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No Room to Rest — Series Part 7: In the search for solutions to homelessness, how is success defined?

A homeless person reads while sitting among her belongings in La Jolla's Village.
(Elisabeth Frausto)
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This La Jolla Light series looks at local homelessness, explores the complicated factors that contribute to it and highlights the various viewpoints about potential solutions. This is the seventh and final installment.

If one thing is clear about homelessness, it’s that it is a complex issue without one cause — or one solution.

Nevertheless, organizations ranging from local nonprofits to the federal government are still working toward solving the problem that affects hundreds of thousands of people nationwide.

Among the ideas raised by local experts, advocates and homeless people themselves in the course of this series are:

• Changing the way we talk about homelessness
• Meeting homeless people where they are and identifying their individual needs rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach
• Collaboration among various organizations
• Allocating the funding needed to make potential solutions happen

At a community workshop Dec. 3 at the La Jolla/Riford Library, La Jolla-based Housing 4 the Homeless presented a panel and small group discussions seeking innovative ideas.

La Jolla resident and Housing 4 the Homeless co-founder Joanne Standlee called the workshop an experiment inspired by a La Jolla Town Council meeting the previous month.

“That meeting … had a lot of information and set the context for what is happening,” Standlee said. “It was a lot of panelists but not a lot of interaction.”

By moving into the “interaction phase,” the community can take ownership of the issue and come up with solutions, she said.

A few topics were introduced at the Housing 4 the Homeless event, and people who attended were encouraged to break into small groups to discuss them. That was followed by insights from a panel consisting of Housing 4 the Homeless co-founder and La Jolla resident Amie Zamudio, San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava and UC San Diego psychiatrist Aaron Meyer.

What is ‘homelessness’?

“We have systemic failure across many systems,” Standlee said. “That leads to people losing their housing, but there is not one single cause. … Systems will only stretch so far and then they break. We’ve been snowballing in this direction for decades. There is no one political party, mayor or city entity who can solve this themselves. We have to face this together.”

During the group discussions, many said a step toward a solution is changing the language and attitudes regarding homelessness.

“There isn’t actually something called ‘homelessness,’” Standlee said.

Several groups said “homeless” is an umbrella term with many factions within it. One said that much like anxiety and schizophrenia are under the umbrella of “mental health,” they are very different conditions. Similarly, a person who just needs a job or transitional housing to get out of homelessness is different from someone who needs more comprehensive and long-term services. Yet they are both labeled “homeless.”

Housing 4 the Homeless co-founder Amie Zamudio, San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava and UCSD psychiatrist Aaron Meyer
Housing 4 the Homeless co-founder and La Jolla resident Amie Zamudio, San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava and UC San Diego psychiatrist Aaron Meyer sit on a panel as part of a Dec. 3 workshop focusing on homelessness.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Comprehensive, individualized services

Available homeless services and outreach are missing “love and compassion and meeting people where they are and asking what they need … not making assumptions,” Standlee said.

Meyer agreed with the concept of comprehensive care and innovation beyond what is already available. Different people need different services to escape homelessness, he said. “When you look at a house, you need to look at what rooms are in that house. And when people agree to come to the table, the table needs to be in the right room.”

Jim Vargas, president and chief executive of San Diego homeless services organization Father Joe’s Villages, told the La Jolla Light that “the approach we need to take needs to be multifaceted. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. We need to assess an individual’s circumstances and apply the best solution to get them off the street permanently.”

That approach needs to include options such as building “low barrier” shelters with more beds and fewer entry requirements, offering sober-living facilities and developing more affordable housing, said Vargas, a deacon of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego who serves Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church in La Jolla.

“People who are suffering from homelessness are suffering from a host of other ailments, so there needs to be heavier resources applied,” Vargas said. “Because it’s complex, the solutions can’t be simple. They have to be comprehensive and applied correctly to be effective.”

To provide that comprehensive level of care, Standlee said, “everyone has to collaborate. Everyone. All service providers across all sectors: medical, local government, deferral government, nonprofits, police force, everyone has to be on the same page. In San Diego, we are not on the same page. We are a fractured system. But we are lucky to have the Regional Task Force on Homelessness that has a plan.”

Regional efforts

The San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness, which evolved from a mayor’s task force formed in 1983, aims to better understand the needs of people living on area streets and to work to prevent and alleviate the problem. It collects, tracks and reports data pertaining to homelessness in the region.

