If Rick Gentry and other advocates have their way, 2017 will be the year the regional group overseeing efforts to reduce homelessness gets its house in order.

Gentry, who in August became chair of the Regional Continuum of Care Council, said San Diego needs more infrastructure and data to make a significant dent in the problem that’s mushrooming on streets countywide.

“We have a lot of room for improvement and expansion coming up shortly,” said Gentry, who’s served as CEO of the San Diego Housing Commission since 2008.

Among the council’s New Year’s resolutions: Approve a comprehensive plan to address homelessness countywide, merge the council with the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, step up use of data to drive decision-making and hire a new leader with a track record of reducing homelessness elsewhere.

Gentry and other local leaders believe those steps will help San Diego move past its longtime failure to address homelessness in an organized, systematic fashion.

For years, San Diego’s been without the leadership, coordination and oversight that have proven crucial in success stories elsewhere. Federal officials have previously zeroed in on San Diego’s lack of collaboration and evaluation of its homeless-serving programs. San Diego’s also relied more on transitional housing, a homeless-serving approach that has largely fallen out of favor with the feds.

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

Regions that were quicker to develop structured systems to aid the homeless and to move away from transitional housing programs that provide services before housing have reported more dramatic drops in homelessness. San Diego remains home to the nation’s fourth-largest homeless population.

So Gentry and others want to lay the foundation for a stronger regional push to end homelessness – and perhaps, a future housing ballot measure similar to successful ones in Los Angeles and the Bay Area focused on addressing San Diego’s rising street homelessness.

“I think we’ve got the potential to show that the disconnect is one of the need for additional resources but we’ve got to make that point and sell it to the public,” Gentry said.

File photo by Sam Hodgson
File photo by Sam Hodgson
Rick Gentry

The Regional Continuum of Care Council helps dole out $18 million annually in federal funds but lacks the formal structure to administer grants on its own. The region doesn’t have an up-to-date blueprint on how to address homelessness and has for years largely relied on an annual point-in-time census taken one morning in January to shape local programs and initiatives.

Gentry expects change this year.

The council is set to vote this month to formally merge with the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, best known for its work on the annual point-in-time count. The combined organizations will be dubbed the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.

Tom Theisen, the current board chair of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, said Task Force Executive Director Dolores Diaz approached the council about merging with a pitch that the combined organizations could do more to advocate for homeless San Diegans.

Gentry said the merger will provide far more institutional stability and supply the newly reconstituted group with staffers to work on regional homelessness efforts, including a new executive director.

The group expects to soon kick off a national search for a leader.

Whoever takes that role will benefit from more data on San Diego’s homeless population than the region’s had historically.

The Regional Task Force on the Homeless recently released an analysis documenting that more than 17,550 people used homeless services last year – and that half were newly homeless.

Another 40 percent had been aided by homeless-serving programs but remained on the streets.

Gentry believes the new data can help the region better understand the needs of its homeless population and shift programs accordingly.

“We’ve done some good stuff but I’m not sure that we’ve known enough about the nature of the problem to get in front of it, and that’s what I hope we’re able to do here,” Gentry said.

The newly released data will also assist a yet-to-be announced outside contractor in developing a regional agenda for preventing and ending homelessness in San Diego. A final version is expected to be approved this summer.

Outspoken local advocates including Theisen and Michael McConnell, who runs the Homelessness News San Diego Facebook page, say increased data-crunching and regional planning have been crucial to successful ballot measure campaigns and dramatically reducing homelessness elsewhere.

“Those other communities clearly have put together a plan to actually end homelessness in their communities,” Theisen told me this fall. “We need to do the same thing here in San Diego before we can go to the voters and the business community and ask them to support this.”

Potential ballot measure aside, Gentry believes the group’s 2017 moves could pave the way for major reductions in homelessness.

He’s looking at success stories in places like Houston, where street homelessness has fallen more than 70 percent the past five years.

“I think that with focused leadership here over the next four years or so we should be able to accomplish something very similar here,” Gentry said. “It’s doable.”

    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 lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    There is an interesting interview of Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, in the New York Times.  Mr. Steinberg has identified some areas where they can make improvements right now and is taking action, right now.  Wow!  What a concept!  Doing something!

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    OK, this is a good first step.  However in reviewing the RFP, I didn't see much on how to move from identifying issues to making improvements.  If this is not to become just another series of binders that are put on the shelf and ignored, an organization must be formed that has control of the purse strings and is not afraid to use that power to move San Diego in a unified direction towards ending homelessness.

    Homelessness in San Diego has been studied to death.  We know what to do, other cities have shown the way.  The real service this 'study' could perform is to get buy in from the nonprofits, developers, government and the public on a unified plan for ending homelessness AND THEN TO IMPLEMENT THAT PLAN.  Anything less is a failure.

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    Room for Improvement?  San Diegans have literally died since Todd Gloria and the SDHC defunded the 2 Winter Tents.  Meet the new boss.  Same as the old boss. 

    Please ask Mr. Gentry his solution to the 10,000 Affordable Housing Units destroyed and lost within the City of San Diego in the last 6 years.

    Rick Gentry stated that Preservation, Monitoring, and Measurements of existing At-Risk Affordable Housing was not a responsibility of the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC) in the November 18, 2016 San Diego Union Tribune article  'Affordable housing additions don't keep up with subtractions'  By James DeHaven.

    "Housing commission President and CEO Richard Gentry said his agency — which has budgeted more than $1 billion for housing programs since fiscal year 2012 — does not measure its housing output against units taken out of the city’s existing housing stock because such an analysis is not specified in its charter.  “We don’t really look at that,” Gentry said. “I’d be interested to see what you find.”

