor’s office did just release a new 13-page summary for the City Council meeting on homelessness happening Monday at Golden Hall, and that document finally starts to talk about moving forward on creating new affordable housing.
As the mayor’s summary suggests, the critical next step is to institute a coordinated, well-funded landlord incentive program – offering landlords cash incentives, guaranteed rent, damage protection and support services to encourage them to rent to homeless individuals.
Seattle’s rental market is as tight as San Diego’s, yet it has successfully created affordable housing units for 7,000 of its homeless over the last seven years through a model program of landlord incentives. Houston, a city whose leaders have reduced street homelessness by 75 percent, attributes its success to finding affordable housing for its homeless.
One of the positive things Faulconer did last year was budget $4.4 million for limited landlord incentives to house 1,000 veterans. So far, that program has housed 600 homeless veterans, 80 percent of them in permanent supportive housing. He now proposes to expand that to 3,000 homeless people. Community members should make sure he follows through on that promise.
And more programs like that, but better-funded and coordinated countywide, will make a much more immediate impact on our street homelessness crisis than any other expenditure.
From a broader perspective, city and county leaders need to treat disabled homeless housing as a real emergency. Landlord incentives can only go so far in a market with a severe housing shortage. The housing market in Santa Clara County, where San Jose is located, is at least as tight as San Diego’s housing market. Two years ago, Santa Clara County decided to treat homeless housing as a real emergency. Since that time, leaders there have already brought affordable homeless housing units on line for 1,500 people and will house 6,000 more by 2020.
If a fire or landslide wiped out the homes of thousands of San Diego residents, we would find a way to build housing for them on an emergency basis. We need to do the same for our disabled homeless.
It is time for San Diego to stop looking for the cheap quick fix. Instead, we need to focus on ending homelessness by housing our homeless neighbors. Providing the needed affordable housing units will move the region’s long-term disabled homeless residents into permanent supportive housing and significantly reduce the homeless crisis on our streets.
Tom Theisen is the past president of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless and has been a volunteer advocate for San Diego’s homeless for 10 years. Theisen’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.