In the absence of a broad countywide action plan to address homelessness, a patchwork of strategies has emerged.

Cities, business districts and nonprofits have responded to the growing crisis with sometimes contradictory tacks; in other cases, they’ve taken steps that have simply shifted homelessness to neighboring communities. Community groups and power brokers have pushed their own plans. Multiple groups, including a new City Council committee on homelessness, have tried to fill what many agree has been a gaping leadership void.

But now, a wide-ranging regional plan to address San Diego’s growing homelessness crisis is actually in the works, and leaders hope they can persuade all those disparate groups to get behind a single plan.

The Regional Task Force on the Homeless, the countywide group trying to coordinate San Diego’s response to homelessness, has enlisted Focus Strategies, a Sacramento-based firm that’s produced similar plans for other communities, to create a plan for San Diego. At the end of next month, it’s set to share an overarching vision for an overhauled system and suggestions on early steps it can take to better aid homeless San Diegans.

“We’re building the plane while we’re flying the plane,” Focus Strategies principal Megan Kurteff Schatz said last week.

The move to offer quick actions San Diego can take now reflects a quandary that’s played out over the last year about what San Diego should do to address exploding homelessness in the absence of more immediate, permanent solutions. Kurteff Schatz expects to propose more temporary rental assistance as well as diversion programs to keep people off the streets in the first place. She didn’t mention more short-term shelter beds, which some advocates and leaders, namely Mayor Kevin Faulconer, have championed.

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

The firm’s promising a more comprehensive plan by June 2018 that will follow months of analysis of San Diego’s many homeless service programs and a series of community feedback sessions. The plan will detail everything from the characteristics of those living on the streets to the number of housing units and rental assistance stipends needed to help them.

Last Thursday, Kurteff Schatz told a packed room of San Diego homeless-service providers and advocates she believed San Diego could see a dramatic drop in homelessness within five years – if it applies lessons learned in the grueling process ahead.

“Most places, even with very high rental markets and very low vacancy rates, can get somewhere close to functional zero within five years if you’re willing to make the hardest changes. That’s what we’ve seen in our work, even in other very high-cost places,” Kurteff Schatz said. “That takes a lot of commitment.”

Commitment and political will to line up behind a single strategy has long bedeviled San Diego’s efforts to reduce homelessness. The county’s become home to the nation’s fourth-largest homeless population while other communities, including Houston and Long Beach, have made major progress. Leaders in communities that have made the most dramatic reductions in homelessness have encouraged nonprofits to make uncomfortable changes to their programs and even to abandon some of their programs. They directly confronted tension along the way.

San Diego, meanwhile, has been slow to shift away from transitional housing programs that have fallen out of favor with national experts and the federal government.

San Diego groups and governments have over the years introduced dozens of initiatives and plans.

“We’re not sure that we’ve seen a community engage in as many initiatives as San Diego has,” Kurteff Schatz said.

Problem is, those plans didn’t come with teeth or get regional support necessary to succeed.

The sheer number of efforts already under way in San Diego complicate the process to create a broad plan and get the community behind it. It’s going to take longer to evaluate all those efforts and to ensure those behind them ultimately align their work with the community plan proposals.

Apprehension about the new homelessness plan is already palpable among nonprofit leaders.

PATH CEO Joel John Roberts, whose organization operates a homeless housing facility in downtown San Diego, questioned whether agencies will be open to new approaches as their programs are scrutinized.

Roberts said it could be difficult to get nonprofits to embrace significant changes to their programs if those programs are being evaluated before administrators have had a chance to make adjustments based on new expectations set by Focus Strategies.

“It’s kind of hard to get them on board on a new paradigm and new rules if you’re already judging them based on the new rules and paradigm when they’re on the old rules and paradigm,” Roberts said.

Kurteff Schatz and County Supervisor Ron Roberts, who chairs the Regional Task Force board, emphasized the importance of holding nonprofits to performance measures and using data to make decisions about the best approaches for San Diego.

“We’re not going to be trying to put people out of business overnight but we are going to expect people to begin to change and to accomplish that in relatively short time,” said Roberts. “There is no excuse for noncompliance.”

Roberts said he’s committed to ensuring county contracts achieve outcomes and policies laid out in the forthcoming plan. He acknowledged it will require significant effort on behalf of the Regional Task Force to ensure cities and large funders understand and hold nonprofits to those standards too.

