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Homeless encampments along 17th Street in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Voice of San Diego’s Lisa Halverstadt has spent months working on a series about the region’s mental health crisis and has spent years reporting on homelessness in San Diego.

She joined our new Facebook Group, Our San Diego, for a live AMA (Ask Me Anything) Monday to answer your questions about homelessness in the San Diego Region.

Here are a few notable moments from that conversation. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Are you aware of any success stories around the country where a community has minimized, if not eliminated, homelessness? If so, are their methods doable in San Diego?

LH: Houston and Utah are best known for their successes in reducing homelessness. Both focused on identifying vulnerable, chronically homeless individuals and moving them into housing. They also managed to create systems to do this and to align nonprofits, funders and governments in those systems – which is a big deal. You can read more about their successes here and here.

Of course, San Diego’s housing market is much more expensive than in these two places. It’s harder to quickly build homes as these two areas did. So what else can be done? Other communities have seen success bolstering their data systems (which San Diego has been working on) and creating by-name lists of chronically homeless people and homeless veterans, which has led to some significant reductions.

Simple but perhaps necessary question: What do homeless people want? How would they solve the problem? Have efforts been made to do it their way even as a pilot?

Like any group, homeless people have lots of different opinions. But most tell me they are most interested in housing – whether that means a physical place that is not a shelter or even help with an initial deposit to get into housing. Many are also interested in jobs. They want to work but living on the streets can make it very difficult to maintain a full-time job. As for the second question, I know some service providers and local leaders speak passionately about getting homeless San Diegans’ perspectives on homeless services. I know CSH, the consulting group working on the city’s homelessness plan set to be released later this year, has also collected feedback from homeless San Diegans. But historically, this sort of feedback has not been a centerpiece of conversations about new programs or services for homeless people.

What are some of the myths about San Diego homelessness?

Myth #1: Most homeless people have serious mental illnesses. University of Pennsylvania professor Dennis Culhane is considered one of the top authorities on homelessness research nationwide and he estimates the rate of severe mental illness among the homeless (including families and children) is 13 to 15 percent. For the chronically homeless, he estimates about a third of the population has a serious mental illness.

Myth #2: Most homeless San Diegans aren’t from here. Our most recent point-in-time counts – which do rely on some self-reporting and surveys – have suggested less than a quarter of homeless San Diegans first became homeless outside San Diego County. In our most recent homeless census, 78 percent of folks surveyed said they became homeless in San Diego County.

Myth #3: Homeless San Diegans want to be homeless. I have talked to dozens of homeless people myself in my years reporting on this issue and I can tell you it tends to be more complicated. Like you or I, homeless people have preferences about the type of housing they’d like to be in. Many have reservations about shelter beds. Or they are jaded after years on the street and are unlikely to trust anyone offering them a path off the street right off the bat. More on this and the other three myths above here.

Myth #4: Most homelessness is tied to drugs or alcohol. I researched this quite a bit a couple years ago and found that the lion’s share of sources and research suggests between 25 percent and 40 percent of the nation’s homeless population is struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, or both.

One larger takeaway: Many of us make assumptions about the homeless population based on the portion of the homeless population that is most visible to us. But many homeless people fall under the radar. You’d never know they are homeless. They have jobs and routines. They may be couch surfing or in between places. They are newly homeless. More food for thought (and data) on this here.

What sense do you get for what’s causing homelessness? The high cost of housing? Mental health issues? What’re the typical backgrounds of area homeless individuals?

I get this question a lot. I would start by saying that more and more people are falling prey to our high housing costs. Many people are just narrowly able to pay the bills each month, putting them at risk should they face a big rent increase or a major health issue. It’s difficult to characterize the typical background of a homeless person because I have met so many people from all walks of life and backgrounds who have ended up homeless but racial and gender identity disparities do exist.

As for mental health and addiction issues, I think it’s important to keep in mind that many people grapple with those challenges in homes with the support of friends and family. People who end up homeless often lack those support systems, which makes them more vulnerable to ending up on the street.

My neighborhood has a very cynical outlook about homelessness and attribute it to the high cost of living. The mentality is, “If you can’t afford to live here, move.” What are some tips I can use to educate my neighbors?

I would definitely refer you to the info I shared about myths, as those often can dominate conversations on this issue. I know many communities are also concerned when they hear about homeless housing projects that might be coming to their areas. I put together this guide to help folks understand exactly what’s being discussed or proposed. 

Have your own question for Halverstadt? Contact her by email at lisahalverstadt@voiceofsandiego.org.

Megan Wood

Megan is Voice of San Diego’s engagement editor. She is responsible for producing and overseeing content that extends the reach of the organization....

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