A homeless man sleeps in the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone
A homeless man sleeps in the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to declare homelessness a public health crisis, directing the county chief administrative officer to work with city governments and the Regional Task Force on Homelessness on a regional approach to tackling the issue.

Some of CAO Helen Robbins-Meyer’s other responsibilities will include:

— updating the board on regional efforts and recommendations to the county’s Framework for Ending Homelessness in the first quarter of 2023, including a comprehensive review of services and housing offered to those experiencing homelessness;

— identifying potential economic impacts to the county and investments needed to significantly reduce homelessness;

— finding housing opportunities and services, and making recommendations based on an assessment by Homebase, a non-profit group;

— developing a plan for enhanced data collection, evaluating the county’s homeless services and programs, and establishing other methods, including 24-hour access to social workers or trained professionals; and

— allowing the Health and Human Services Agency director to research and apply for other funding opportunities.

Officials have discussed the lack of affordable housing for decades, and they say the crisis has been exacerbated in recent years by the COVID-19 pandemic and continuing low wages relative to inflation.

Board Vice Chairwoman Nora Vargas, who proposed the declaration with Chairman Nathan Fletcher, said she did so with “a really heavy heart” and said it was “really something I wish we didn’t have to do.”

Vargas added that as a Southwestern College trustee, she knew of students sleeping in their cars.

“When we as a county come together and offer resources, people take advantage of them,” she said.

Making homelessness a top priority will allow the county to review its existing programs and “really think about solutions that impact our communities,” she said.

Fletcher said public officials know that homelessness “cannot be ignored” and everyone has to work toward reducing it, including the 18 cities located in San Diego County.

Supervisor Jim Desmond said he was glad to see a region-wide approach, but said much work is needed to tackle the crisis.

“If we don’t deal with it, there’s going to be greater cost in the future,” Desmond added.

In a statement released after the board’s vote, Deacon Jim Vargas of Father Joe’s Villages expressed support for the declaration.

“It is often said that housing is health care,” Vargas said. “We can affirm that housing is one of the most fundamental social determinants of health. Ensuring stable housing for all improves both the well-being of individuals and communities. It also helps prevent the trauma of homelessness, as well as serious health conditions among unhoused people.”

“This is an opportunity to send a clear message that our region is united and committed to finding solutions,” Vargas added. “Together, we can solve the crisis of homelessness, but we must move out of disciplinary and jurisdictional silos to collaborate and work as partners with measurable goals. This declaration is a key step to drive further collaboration between our local jurisdictions, homeless services providers, health care professionals and others to develop resources and a comprehensive approach.”

In a related action Tuesday, supervisors approved adding $500,000 to a flexible housing pool as a way to help 440 families at risk of homelessness. The money will be administered as part of an agreement with the Regional Taskforce on the Homeless.

In a statement, Fletcher’s office said he secured the original funding during his first year in office.

“Keeping families housed is exactly what this program was intended to do,” Fletcher said.

According to Fletcher’s office, FHP money provides gap funding to help families and individuals pay for rent and other expenses, including security deposit assistance. Between October 2020 and May 2022, the FHP has received 726 referrals and secured 459 units throughout the county, officials said.

Updated at 5:08 p.m Sept. 27, 2022

–City News Services

experiencing homelessness.