The City Has a Plan to Fight Homelessness. Now What? - Voice of San Diego

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The City Has a Plan to Fight Homelessness. Now What?

City leaders have endorsed a new strategy to attack the city’s homelessness crisis. We’ve laid out the ambitious targets and the major decision points the city must now tackle.

Homeless people line up their belongings alongside Fault Line Park in East Village. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

City leaders have endorsed a new strategy to attack the city’s homelessness crisis – and now they have lots of work to do.

At the top of their to-do list: Halve street homelessness and end both veteran and youth homelessness within the next three years.

To do that and dramatically reduce homelessness in the city over the next decade, consultants from the Corporation for Supportive Housing say the city will need to deliver thousands of new supportive housing units and reshape the system for addressing homelessness so it’s better equipped to prevent and quickly address housing crises.

The new Housing Commissioned-funded city roadmap follows requests from City Council Democrats who demanded that the city seek a holistic homelessness strategy after signing off on a series of new programs pushed by Mayor Kevin Faulconer the past two years.

The plan’s authors – Corporation for Supportive Housing senior policy adviser Ann Oliva and vice president Liz Drapa – spent months crunching numbers and interviewing stakeholders before sending the new strategy to the city.

City Councilman Chris Ward, who leads the board of the regional group charged with coordinating the countywide homelessness response, said he hopes the city will run with the new plan.

“The time for planning is over. The time for action is now and has been needed for some time,” said Ward, who led calls for the new strategy. “The action steps are all in front of us.”

Here are the big tasks before the city must tackle in order to effectively execute its new homelessness plan.

More than double to the city’s supply of supportive housing, and fund hundreds more rental assistance slots and subsidies to aid people on the brink of homelessness.

San Diego now has about 2,600 so-called permanent supportive housing units, homes that typically come with services for vulnerable people who previously spent years living on the street.

The plan calls for the city to develop about 2,800 new supportive housing units and fund rental subsidies and services for another 700 units spread throughout the city over the next decade. It also calls for the city to bolster rental assistance programs for homeless San Diegans who qualify for temporary housing aid. Here’s a breakdown of what the plan proposes:

Now the city will have to decide where to put the new units, and how to pay for them.

A recent reform pushed by Mayor Kevin Faulconer may help ease the process a bit. Developers pursuing supportive housing projects can now get over-the-counter permits and avoid fees if they pursue projects in zones that already allow multi-family housing, meaning they can avoid public review processes that can hamper these projects.

To deliver this new housing, the plan proposes creating a public-private task force to lead the development process and set annual development targets. The plan also recommends that the city scale up the Housing Commission’s existing incentive program for landlords to encourage more of them to rent to formerly homeless San Diegans.

Figure out how to cover the $1.9 billion housing tab.

The city must pull in more money over the next decade to successfully execute the new homelessness plan.

“In order to meet the needs and projected costs of this homelessness action plan, securing a significant, dedicated source of revenue is critical,” Oliva and Drapa wrote.

Here’s a breakdown of the proposed housing resources – and the costs to foot the bill: Ward and others note that the city could seek additional state and federal funding – and that some new money is already on the way – but help from voters is likely needed.

Two 2020 ballot measures could provide more dedicated funding for the cause, though both require support from two-thirds of voters to pass.

Supporters of a March 2020 measure that aims to raise hotel taxes to expand the Convention Center plus fund homeless services and road repairs previously estimated that the measure could bring in $276 million for homelessness alone in the measure’s first 10 years. The labor and business coalition behind it has said the measure is designed to let city leaders decide how those homelessness funds are spent.

Affordable housing advocates behind a separate $900 million bond measure initially envisioned that their measure could fund 7,500 affordable-housing units, including 2,500 supportive housing units. The San Diego Housing Federation, the group rallying behind the November 2020 measure, has said it may adjust its proposal based on the homelessness plan.

Within three years, reduce street homelessness by 50 percent, and end veteran and youth homelessness.

San Diego has for years struggled to put a dent in its homelessness problem but Oliva and Drapa concluded these three big goals “are within the city’s reach” in the next three years.

That’s partly because the city has seen an influx of resources for both homeless veterans and youth, including housing vouchers that come with supportive services for veterans and their families. Success will bank on the city more effectively identifying homeless veterans and coordinating with veteran-serving organizations to move them quickly off the streets.

