San Diego leaders are hoping a key architect behind Utah’s success in reducing chronic homelessness can replicate that success in San Diego.
Gordon Walker, Utah’s former state director of housing and community development, has been named CEO of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, a countywide group that aims to coordinate San Diego’s homeless-serving efforts.
Earlier this year, the task force merged with the group that annually doles out about $18 million in federal homelessness funds. The goal is to better address a seemingly intractable cause long challenged by a slew of competing efforts.
Enter Walker. He took the helm of the San Diego group on Wednesday, two years after his retirement in Utah. He was a key player in efforts to corral leaders across Utah to tackle that state’s homelessness problem.
Now regional leaders in San Diego want Walker to get San Diego politicians, nonprofits and residents behind an overarching strategy to address exploding street homelessness countywide and to set up the task force to take on a regional coordination role.
“I feel like he’s the guy that can do a lot of the things that I think are needed to help orchestrate a successful regional effort in reducing homelessness in San Diego,” said County Supervisor Ron Roberts, who chairs the task force.
Walker’s work in Utah has drawn lots of national attention. He championed efforts to aid hundreds of chronically homeless people.
San Diego, meanwhile, has struggled to help people who have been homeless for years. San Diego’s latest homeless census revealed a more than 60 percent spike in that population in a single year, and other regional data has shown the chronically homeless often churn in and out of San Diego’s homeless-serving programs.
Utah helped its chronically homeless population through an approach known as housing first, which means moving clients into a home first and then giving them the option – rather than an order – to accept other services. San Diego’s increasingly following the same tack but has been slower to adopt it than Utah.
Two years ago, media reports hailed a 91 percent drop in chronic homelessness in Utah over a decade. That statistic’s since been questioned by a conservative think tank and a Deseret News series that noted changing federal chronic homelessness definitions and a mistake Utah officials made in classifying some of its homeless population made the outcome seem more dramatic than reality.
Walker was the Utah official who oversaw that drop.
Walker said Wednesday he hadn’t closely examined flags raised about Utah’s numbers but said he stands by his record.
“We saw people’s lives change and I can actually say we saved people’s lives by providing the housing,” he said.
In his new role, Walker faces an array of challenges.
San Diego’s got a bigger homelessness problem and different political and housing climates than Utah. Some nonprofits and stakeholders are resistant to new regional goals. An outside consultant is working on a countywide plan that is expected to lead regional decision-makers to make tough calls about stemming the problem. Homelessness itself is also growing. The region saw a 14 percent spike in street homelessness this year.
City Councilman Chris Ward, vice chair of the task force, said Walker emerged as the leading candidate for the job because of his experience lining up a broad coalition behind Utah’s homelessness-fighting efforts.
“His track record demonstrates exactly the type of leadership we need for the San Diego region, particularly as the Regional Task Force on the Homeless is in the process of establishing the region’s homeless crisis response system,” Ward said.
Walker said Wednesday he’s eager to get to work selling the task force’s role and the effort to create a regional blueprint to address one of the most intractable problems.
“We have to have the political will. Without the political will it does not happen,” Walker said. “We have to have unity and we have to have commitment of all the players to be involved. If your city and county were fighting, I wouldn’t have come but I sense a unity and at least there’s an attempt for unity.”