Nonprofits/Community Building a better region together, one story at a time

San Diego Wants to Go From Cacophony to One Voice on Homelessness

San Diego’s homeless-serving approach has long suffered from a lack of coordination. Regional leaders now hope to get everyone to follow a single plan.

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.

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.

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