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Guest commentary: Affordable housing, services and new perceptions are all keys to solving homelessness

A homeless person sleeps on a bench at Girard Avenue and Coast Boulevard in La Jolla in October.
(Alice Rosenblatt)

We’ve all seen it, as if it’s a nightmarishly bad play unfolding scene by scene on our streets. The tents. The violence. The rubbish. The drug use. The defecation. We’ve all experienced the full range of emotions as well, from disgust to anger to helplessness.

What I’m talking about should be obvious. It’s homelessness. And it’s no secret that it has gotten worse. The real question, though, relates to how much worse. The last time I was truly involved with this was back in 2020 during the San Diego City Council District 1 campaign. At that point, the calculation by the San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness put the number of people experiencing homelessness in San Diego at almost 7,600 — 5,000 of whom were totally unsheltered.

That was bad enough. But the 2022 Point in Time Count by RTFH found 8,427 individuals experiencing homelessness across San Diego County, a more than 10 percent increase from 2020.

“These data points give context to a crisis we already see with our own eyes,” said county Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer. In other words, seeing is believing, and we see much of this every day. Counting the problem and quantifying it is one thing. Actually doing something about it is quite another. And for me, the solution starts with inclusionary housing.

Inclusionary affordable housing’s intent is to ensure that when developing the limited supply of developable land, housing opportunities for people of all income levels are provided. To achieve this, San Diego requires new residential and mixed-use developments to include 10 percent of the onsite rental units as affordable housing for individuals with income up to 60 percent of the area median income. To circumvent this requirement, developers can pay a fee (the “in-lieu fee”) currently set at $20.09 per square foot. This money then goes into a fund that finances the development of additional affordable housing elsewhere in San Diego.

The program has, by and large, been a success. But there have been questions about how some of the money has been spent on other, non-housing projects. Regardless, the program has been narrowly tailored by the courts to ensure it passes constitutional muster. This is welcome news. However, inclusionary housing is a necessary — though not sufficient — element of any solution to homelessness. We need to start with inclusionary housing but also couple it with so-called wraparound services.

Wraparound services focus on the whole person. Getting people into housing is the sine qua non, but it’s not the end of the story. Many of these people are experiencing mental health issues in addition to basic health problems like a lack of physical hygiene and/or nutrition. The services are meant to avoid the cookie-cutter approach that has failed in the past. Each individual is approached as a unique person with idiosyncratic needs. Getting these services to those recently resettled in housing is critically important, as the rate of relapse — i.e., return to the streets — is higher in the absence of this early intervention.

Project One For All, as the county also calls wraparound services, is an “extensive effort by the county of San Diego and its partners to provide intensive wraparound services, including mental health counseling and housing, to homeless individuals with serious mental illness.” Providing housing with these services is an effective way of reducing the rate of homelessness while simultaneously reducing the rate of alcoholism, drug use and mental illness.

With respect to the last point — mental illness — it’s no secret that many of those living on the streets are suffering from things like schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, free-floating anxiety, etc. According to studies reported by the Psychiatric Times, there is clearly a link between psychiatric disorders and homelessness. And the illnesses, the most common of which are alcohol and drug dependence, for the most part preceded the homelessness.

But most interesting of all, homelessness itself contributes to at least a quarter of the cases of mental illness. In other words, becoming homeless can turn a mentally healthy individual into a person experiencing mental disorders. This is why inclusionary housing, coupled with wraparound services, is so fundamentally important to combating the No. 1 social issue we face as Americans. (There are more than a half-million individuals in the United States experiencing homelessness.)

In conclusion then, the solution to the burgeoning homelessness problem we all witness is to get these individuals into housing and to additionally team them up with social and psychological services.

Having said this, it’s important for people to be aware of something called the fundamental attribution error, which refers to an individual’s tendency to attribute another’s actions to their character or personality while attributing their own behavior to external situational factors outside their control. In other words, you tend to cut yourself a break while holding others 100 percent accountable for their actions. In the homelessness context, this means we attribute to people traits like indolence or irresponsibility. We ignore external or environmental factors like having abusive parents, being raised in poverty or suffering some kind of catastrophic injury. (The “error” is in thinking that the homeless person was bedeviled by personal failures while any of our own failures must necessarily be explained by external factors over which we had no control.)

To be sure, there is an alarming criminal element within the homeless population. I recently dealt with this, and it’s exceedingly important for society to protect itself and not condone antisocial behavior. We absolutely need law and order. But we also would do well to temper our tendency to blame homeless people solely because of perceived personality deficiencies. Doing this would go a long way in balancing our treatment of these downtrodden denizens.

James Rudolph is a La Jolla resident and a board member of the Town Council.