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The homeless problem in San Diego is as brutally simple as it is tragic. No one wants to own the problem; no one wants to lead.
We are suffering from a catastrophic lack of leadership when elected officials are at their most articulate when explaining someone else’s responsibilities. I recently heard City Councilman Mark Kersey at a political event wax eloquent on all of the things the county is supposed to be doing to help the city fight the spread of hepatitis A.
As a community, we are at our best when we decide to own a problem ourselves rather than waiting for someone in government to do something. We must start by owning the homelessness crisis as our problem, and then we must advocate for a new model of government involvement. The hepatitis A outbreak and the deaths in its wake do not leave us any other conclusion.
The problems of homelessness and mental health are two sides of the same coin. But we have fragmented our governmental capabilities, with the County Department of Health responsible for mental health services, and various municipal bureaucracies responsible for housing services. Federal grant money – Community Development Block Grants in particular – are shot-gunned throughout the region to these various bureaucracies. That inevitably leads to bureaucratic rivalries and the finger-pointing we see today.
This can be solved by the formation of a joint powers authority. These are formed by multiple governmental bodies (e.g., the county and various cities) to address regional issues that cannot be successfully addressed at a single municipal level. The creation of digital maps of the region, for example, is overseen by SanGIS, a JPA created by the county and the city of San Diego. The San Diego Association of Governments has a similar structure. There was even talk of creating one to build a stadium for the Chargers.
A JPA – perhaps named the San Diego Association for Mental Health and Housing Resources – would align the capabilities of government to the problem as it exists in the community. Municipal housing commissions and the county’s mental health portfolio would be absorbed into this agency. Most importantly, federal grant money could then be targeted to a single recipient, which can ensure the most effective use of these funds.
The steps being taken today – with vacant properties repurposed for temporary tent cities and parking lots being made available for those living in their cars – are necessary short-term measures. We will not, however, see a viable long-term solution until we stop tinkering around the margins of our failed model of government involvement.
This is not someone else’s failure; it is ours. It is not someone else’s problem to solve. It is time for leadership, not excuses. The current model of government involvement in housing and mental health is a catastrophic failure, and it must be replaced.
John H. Horst is the former chairman of the Mira Mesa Community Planning Group and a Republican candidate for California’s 52nd Congressional District.