By Chris Olsen
As we come together to celebrate this holiday season and take stock of what we are thankful for, let us keep the thousands of San Diegans living on the streets in our hearts and minds. We as San Diegans need a reset in our approach to this seemingly intractable issue. We owe it to these unsheltered individuals—many experiencing the worst of situations—to do all that we can to help. In America’s finest city, the street is not a home.
During the global Great Recession, many people lost jobs while housing prices went on to soar during an economic recovery that did not benefit everyone equally. Combined with an opioid epidemic and decades of under-funding of social services at the national, state and local levels, a perfect storm created the greatest homelessness crisis we’ve seen in a lifetime.
While it was a variety of factors that have caused this crisis, it is up to us as San Diegans to choose whether to act or accept these new “realities.” Across the United States, there is a model that has been proven to work called “housing first.” San Diego leadership claims to have adopted this model, but little has been done to fund such efforts in a long-term, sustainable way—and that needs to change.
Salt Lake City all but ended homelessness, and what they did was simple. They created housing that people living on the street actually wanted to live in, provided the new residents with plenty of on-site counseling and services to help them with any substance abuse, unemployment or mental health issues, and lastly, they created a position charged with coordinating government and nonprofit agencies’ efforts.
Similarly, Houston decreased its homeless population by 54% since 2011 by focusing on housing. It is time we learn from other cities and fully embrace and implement this proven successful model here in San Diego.
San Diego’s homelessness crisis has worsened in recent years, with as many as 8,000 people across the region living on the streets, in cars, or in our canyons and riverbeds. According to reporting done by the Voice of San Diego, it is estimated that a third of the homeless population has a serious mental illness. Importantly, 78% of homeless people surveyed said they became homeless in San Diego County.
These individuals have stories and challenges. They are our neighbors and community members. Some need assistance because of unexpected financial hardships like a medical emergency, losing a loved one or being laid off from work. In order to get back on their feet and off the streets, we owe it to our impacted residents and businesses to provide meaningful, effective solutions that have been proven to work. It is our moral obligation as a city to make this situation right.
As a candidate for City Council, I am proposing that we implement a data-driven, three-pronged approach. First, we need to provide rapid rehousing for individuals who lose a job or hit a challenging time but can still get back on their feet. They need a place to go in the short term so they don’t fall into chronic homelessness in the long term. Second, we need to implement the proven housing first model where counseling services are located on-site. Third, we need to be proactive with our resources, spreading them across the city, and not concentrating services and housing in and around downtown. That means it is up to all of us, every community across San Diego, to do our part in helping address this problem.
We cannot expect to make any progress by relying primarily on expensive and inefficient police overtime to shift the problem around instead of having properly trained professionals doing outreach. Police officers are trained to enforce laws and prevent crime, not to serve as social workers. A team of specially trained outreach workers would be more effective and use fewer resources, allowing our already under-staffed police department to focus on other priorities.
After years of disjointed reactionary policy, San Diegans are ready for real progress on homelessness. As we celebrate the holidays, let us remember that there are thousands of our homeless neighbors who need our help. I am dedicated to addressing this as my number one priority and invite you to join me in doing all that we can in 2020 to reduce homelessness, because in America’s Finest City, the street is not and cannot be a home.
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