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What San Diego’s Doing About Homelessness

Here’s a guide to the latest regional strategies to help the homeless.

Street homelessness is up in San Diego County – and, counterintuitively, so are the number of efforts meant to combat it.

Local leaders have announced a handful of initiatives this year aimed at reducing San Diego’s homeless population. But the latest point in time count, which tallied people sleeping on the streets and in shelters one morning in January, revealed a slight decrease in the homeless population and a 19 percent spike in those that are unsheltered since last year’s count. Volunteers found fewer people were in shelters during this year’s count and more on the streets.

Yet the head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a federal agency charged with coordinating the national response to homelessness, said there’s some reason for optimism in San Diego.

Matthew Doherty, a onetime San Diegan who now leads the Interagency Council, said he’s impressed with the increased political will and coordination in San Diego.

“We have been seeing steps forward in San Diego as laying the groundwork for the kind of progress in reducing and ending homelessness that we need to see,” Doherty said.

Note that he said laying the groundwork. Doherty and local officials such as City Councilman Todd Gloria, who chairs the countywide group that coordinates efforts to fight homelessness, acknowledge there’s much work to be done.

They believe a recent rush of initiatives and increased cooperation, if properly scaled and organized, can eventually put a significant dent in homelessness.

It just won’t happen overnight, Gloria said.

“Ongoing regionalization, prioritization, reduction in duplication of efforts still needs to come,” Gloria said. “I think some of that’s happening but it’s gonna take a while to see it fully realized.”

Here’s a guide to the latest regional strategies to help the homeless.

Housing Our Heroes: The 1,000 Homeless Veterans Initiative

The city and the Housing Commission are taking a multi-pronged approach to try to effectively end veteran homelessness, a federal goal San Diego’s taken longer to achieve than other communities. They want to house 1,000 veterans by next March.

San Diego’s low apartment vacancy rate and rising rents give landlords little incentive to rent to homeless veterans who may have past evictions or convictions.

So officials plan to throw more than $4.4 million at inducements to encourage landlords to make that leap. That will include lump-sum payments for rentals to veterans, contingency funds for expenses and assistance with security deposits and utilities. The Housing Commission’s also agreed to speed up apartment inspections and dedicate housing specialists to assist landlords and homeless veterans.

The Housing Commission plans to help connect veterans with housing vouchers to help them pay for housing, too. The lion’s share – up to 600 – will receive temporary rental assistance. Another 300 veterans who qualify for assistance from the local Veterans Affairs health care system will receive more substantial, permanent housing vouchers through the federal Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program. The commission plans to dole out an additional 100 federal housing vouchers through nonprofit providers that can serve veterans who don’t qualify for other vouchers.

The Housing Commission reported it had placed 40 veterans into housing and secured another 37 units for others as of Thursday. The agency’s also doled out about $26,000 in landlord incentives.

Housing Commission CEO Rick Gentry acknowledged the program still needs to ramp up significantly. The city needs to house 83 veterans a month to hit its goal.

“We figure that the numbers will catch up over time,” Gentry said.

Six staffers have been hired to help with the program.

Gentry said the 1,000 veterans initiative is the latest piece of the commission’s homelessness action plan, which focuses on creating more affordable housing.

“We are hitting the issue from every angle we can think of,” Gentry said.

Project One for All

The Regional Task Force on the Homeless, a nonprofit that oversees the annual homeless count, last year estimated 19 percent of the county’s homeless population suffers from a serious mental illness. Those patients can be especially challenging for agencies to house.

In February, county supervisors approved an initiative known as Project One for All, which promises to put more resources toward comprehensive, 24-hour assistance for homeless people who are seriously mental ill. It’ll also allow the county to forge more partnerships with nonprofits and cities to provide housing along with the increased services.

There’s been much talk of Project 25, a government and nonprofit partnership that pulled some of San Diego’s most vulnerable homeless off the streets, as a model. But the county’s still nailing down how its program will work.

What is clear, county behavioral health officials say, is their new mandate. The goal is now to help all who qualify under the federal definition of seriously mentally ill, which means opening up more treatment slots and doing more outreach.

The county’s proposed budget for next year pencils in an additional $10.7 million to expand services and serve up to an additional 824 homeless San Diegans.

Susan Bower, the county’s director of behavioral health operations, said the county historically hasn’t been able to serve everyone qualified for that help. She believes Project One for All will change that.

“It’s a county commitment to expand services to fully meet the need, whereas in the past, due to funding availability and so forth, we have not been able to fully meet the need,” Bower said.

Bower and others on her team are set to present a more detailed plan to the Board of Supervisors in late June.

Opening Doors

Opening Doors is a federal initiative to end veteran homelessness in 2015 and chronic homelessness in 2017, goals San Diego’s behind on meeting. The federal focus on veteran homelessness continues in communities like San Diego, which didn’t meet the 2015 goal.

Homeless advocates have long decried a lack of local accountability and coordination and argued local efforts needed to fall under a single umbrella.

Now they do. The regional Continuum of Care Council, which Gloria leads, now oversees a slew of projects meant to help the region end veteran homelessness, including the Housing Our Heroes program and a new Opening Doors committee.

The San Diego group’s formally set a goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2016 and wants to get longtime homeless off the streets in 2017, in keeping with the national target.

The council tapped Greg Anglea of North County-based Interfaith Community Services to lead the committee. The group keeps tabs on veterans being housed and roadblocks along the way, and discusses ways to overcome them.

“You have people together who were not together in the past, who when they’re in the same room, working on the same goals, it’s just much more effective,” Anglea said.

The committee and the Continuum of Care Council  are overseeing efforts to create a list of all the region’s homeless veterans to ensure they’re being reached by nonprofits and government resources.

The council’s also implementing a coordinated assessment tool that allows providers across the region to gauge the needs of a homeless person and connect her with the agency or services best suited for her, whether it’s at the facility she walked into or not.

The increased coordination is a work in progress, Gloria said.

“I think it’ll be successful eventually,” he said.

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