Earlier this year, the region learned it will receive nearly $8 million from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund its countywide plan to prevent and end youth homelessness.

Regional Task Force CEO Tamera Kohler said the investments make the ambitious three-year goals achievable.

“This is where we have resources,” Kohler said. “We don’t have to have an infusion of more resources.”

Kohler and Lisa Jones, the Housing Commission’s senior vice president of homeless housing innovations, said the focus on veterans and youth will also help the city reduce street homelessness among other groups by more quickly helping those populations and opening up resources such as shelter beds for others.

“It’s important to realize that we are not achieving any one of these single goals in isolation,” Jones said. “We are working on them concurrently and they are supporting that broader goal of reducing street homelessness.”

Take a systematic approach to combating homelessness.

For years, San Diego’s efforts to reduce homelessness have been hamstrung by its inability to coalesce behind a single strategy. The plan urges the city to move from focusing on individual homeless-serving programs to more system-level planning and processes.

To illustrate how that might look, homeless providers in the city pitched in on a draft systemwide process.

These are the basics of that process:

Illustration by Adriana Heldiz. Click here to expand.

The plan recommends that the city track system-level metrics that measure the effectiveness of the entire homeless service system, and that the city create groups to monitor those outcomes and implement the plan.

Oliva and Drapa propose that the city create both an implementation team focused on day-to-day decisions tied to the plan and a small leadership council to review progress on the plan each quarter. They suggest the leadership group include officials from the city, county, Housing Commission and Task Force as well as stakeholders who have experienced homelessness and who represent the business and philanthropic communities.

Oliva and Drapa also encourage the city to create groups for homeless San Diegans and homeless service providers, including front-line staff, to review progress and provide input.

Get a lot more input from homeless San Diegans.

Homeless San Diegans historically haven’t had a prominent voice in the city discussions about its response to homelessness. The consultants say that needs to change.

Oliva and Drapa call for the city to formally take steps to get more feedback from homeless San Diegans and to require all homeless service organizations the city funds to include homeless or formerly homeless people on their boards.

Oliva and Drapa highlighted homeless San Diegans’ concerns with enforcement by police and the Metropolitan Transit System and suggested that the city and MTS consult homeless people and consider changes.

The report also suggests that the city review its data, policies and practices to ensure homeless San Diegans of all backgrounds have access to housing and are treated equitably by homeless service providers.

Decrease the number of San Diegans who are becoming homeless.

Homelessness isn’t a static problem. Every year, thousands of people become homeless, a reality that complicates efforts to address it. Indeed, a 2016 Task Force study revealed that about half of the region’s homeless population had become homeless in the past year.

For that reason, reducing the number of people who become homeless – and ensuring those who get off the street remain off the street – are crucial components of the plan. It calls for the city to successfully prevent at least 770 people and families from becoming homeless each year.

To accomplish that, the plan recommends bolstering so-called diversion programs meant to provide upfront resources to keep people off the street. The city’s existing Housing Commission program provides subsidies and assistance to help potentially homeless people stay in their existing housing or help them find options other than shelters.

The plan also recommends the city expand its eviction prevention efforts and work to connect more people at risk of homelessness with employment and workforce development programs. It also suggests the city build new programs to target so-called high utilizers who tend to cycle through homeless services, jails and hospitals.

Add up to 500 new shelter beds.

Inside the Alpha Project bridge shelter in downtown San Diego / Photo by Megan Wood

The homelessness plan concludes the city also needs 350 to 500 new shelter beds.

The city last week approved a contract with nonprofit Alpha Project to operate a fourth temporary shelter with 150 beds.

Before making additional investments in shelter beds, the consultants recommend that the city scrutinize transitional housing programs, which provide temporary housing with a mandate that clients receive services before they are linked with more permanent housing. Oliva and Drapa urged the city to try to repurpose at least 25 percent of those beds and offer them to people in crisis instead.

Oliva and Drapa say some of those transitional beds could become recuperative care beds, which serve homeless San Diegans recovering from major health issues. There are now only a few dozen such beds countywide, far short of what regional leaders – and the new plan – suggest are needed. The plan calls for the city to deliver 100 to 150 medical respite beds in the city alone.

Interested in learning more about the homelessness plan and what it will take to implement it? Join me at Politifest this Saturday, Oct. 26 for a discussion with key players engaged in trying to execute the new city strategy.

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