Shopping carts filled with belongings of homeless people line a street in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

It’s been 7 years since Todd Gloria promised to end homelessness downtown in 4 years. He, and others, then took us down a disastrous path in which, despite an improving economy, homelessness got worse … a lot worse.

I have argued that we need a data-driven comprehensive and collaborative approach that addresses the real causes of homelessness.

One recent study from the Los Angeles Times showed that 46% of those living on the streets had substance abuse problems and 51% had mental health issues. Another study out of UCLA reported substance abuse and mental health concerns at 75% and 78%, respectively, among the homeless.

And 67% of San Diegans recognize that issues other than housing are the primary drivers of homelessness.

Barbara Bry

The new plan commissioned by the San Diego Housing Commission, while not perfect, finally breaks from this disastrous path.

Living on the street or in a riverbed is unacceptable, unsafe for the homeless, and a public health threat. The Housing Commission plan recognizes both the legal and moral imperative that we provide safe alternative shelter. But it also recognizes that success is dependent upon dedicated teams of mental health professionals, drug rehabilitation specialists, vocational trainers, and broadly educated law enforcement officers to deal with the issues that are actually at the root of homelessness.

Over a decade of viewing homelessness as principally a “housing problem” has dug a deep and dangerous hole that has swallowed the homeless in a cycle of hopelessness and threatens the health and safety of our entire community.

When you are in a hole, it’s generally smart to stop digging. We still have a difficult climb ahead of us. But, accepting the failure of past policies by making mental illness, drug addiction and public safety our first priorities is the first step.

Barbara Bry currently serves as President Pro Tem and represents District 1 on the San Diego City Council.  She is also a candidate for Mayor.

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