Opinion: San Diego region’s homelessness response requires someone to be in charge

When it comes to structural change, there must be consistent and persistent engagement to ensure programs get upgraded to meet the community’s needs.

Stonebrook is a small-business owner in Carlsbad.

In the last election cycle, nearly every candidate in San Diego County cited homelessness as one of their top three issues. As these now-elected officials are getting to work, the question will be whether they continue to perpetuate the problem or they will unite around a structural solution that designates a single position to lead the effort.

While problems may be difficult to admit, the extent of homelessness in San Diego County points to failures in existing programs meant to help our most vulnerable and marginalized neighbors. These could be gaps in education, substance abuse counseling, behavioral health care, senior care, unemployment insurance, criminal justice, housing policy or other programs. And those structural issues will need to be fixed to end homelessness permanently.

Which means the role of homelessness response is twofold. First, it must address the immediate needs of those that are, or about to be, homeless. Second, and just as importantly, it must act as a cogent feedback mechanism providing accurate, honest and actionable information to elected leaders, government departments and other stakeholders that are involved in serving our vulnerable populations.

Having one recognized position of authority is the proven approach to meet this dual homelessness response. Best of all, this requires no new laws, only the will and respect of our elected officials to agree on that designated position.

When it comes to addressing the immediate need to get people off the streets, there are over 130 hardworking, well-meaning, and critically important service providers working on the issue in San Diego County. Yet there is no single individual or agency that directs these activities, meaning each organization establishes its own measures for success and works to achieve them. The lack of coordination leads to duplication and overlap of efforts in easier response areas and a dearth of services in those that are more complicated. Further, each organization has attained funding to focus on specific populations, so, with thousands of cases, large numbers of people will fall between the cracks of programs. With no common leadership, there is no “escalation” path to ensure these individuals get the help they need. In the end, without common leadership, every service provider’s program could be successful but, as we see, the overall result for our community is worsening.

When it comes to structural change, there must be consistent and persistent engagement to ensure programs get upgraded to meet the community’s needs. This requires having an advocate with the authority, credibility and fortitude to lobby elected leaders, government officials and other stakeholders for the necessary changes that will sustain ending homelessness. Someone on the frontlines of homelessness response who will suffer the consequences of those failures is best suited to fill this role.

Having one recognized position of authority works. Certainly, there are no silver bullets to ending homelessness. But it is certain that success starts with explicitly designating a responsible position to lead the effort. There are many examples of this around the country.

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness cites many communities that “have a system in place to ensure that homelessness is rare, brief and one-time.” The agency calls out the excellent work being done in Houston, where homelessness has been reduced by 62 percent since 2011. In an essay in The New York Times last year, Houston’s former mayor describes their starting point as “Different organizations … all working in their own lanes” until eventually the nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County was appointed to be the lead agency on homelessness response efforts. Closer to home, the national nonprofit Community Solutions cites Bakersfield/Kern County as the first California community to end chronic homelessness. Their success was accelerated when the newly reorganized Bakersfield Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative was recognized as the lead agency for their homelessness response.

And in Arlington County, Virginia (just outside Washington, D.C.), which eliminated veteran homelessness in 2015, homelessness response sits directly in the county’s Department of Human Services centralizing the immediate needs of homeless individuals and providing credible, consistent and actionable feedback to all county departments on structural changes needed to end homelessness.

Having one recognized position of authority gets homeless people off the streets faster and provides the necessary feedback to fix the structural issues causing homelessness. And here all San Diego County citizens can do their part: make calls or send emails to your local elected officials and demand to know, who’s in charge?