Speaking to the Regional Task Force last week, Kurteff Schatz doubled down on the importance of leadership enforcing the plan’s objectives rather than bending to individual agency or community concerns. They’ll have to persuade many advocates, agency leaders and politicians who vote on homeless service contracts in each of the county’s 18 cities to make program changes necessary to drastically reduce homelessness.

“There’s not a community in the country, to my knowledge, that has really reduced homelessness significantly without the funders being in alignment and clear about what the new requirements are and holding to them,” Kurteff Schatz said.

    This article relates to: Homelessness, 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 or 619.325.0528.

    Kevin Barbieux
    Kevin Barbieux

    It's true in every city. Everyone wants something done about the homeless but very few people actually do it. As a result, the few who do tackle homelessness are able to become kings of their own little worlds. And these people are usually unwilling to give up the pedestals on which they've been placed. This lack of cooperation Is one of the biggest obstacles to reducing homelessness. Another big obstacle is a lack of willingness on the part of civic leaders to do what it actually takes to end homelessness. And at the heart of that lack of willingness are powerful constituents who know little or nothing about homelessness but still judge homeless people in the most negative terms. Those are the kinds of things that must be addressed. It has been proven that understanding homelessness leads to empathy for the homeless. It's time for everyone to learn.

    Molly Cook
    Molly Cook

    I don't know this team although I've gone to their website to read more about them... They apparently have a strong record and I assume San Diego leaders will check that out before actually signing a contract with them. 

    I'm troubled (as a former organizational consultant) by all the answers they have but I see nothing on their pages about "problem definition."  In my years of experience, it was rare for a client to present a correct problem, so the first stage of my work was always a problem-seeking phase.  Every body involved will have their own definition of the problem but a good consultant will dig deeper to identify the problem clearly before beginning to offer answers.  The wrong answers to a problem just lead further away from the solution.

    In San Diego's case, we've already seen how this works...Mayor Faulconer has his definition of the problem, Father Joe has his, housing folks have theirs, etc. 

    Effective consultants must clearly define the problem they are trying to solve before they start digging up the ground.  I hope for San Diego's sake this will happen.  Otherwise, it's more money down the drain.

    bgetzel subscriber

    Hopefully, the plan will include an estimate of the proposed cost of its implementation, as well as the potential sources of revenue that would support that cost. That information is crucial for the public to evaluate the Mayor's proposed bond measure, that includes the convention center expansion and street repair, as well as support for homeless programs. As it stands now, only 18% of the proceeds of the proposed bond measure would be used to support homeless programs. Let's see the information on how well the revenue supports the need!

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    This is the best news I’ve read about the homeless issue in a long time. Clearly the manifold approaches that have been taken up to now, while a result of genuine good intent on the part of many (though not all) have provided some successes, but have failed in the big picture. Solutions to complex social problems don’t come overnight and they necessitate everyone (or most everyone) to be committed to a common strategy. This is politically inconvenient, because the populace wants a solution, or the appearance of a solution, right now. I would hope that the various governments, nonprofits, and private sector can find a way to realign their disparate approaches and show patience, yet determination to support a common strategy with proven outcomes, as has occurred in other communities that have resolved the issue humanely and effectively.

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    I hope this plan succeeds, but as the article points out there have been so many other plans.  May I suggest an addition to the plan which will help it succeed?  If you want government money, follow the plan.

    Part of the problem with the other plans has been each of the providers has their own funding stream.  They therefore wander off like cats in a field, they have no incentive to cooperate.  HUD funding, the County of San Diego, and the City of San Diego control the largest pots of money in the homeless area.  Once the plan is adopted, make it a requirement for a charity to receive ANY government funding it must adhere to the approved plan.

    Our homeless service providers have been notoriously independent, that has led directly to the mess we now have.  We can no longer afford for each to do its own thing with no / little coordination.  If we are going to make progress we must be willing to tackle hard problems and that includes bringing some of the largest and most well known charities into the fold.  Making government funding contingent on playing your part in the region wide homeless plan is a way, perhaps with this group the only way, to do that. I hope Supervisor Roberts was serious when he said “There is no excuse for noncompliance.”  If he was, then perhaps we have a chance to make real progress.