San Diego leaders are hoping a key architect behind Utah’s  success in reducing chronic homelessness can replicate that success in San Diego.

Gordon Walker, Utah’s former state director of housing and community development, has been named CEO of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, a countywide group that aims to coordinate San Diego’s homeless-serving efforts.

Earlier this year, the task force merged with the group that annually doles out about $18 million in federal homelessness funds. The goal is to better address a seemingly intractable cause long challenged by a slew of competing efforts.

Enter Walker. He took the helm of the San Diego group on Wednesday, two years after his retirement in Utah. He was a key player in efforts to corral leaders across Utah to tackle that state’s homelessness problem.

Now regional leaders in San Diego want Walker to get San Diego politicians, nonprofits and residents behind an overarching strategy to address exploding street homelessness countywide and to set up the task force to take on a regional coordination role.

“I feel like he’s the guy that can do a lot of the things that I think are needed to help orchestrate a successful regional effort in reducing homelessness in San Diego,” said County Supervisor Ron Roberts, who chairs the task force.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Walker’s work in Utah has drawn lots of national attention. He championed efforts to aid hundreds of chronically homeless people.

San Diego, meanwhile, has struggled to help people who have been homeless for years. San Diego’s latest homeless census revealed a more than 60 percent spike in that population in a single year, and other regional data has shown the chronically homeless often churn in and out of San Diego’s homeless-serving programs.

Utah helped its chronically homeless population through an approach known as housing first, which means moving clients into a home first and then giving them the option – rather than an order – to accept other services. San Diego’s increasingly following the same tack but has been slower to adopt it than Utah.

Two years ago, media reports hailed a 91 percent drop in chronic homelessness in Utah over a decade. That statistic’s since been questioned by a conservative think tank and a Deseret News series that noted changing federal chronic homelessness definitions and a mistake Utah officials made in classifying some of its homeless population made the outcome seem more dramatic than reality.

Walker was the Utah official who oversaw that drop.

Walker said Wednesday he hadn’t closely examined flags raised about Utah’s numbers but said he stands by his record.

“We saw people’s lives change and I can actually say we saved people’s lives by providing the housing,” he said.

In his new role, Walker faces an array of challenges.

San Diego’s got a bigger homelessness problem and different political and housing climates than Utah. Some nonprofits and stakeholders are resistant to new regional goals. An outside consultant is working on a countywide plan that is expected to lead regional decision-makers to make tough calls about stemming the problem. Homelessness itself is also growing. The region saw a 14 percent spike in street homelessness this year.

City Councilman Chris Ward, vice chair of the task force, said Walker emerged as the leading candidate for the job because of his experience lining up a broad coalition behind Utah’s homelessness-fighting efforts.

“His track record demonstrates exactly the type of leadership we need for the San Diego region, particularly as the Regional Task Force on the Homeless is in the process of establishing the region’s homeless crisis response system,” Ward said.

Walker said Wednesday he’s eager to get to work selling the task force’s role and the effort to create a regional blueprint to address one of the most intractable problems.

“We have to have the political will. Without the political will it does not happen,” Walker said. “We have to have unity and we have to have commitment of all the players to be involved. If your city and county were fighting, I wouldn’t have come but I sense a unity and at least there’s an attempt for unity.”

    This article relates to: Homelessness, Must Reads, Nonprofits/Community

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about San Diego city and county governments. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

    6 comments
    Molly Cook
    Molly Cook

    Homelessness continues in Utah and yet this man is being trumpeted by the Tribune as "renowned homelessness expert."  Please, somebody get going on learning more and making it public about both the successes and failures of Gordon Walker.  I understand the Housing First concept very well and know it's been successful many other places.  The Utah story has been exaggerated and Mr. Walker has allowed that to happen.  There's plenty of press about it and also about his unsuccessful business dealings.  I hope the Voice staff will pursue this further and help us be sure Mr. Walker will be dedicated to helping San Diego, not creating more problems.

    Sharon Parks
    Sharon Parks

    he's going to find out who's really running the city, something that needs exposure before it can be changed for the better. This city is stuck in their own thinking at the expense of so much suffering of innocent people, I feel victims of a greedy and corrupt city, with their personal coffers well supplied.......a 46-year citizen of San Diego


    mike murphy
    mike murphy

    It still may turn into a situation   that the more they accommodate, the more will arrive

    Molly Cook
    Molly Cook

    I'm in favor of any and all reasonable efforts to combat homelessness in San Diego.  That said, hiring the man who is coming in on his record that's now being challenged in Utah is hardly the wisest tactic.  Utah is a place with a culture unto itself, and assuming that whatever worked there can be replicated anywhere else, including San Diego, is wrong unless San Diego suddenly becomes a Mormon city. 


    Even Mr. Walker's statement that he hasn't "closely examined" the flags that have turned up on Utah's success but "stands on his record"  is a warning to San Diego.  This is a lot like ordering a popular meal in a high-class restaurant only to get food poisoning and hear the chef say, "It's a good recipe with high-quality ingredients and I stand by my record."   


    If Mr. Walker isn't interested in understanding what went wrong in Utah or hearing criticism of his success, well, then we've just hired a Donald Trump to take on San Diego's problems.  I believe it would be a credit to the Voice and to San Diego to fully publish what happened in Utah and what did go wrong.


    Nathan Wollmann
    Nathan Wollmann

    The thing is, this approach isn't just Utah. It has been used in places like Texas and New Jersey with great success. It is evidence based and has been adopted as the approach in Federal government. So we can't just talk about Utah. Even if there are errors the corrected numbers would be much more of a success than anything the current methods used in the San Diego region has achieved.

    Molly Cook
    Molly Cook

    @Nathan Wollmann  There's more to know about Mr. Walker and it would be a favor to San Diego for the Voice to explore that.