    Our 2013 Housing Element documents that the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC), Civic San Diego for downtown Demolition Permitting, and the City's Development Services Department (DSD) are all responsible for Preservation, Monitoring, and Measurements of existing At-Risk Affordable Housing through our Land Development Code (LDC).   During the Permitting process for new Development or Rehabilitation of existing Affordable Housing, everyone failed the poor and actually caused more homelessness.  

    As many as 9,290 single room occupancy hotel rooms, long seen as the most readily available option for the city’s poorest residents.  

    More than 1,500 low-income rental units converted to condominiums.  

    An estimated 749 units lost as an option for low-income residents after property owners chose not to renew federal rental subsidy contracts.

    lorisaldana subscriber

    @La Playa Heritage thank you for these facts and figures about the impacts of current policies. 

    As I noted in a VofSD commentary last May- many of these factors actually contribute to more homelessness. 

    "Our Housing System Is Pushing More San Diegans Toward Homelessness

    Many of the homeless San Diegans we see every day are not newcomers who arrived here recently for the nice weather. They are our older, disabled, English-learning, fixed-income adults and veterans who thought they had secure, affordable housing – until they received a letter from a developer, telling them they no longer do."

    From: http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/topics/opinion/housing-system-pushing-san-diegans-toward-homelessness/

    Mark E. Smith
    Mark E. Smith subscriber


    Hi Lori. Just now read your May article. Thanks for the link. I've never met you, but I'm one of the people you wrote about.. I'm 77, have been living in subsidized low income housing for the past 15 years, and expect to become homeless again soon, any time between a few months from now to at most a couple of years. First the landlord has to change my lease to ban in-unit smoking (we're no longer on an annual lease--now they have us on a month-to-month lease), and then they have to be able to catch me smoking indoors, which probably won't be until the first time it rains heavily for two days in a row, and then they have to begin eviction proceedings. They've already made this a non-smoking building, but resident smokers were grandfathered in for a year, so that's what they want to change.

    The reason, as @La Playa Heritage explained, is Rick Gentry. He has spent enormous amounts of low-income housing funds, created fewer than 600 new units of low income housing, but claims to have housed thousands of vulnerable and homeless people. The only possible way he can do that is by forcing out existing tenants and re-renting their units. 

    Rick isn't my landlord, but my landlord, Housing Development Partners (HDP), is an affiliate of the Housing Commission, and Rick apparently heads the Board of Directors of both. When HDP bought the building I live in, San Diego Square, they said that they were going to renovate it to ensure long-term housing for the tenants who lived here. Instead they unnecessarily increased the floor space of each unit, which were were already one-bedroom apartments, among the largest available to low income tenants. By increasing the floor space, they doubled the property value. While we still pay low rents, the subsidy that HDP gets from HUD has doubled. Since HUD funds are scarce and Congress keeps slashing them, what HDP did was take low income housing that was not at risk, and put it at risk.

    The stress of living in a building during major renovations killed at least three of us, most of us believe. They simply couldn't handle it. Those who could, moved out, of course. Those of us who remain have been subjected to a punitive and highly restrictive management regime. According to the social workers from Serving Seniors who work in this building a few days a week now, the stress level is incredibly high, and everyone knows that stress shortens lives. Our deaths will make more low-income housing available, but I think you agree that isn't the best way to do it.

    I'm currently suing my landlord. I'm a smoker. I've been smoking a pack a day for 60 years, the last 15 of them in the apartment where I still reside. But the owners want to ban smoking over a feigned concern for public health. Never mind that the renovations introduced masses of carcinogens into our units. HDP, HUD, and the State of California, appear to be using outdated science to justify the smoking bans. Recent studies say that fewer than 3 out of 10 cancer deaths can be blamed on cigarettes. London, England had a similar campaign and between 2000 and 2016, they managed to get their smoking rates down to the lowest in their history. But not only weren't they able to announce any decrease in cancer rates for those years, childhood cancers increased by 40%.

    But smoking does help alleviate stress, and when you're trying to force out elderly tenants so that you can re-rent their units, the more stress you can inflict the better. 

    I've been resisting and trying to avoid being evicted. But now that California has legalized recreational marijuana, I'm starting to accept it and even look forward to it. The only way people can smoke indoors, whether they're smoking cigarettes, pot, or anything else, is to own their own home. Renters, and even condo owners, cannot smoke indoors. I'd like to be able to spend whatever time may remain to me, being able to smoke whatever I want, whenever I want, and since I can't afford to buy a house, homelessness is the only other option. Sure, I expect that the cops will regularly confiscate my possessions, but I'll be able to replace them. I haven't smoked pot in 35 years because it was illegal, so homelessness seems a small price to pay to be able to keep smoking my hand-rolled organic tobacco and also be able to smoke pot again. 

    Sure, I'll be pestered by outreach teams trying to convince me to move into housing where smoking is prohibited. But they can't force me. I've been there and done that, and I think I'll be better off being homeless again, than being under the constant stress of being threatened with more and more rules and regulations intended to make me homeless sooner or later.

    I've been watching the homeless veterans and others housed in the newly renovated Hotel Churchill across the street. They can't smoke anywhere on that property, so they take their coffee and cigarettes and go sit on the street. They get hassled by the cops because they look like they're still homeless. It's disgraceful. HDP spent $20 million renovating that building, and ended up with 20 fewer low-income units than it had before. For every million dollars Gentry spends, San Diego has at least one less unit of low-income housing, more people are made homeless, and those housed are made miserable. It's a very profitable business, destroying lives with money allocated for helping people, and Rick Gentry is an expert at it.