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On the rainy Monday morning of March 15, Rodney Diffendal, Randy Ferris and Walter Jones were killed when a driver plowed onto a sidewalk where the three unhoused victims and others sought refuge from the weather. The tragedy was a forceful reminder of the constant vulnerabilities our unsheltered neighbors are exposed to. Exactly one month later, we must ask ourselves what we have done and what are we doing to avoid similar tragedies in the future. The simple answer to that question is: not enough.
Mayor Todd Gloria responded to the tragedy with compassion and took important steps to reduce the number of unsheltered San Diegans, however, this is not only his problem to solve. Every incident of homelessness is a societal failure, and societal failures demand societal solutions. In other words, we all must ensure the lives lost and trauma inflicted a month ago were the end of San Diego’s acceptance of the existence and consequences of our homelessness crisis.
Coincidentally, just moments before the devastating March 15 crash, three of my colleagues and I submitted a memo to the mayor requesting the city develop a program to maximize a federal reimbursement program that presents an incredible chance to solve San Diegan’s homelessness crisis. This once-in-a-generation opportunity calls for a once-in-a-generation effort – a homelessness moonshot.
I admit the term “moonshot” may sound cliché. I would fault nobody for seeing the word, rolling their eyes, and thinking it is a cheap political catchphrase in search of headlines and short on details. There are some important aspects of a moonshot project, however, that are not only applicable to the sort of effort I envision, but exactly what is needed to make the breakthroughs unhoused San Diegans deserve.
First, a moonshot must involve a lofty goal. The goal should be so aspirational that some will see it as impossible. In this case, we should embrace the bold goal Gloria set during his campaign and seek to end chronic homelessness in San Diego. I believe we should aim to get there by the end of 2024.
In pursuit of that long-term goal, we should set a similarly bold short-term goal of cutting in half the number of unsheltered San Diegans by the end of this year. While that too may seem unattainable, especially given the city’s budget shortfalls, the Biden administration’s offer to provide a 100 percent reimbursement for expenses related to non-congregate shelter provides us with the remarkable opportunity to make incredible progress – without cost. Unfortunately, the federal reimbursement offer expires on Sept. 30 – meaning any work not done between now and then will cost the city 100 percent more than if we act now.
In addition to being a bold goal, a moonshot should involve special collaboration and innovation set in motion by government. In our memo to the mayor, my colleagues and I were not simply calling for the expansion of current efforts. We were seeking to expand the pool of those who are engaged in the work. One of the primary reasons San Diego has not yet taken advantage of the federal reimbursement program has been that our service provider community has been stretched to its limits. There have been too many services needed and not enough staff capacity among the providers to provide those services. We can solve that problem with collaboration and creativity.
Throughout San Diego, there are small businesses and skilled, hardworking folks whose livelihoods continue to be disrupted by COVID-19. Now is the time to call them into the effort to end homelessness. Caterers awaiting pre-COVID business can provide food services, hotel workers who have been laid off can provide necessary services and shuttered offices and struggling hotels can be converted into non-congregate shelter that can ultimately become permanent affordable housing.
This community-wide call to action can extend even further. Anyone can join the effort. Philanthropists can provide and gather funding to leverage the reimbursement program. Everyday people with an extra bedroom and big heart can participate in programming to provide a short-term home to families who are just a few safe, sheltered nights from getting back on their feet. We should find a role for everybody who aims to be part of the solution.
There’s one more aspect of a moonshot applicable here. The effort and, ultimately, its success evoke an unrivaled sense of community pride. Imagine a San Diego just a few years from now where we have not only “returned to normal” but one where we have solved one of San Diego’s longest standing and most heartbreaking crises. That future is attainable – if we set our sights high enough.
Sean Elo-Rivera represents San Diego City Council District 9. He lives in Kensington.