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San Diego Has Few Resources to Ensure the Newly Homeless Don’t Become the Chronically Homeless

For years, federal agencies and San Diego nonprofits have prioritized funding to help homeless veterans and those who’ve spent years on the streets. There’s been far less focus on those who are teetering on the brink of homelessness, or who have just become homeless — though those people might be easier and cheaper to help.

Nearly 60 percent of San Diegans who came in contact with an agency that serves the homeless are new to the streets – and that number is throwing a harsh spotlight on the lack of programs to help those people.

Last year, nearly 10,300 new clients accessed homeless services. Just 664 people on the verge of homelessness received aid to try to help them avoid becoming homeless, according to new data that will be presented at a Monday City Council town hall on homelessness. The data reflects the number of folks who hadn’t accessed homeless services the previous five years.

Members of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, a group that oversees regional efforts to battle homelessness, zeroed in on the discrepancy between the need for aid and what’s available when they reviewed the numbers at their meeting last Thursday.

“We need prevention and diversion in this town, and we need it now,” said Sue Lindsay, who leads San Diego State University’s Institute for Public Health and was hired to help the task force analyze the data.

For years, federal agencies have prioritized funding to help homeless veterans and those who’ve spent years on the streets. San Diego nonprofits have responded by stepping up their programs for those populations.

There’s been far less focus on San Diego’s newly homeless folks.

There’s a dearth of funding for programs that might help reconnect newly homeless folks with their families or help them with a couple months of assistance to avoid eviction, leaders of homeless-serving agencies said Thursday.

Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH, which runs a homeless-serving facility downtown, said federal and local priorities have incentivized efforts on housing folks who’ve been homeless for years.

The problem, Roberts said, is that newly homeless people can end up homeless for years without quick help.

“If we don’t divert others in a few more years, they become chronically homeless,” Roberts said.

Greg Anglea, who leads Escondido-based Interfaith Community Services, said it’s often easier to help a newly homeless person than one hardened by years on the street, though his organization aims to serve both populations.

“For less investment, we can help a lot of individuals who have lesser needs,” Anglea said.

Carla, a newly homeless woman I met last summer in East Village, told me at the time she was worried about exactly what Roberts and Anglea described.

She’d become homeless a month earlier after temporarily moving to Los Angeles to help family members.

When that didn’t play out as planned, Carla said, she ended up homeless in downtown San Diego and confronted a nightmare. She was told she could wait two months for a shelter bed.

“You have to wait too long,” said Carla, who feared she’d be forced to become comfortable living on the street. She didn’t want to become comfortable. She wanted to get off the street.

Task force data shows there were many newly homeless San Diegans like Carla last year.

More than 10,000 of the 17,600 homeless folks served by local agencies last year hadn’t accessed homeless services in the last five years.

Nearly 20 percent of them had been living with friends or family before they sought help from a homeless-serving agency and 40 percent were living on the streets, according to the regional data.

Another 11 percent were previously staying in an institution such as a jail or hospital.

This volume of newly homeless San Diegans has inspired the San Diego Housing Commission to propose a $1.9 million homelessness prevention and diversion program it hopes can help hundreds of individuals and families over the next three years. The agency’s expected to offer more details at the Monday town hall.

Communities that have put a serious dent in homelessness have found ways to more quickly help these newly homeless people.

Regions that want to declare a functional end to veteran or chronic homelessness, for example, must prove to federal officials that they have the resources to ensure homelessness is “rare, brief and non-recurring.”

Advocate Tom Theisen noted Thursday that cities like Houston, which saw a 75 percent drop in street homelessness over five years, have taken steps to ensure swift aid.

During her presentation last week, Lindsay doubled down on the need for increased action to stem San Diego’s growing homelessness crisis, citing the total number of San Diegans who sought help last year.

“Somehow we have to figure out what sources of money we can get so 17,599 people are not trying to get into a bed or some kind of service,” she said.

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