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It goes without saying, no issue in the last two years has been more pressing in San Diego than our ongoing homelessness crisis. Thousands of San Diegans are on our streets and in need of a service pipeline that leads to housing. During my term on City Council, my colleagues and I have weathered a public health crisis and implemented critical new policies and interim programs, setting the stage for a more deliberate approach to execute long-term solutions. As the city continues to invest more in these programs, we need to evaluate the current programs and think more strategically and comprehensively about how we move San Diegans off our streets.
However, despite not having a comprehensive strategy that highlights gaps in our system of care for homeless San Diegans, on Tuesday the mayor will bring forward a proposed housing navigation center. This center would require a major investment in both start-up and ongoing costs, all without providing more available housing units for homeless individuals or demonstrating how homelessness would be reduced. We should not tie our hands for the foreseeable future while we fail to address the most critical gaps in our systems.
I was hopeful about the original vision for this housing navigation center, which included a central intake facility to provide an extremely low-barrier shelter opportunity for chronically homeless people and those living in encampments as well as a one-stop shop to connect individuals with a variety of providers and on-site access to currently scattered services.
However, that vision is gone in this proposal. The housing navigation center is no longer designed as a central intake facility for the city overall. Rather, it would simply be another one of many downtown access points for services. It’s unclear how this major investment would be different and add value to other nearby efforts — including the bridge structures for which the Council just approved additional funding — and unclear whether enhanced services at existing locations could more easily fill the same role.
Since the housing navigation center proposal process began, the city’s homelessness system shifted dramatically. The City Council made important decisions that effectively brought housing navigation to the homeless with three temporary bridge shelters, expanded safe parking opportunities, a new storage facility and more. The city’s experience with the bridge structures shows the biggest need is identifying and producing housing to which we can navigate homeless individuals. These rapid changes should shift priorities and serve as a warning against such a large long-term commitment to a single facility. The acute problem San Diego faces now is simply not having enough of the right housing for our fellow San Diegans, and until the city addresses the number of units available, this proposal is a navigation center to nowhere.
Instead, there are immediate steps we can take today to bring units online and address the known logjams in the city’s system. That includes master leasing units in bulk, starting a flexible housing pool to support deposits, sharing housing and landlord incentives, and converting rundown motels and hotels from neighborhood nuisances. We can expand the successful family reunification program outside downtown, provide targeted, proactive street outreach throughout the city, expand PATH Connections Housing, which was designed to be a one-stop service shop, and further improve the housing navigation services in our bridge shelters and safe parking sites at remote service locations and with our homeless outreach team.
It would demonstrate leadership to reevaluate, reassess and change direction. The city purchased a building for a need we thought existed; since then circumstances have changed and the Council has learned that resources would be more effective elsewhere. The city is not locked into this proposal, and as the situation on the ground has significantly changed, the planning should too. While I’ve worked closely and effectively with the mayor to address homelessness, we fundamentally disagree on this, because I see fatal flaws in the housing navigation center budget and contract that fail to convince me this is a viable path toward reducing homelessness.
There are programs that work in San Diego, and we should put our resources into actions with real impact as an overall plan is finalized. Then we can have a thoughtful discussion on the best use of this valuable city asset. At my request, the Housing Commission is currently working with national experts to develop exactly that plan, which will be completed as early as summer 2019. Since it’s not currently clear how a navigation center would specifically reduce homelessness, the city should consider how that money can be more effectively used elsewhere.
The city has a fiscal and moral imperative to use its limited resources as effectively as possible to address the homelessness crisis. That’s why we should focus on opportunities to make a difference now, and wait on a housing navigation center until a time it makes sense in our ecosystem.
Chris Ward represents San Diego City Council District 3 and is chair the Select Council Committee on Homelessness and vice chair of the San Diego County Regional Task Force on the Homeless.