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Homeless residents eat lunch and talk amongst each other in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

As a not so casual observer of efforts to “end” or even effectively manage the daily impact homelessness is having on our city and on the lives of those experiencing it, I am struck by the pervasive and consistent lack of accountability for those in government responsible.

The San Diego Housing Commission in their 2014 homeless action plan, Housing First, pledged to apply “the power of its federal housing resources to achieve the goal of ending homelessness.” SDHC is a driving force of the national Housing First model (transitioning homeless individuals from the streets directly into permanent housing connected to supportive housing) in the city of San Diego. This year and over more than a decade, the commission has failed to meet this obligation.

Let’s review what the SDHC has done.

In 2005, the city adopted a 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. In 2011, the Downtown San Diego Partnership and the Housing Commission contracted with LeSar Development Consultants to develop and implement a five-year work plan to end homelessness downtown. Then, in 2013, the city renovated a 14-story building to be a “one stop shop” for the homeless downtown. The building included a service “depot” where the homeless could access all housing and services under one roof. The project was touted as a best practice to be replicated across the region, but eventually the “depot” was allowed to serve only those living in the building, which dramatically reduced its impact. In the same year, United Way contracted with LeSar to “further implement the Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in the Region” two years prior to the deadline whereby chronic homelessness was to be eradicated.

In 2014, the Housing Commission contracted with LeSar yet again to prepare Housing First – a three-year Homeless Action Plan. Perhaps the logic for re-engaging LeSar for yet another plan was based on the unbridled success of the three previous plans.

Also in 2014, the city and the Housing Commission closed “winter shelters,” which had been operating year-round for over a year serving as a central intake point for assessments and housing placements. Simultaneously, the Housing Commission contracts to provide “bridge housing” – or short-term housing that focuses on transitioning people to permanent housing – ended. The temporary beds funded under this contract had been operating for more than 10 years. The move results in a net loss in homeless housing.

Amid the Hepatitis A outbreak, the city updates a declaration of emergency citing lack of shelter and reopens the tent shelters in late 2017 and early 2018, the same shelters shuttered two years prior. In 2019, after purchasing a $7 million indoor skydiving facility the year before, the city opens a Housing Navigation Center touted as a “one stop shop” for the homeless. This new facility is only 1.3 miles from the previous “replicable” program opened six years prior.

Family Health Centers of San Diego’s (FHCSD) contract to run the Navigation Center was cancelled by the City. FHCSD indicated they learned “from reliable sources” the impetus for the program was more of a “public relations undertaking for the city than a needed and important component of a homeless continuum,” according to the Union-Tribune. The Housing Commission took over operations. Senior Housing Commission staff justified the move by touting that the Convention Center’s success was a result of better partner coordination and working with many homeless at once, “and that’s what’s really unique.” Is this the driving force of cutting-edge innovation? It begs the question why this revelation had not appeared in one of their previous plans. Also makes you wonder why this same level of cooperation was not extended to FHCSD.

With a myopic “Housing First” approach and by their own admission, permanent placements have relied on the use of housing vouchers administered by the Housing Commission. Not a complex solution if homelessness could be ended by giving everyone a permanent housing subsidy. Unfortunately, use of these resources to “end homelessness” will have a devastating impact on those at risk of homelessness, those already on a list of 80,000 individuals for the same vouchers, waiting more than 10 years before getting a voucher. The more vouchers diverted to homeless the longer those on the list must wait.

Throughout, the Regional Task Force on Homelessness is funded to coordinate a shared database every service provider is mandated to use. This includes capacity to assess vulnerability and prioritize for housing placement, ideally leveraging all the housing resources in our community. Operating as it should, one questions the need for an intake center where only the homeless residing nearby or have transportation can get services. If truly a shared database, homeless should be linked to housing and services anywhere they seek them including with outreach workers.

Then finally, this year it was revealed SDHC, the expert organization charged with meeting our affordable housing needs, paid above market prices for two hotels purchased during the pandemic. Ineptness at the very least, on the backs of homeless San Diegans.

The 2014 SDHC plan admits the mayor and council turned to SDHC to administer homeless programs and services in 2010 and “SDHC continues to carry out that responsibility today,” according to the city’s homeless action plan.

Rick Gentry, the Housing Commission president and CEO shared this stunning realization at a recent board meeting: “This has been a challenging population, one housing solution does not fit everybody.” Fifteen years, millions of dollars, and multiple failed plans later, the city and Housing Commission have failed, repeatedly. Of course, homelessness has not ended. Under any objective assessment their actions and inactions have made it worse. Our streets tell the story.

In the private sector, failure at this scale would not be tolerated and we should not tolerate it from public organizations like the Housing Commission. Spurred by the controversial purchases of the two hotels and the deaths occurring at those hotels, some city councilmembers are looking at ways in which the council acting as the Housing Authority can be more involved in evaluating the performance of the commission and its CEO to maintain some level of accountability. Voice of San Diego recently reported that only two of 12 other housing agencies evaluated did not include the City Council in evaluating the performance of their executive director.

What seems clear is what we have in place now is not working. The city continues to operate in a state of emergency as it relates to homelessness and affordable housing, both crises and they should be treated as such. The city and its residents deserve an objective, nonpolitical, independent review, and evaluation of not only the Housing Commission CEO, but an assessment of its plans, goals, contracts, work of consultants, accomplishments and failures. The city has established a Commission on Police Practices to provide for such a voice as it relates to police practices. Perhaps a similar panel made up of interested citizens, academics in the field and industry experts should be formed to ensure the City Council is receiving all the information it needs to evaluate performance and maintain accountability when it comes to housing and homelessness.

Far too long, the city has succumbed to ineptness, politics, public relations, poor advice, and no accountability while homeless providers were belittled and criticized for simply managing, or worse yet being part of the problem. We need new leadership, a force driven by mission and purpose, not motivated by political futures and retaining public office.

Whether the council is up for that task and whether the Housing Commission and its leadership is up for that job is yet to be seen. The last 15 years would indicate that without a sea change in how we approach homelessness, track progress, and achieve accountability, real progress is unlikely.

Clarification: This commentary has been updated to clarify what year the city opened shelters during the Hepatitis A outbreak and what year it opened the Housing Navigation Center. 

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