County workers interview CalFresh applicants at a workshop hosted by the San Diego Hunger Coalition in El Cajon. / Photo by Megan Wood

Whoever is elected to the County Board of Supervisors’ District 1 seat, which covers the South Bay, will be representing one of the highest populations of residents who utilize public assistance programs and other county services aimed at helping the vulnerable. The annual median income in District 1 is about $10,000 lower than the countywide median income. The district has the highest rates of enrollment in CalFresh, CalWORKS and Medi-Cal, according to county data.

The four Democrats running in District 1 all have plans to help these programs reach more county residents, especially in their district.

“When I’m out in the community, most people are asking to have a place to live, to have a good education and access to health care and food,” said Nora Vargas, a Southwestern Community College trustee and former Planned Parenthood executive.

All of the candidates say they want to invest more in staffing and outreach for these programs, though they all suggest different strategies. Some candidates want to use a mobile center to get programs to communities in the county’s furthest reaches. Some want to focus on county workers’ compensation and pensions.

“This is obviously one of the most important parts of what the county does,” said Rafael Castellanos, an attorney and Port of San Diego commissioner.

‘We Need to Understand the Barriers’

All the candidates agree that many of the people trying to access assistance programs face barriers.

“We are severely under-enrolled,” Castellanos said. “One of the worst in the state of California.”

State Sen. Ben Hueso said he works hard at the state level to earmark funds for the region for public assistance programs, only to see they aren’t reaching the populations who need them.

“We need to understand the barriers,” Hueso said. “I intend to work on a public information campaign. I intend to reach out to people in the community to make them aware ad ask them how we can better serve them. It’s a very simple thing to do.”

Sophia Rodriguez, an employee at the county’s Health and Human Services Agency, said she thinks that education is one of the most powerful tools the county can use to make sure people in need can access the programs.

Rodriguez noted that Supervisor Nathan Fletcher held community forums in his district to help them understand what the county does for constituents. She said she’d like to start something similar in the South Bay.

Rodriguez said that in the course of her work for the county she’s observed hurdles throughout the application process that can deter eligible participants from enrolling, like short time windows to submit documents.

“Maybe we could have educational sessions about the programs and how to enroll,” Rodriguez said. “I know a lot of nonprofits that guide people or help them with appeals if their applications are denied.  The county should have a similar type of obligation.”

Castellanos and Hueso suggested developing mobile facilities that can travel to communities like Jamul and San Ysidro that are far from county hubs where you can apply for programs.

Vargas advocates for navigator programs or promotores to better connect communities with government services and resources.

Vargas also said she would work to implement the suggestions made by Invest in San Diego Families, a coalition of community groups advocating for county services, like matching federal housing voucher dollars and investing in senior nutrition programs.

Investing in Staff

All the candidates said investing in county staff by increasing training, compensation and hiring to lower caseloads, is essential to increasing enrollment in benefits programs.

“The county is in the business of delivering public services,” Castellanos said. “You deliver those services through county employees, through workers. We can’t expect the county to do a good job if we don’t staff properly.”

Rodriguez said the county could re-organize and better connect departments. For example, she said, Los Angeles merged several programs that are separated in San Diego, which helped streamline services for people after they are released from jail to help prevent recidivism.

“I love that and we need to have something similar in San Diego,” she said.

Rodriguez said, if elected, she would ask the county’s chief administrative officer to do a comprehensive study on workers and their caseloads and evaluate how they are being compensated compared to other counties. The union that represents County Health and Human Services Agency workers, SEIU Local 221, has found San Diego employees are paid less than their counterparts in other counties, like Los Angeles, she said.

“This is high-stress, traumatic work and we deserve very good compensation for this job,” Rodriguez said. “It’s difficult and exhausting. There’s burn-out, secondhand trauma. We need to make sure this type of job is protected from high turnover.”

Vargas said she’d look at the county employees’ pensions, which are currently tiered at different levels.

“There’s a lot of inequity right not in terms of pensions for employees,” she said. “Pensions are a part of how you attract the best employees and how you keep them. The reality is our employees at the county are overburdened by casework and we need to do better by them. What happens when you go into an office and you know someone is getting paid more for what you do?”

Castellanos said he would propose using county reserves to staff up departments where caseloads are overloaded, including child welfare “where we know the social workers have huge caseloads that are out of whack with what the justice system recommends.” Castellanos said that many of the deaths in San Diego County jails could be prevented in part through better training for Sheriff’s deputies and by putting more behavioral specialists in jails.

“We need more social workers to help families and children who are going through difficult times,” he said “We know that the staffing is bad. This is not about spending money. This is about investing county resources to avoid bad outcomes and to ensure more good outcomes.”

Hueso said the ultimate goal of increasing staff would be to eventually not need to many people administering these programs. If people are getting the assistance they need, they can get back on their feet, not need these county programs and the county will eventually need less staff.

“Every government program should have an objective and goal,” Hueso said. “It’s not simply about spending money. It’s about having a strategy to get people back to work and put people on healthy nutrition program.”

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.