The group issued a report in September that outlines its plan to solve homelessness.

The so-called Regional Plan was influenced by existing plans and frameworks at local, state and federal levels.

The task force has what it calls “people goals” over the next five years:

• Reduce the number of people who are “unsheltered” (living on the street or in a park or vehicle) by 50 percent
• End homelessness among veterans, youths, families and older adults

The plan looks at the individual challenges for each group and poses solutions for each.

There also are “system goals” to address those who are at risk of or imminently facing homelessness, including strategies and actions to help reach those goals.

The system-oriented goals are:

• Create a strong and equitable regional system to end homelessness
• Aggressively expand permanent housing options
• Meet the needs of people who are unsheltered
• Create safe, low-barrier shelter
• Reduce the flow of people entering homelessness

“Because it’s complex, the solutions can’t be simple. They have to be comprehensive and applied correctly to be effective.”

— Jim Vargas, Father Joe’s Villages

Similarly, the city of San Diego’s potential solutions are laid out in its 63-page Community Action Plan on Homelessness, a comprehensive document intended “to build a client-centered homeless assistance system that aims to prevent homelessness and that quickly creates a path to safe and affordable housing and services for people who experience homelessness in our community.”

The plan, adopted by the City Council in October 2019, laid out the following goals to be completed within three years:

• Decrease the number of unsheltered people by 50 percent
• End veteran and youth homelessness

Data shows that none of the goals has been met in the three-year time frame.

In 2019, the city had 2,600 unsheltered residents, according to the Point-in-Time Count, an annual survey of homeless people conducted by local agencies around the country, usually in January. The 2022 count showed 2,494 unsheltered people, only a 4 percent drop from 2019 and a 9 percent increase over 2020.

The 2022 number for homeless veterans in San Diego stood at 510, including 265 unsheltered and 245 “sheltered” (with some kind of temporary roof over their heads, such as in a shelter or transitional housing). The unsheltered number was down from 338 in 2019 but up from 190 in 2020.

For homeless youths, the 2022 count was 693 (519 sheltered and 174 unsheltered). The unsheltered number was down from 353 in 2019 and down from 223 in 2020.

City spokeswoman Ashley Bailey said the city “is still making progress” on those short-term goals and that the City Council receives regular updates.

Bailey emphasized that implementation of the Community Action Plan, along with many government services, was “upended” in 2020 by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and that shelters and other services continue to feel the impact of pandemic-related mitigation measures.

Fran Dryden (left) prays with Karen Adamson.
Fran Dryden (left) prays with Karen Adamson, a chaperone with students visiting from Illinois who were taking part in a homeless outreach church program in San Diego.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The short-term goals are part of a 10-year plan intended ultimately to implement a “systems-level approach to homeless planning.” That includes:

• Adapting infrastructure to support the goals
• Creating a homeless assistance system in which client feedback is valued
• Increasing homelessness prevention and diversion
• Improving the performance of the existing system through metric review
• Increasing the production of and access to permanent housing

The plan’s progress is gauged via ongoing statistics and other measurements updated online (bit.ly/3Ge2fv2).

Costs and funding

The Community Action Plan estimates a cost of $2.2 million per 100 new beds annually for its short-term “crisis response actions” and $1.9 billion over 10 years to address “permanent housing needs.”

The plan says the city needs about 5,400 units for permanent housing opportunities for individuals and families experiencing homelessness, including:

• New or rehabilitated supportive housing
• Supportive housing leased in the private rental market
• Rapid rehousing rental assistance with services for one year
• Low-income housing rental assistance with services for three years
• Homelessness diversion assistance

“To accomplish the goals set forth in this plan, investment from private and public sources is essential,” the document states. “Funding only the creation of new units, without adequate services or rental assistance, will not further the goals of this plan in reducing persons who are homeless in San Diego.”

The plan says funding could come from:

• State and federal housing assistance programs
• City funds such as Affordable Housing Fund, General Fund or special fees
• City bond measures for homelessness services and new supportive housing
• Private philanthropy

A homeless person's things lie on a sidewalk in La Jolla.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Despite the best intentions, red tape often can get in the way, said LaCava, whose City Council District 1 includes La Jolla.

“The bureaucracy that gets involved in this tries to take very complex issues and boil them down to simple ideas in simple boxes — with good intentions, but somehow it confuses the issue,” he said.

There is confusion about the “housing first” model the city uses that earns federal dollars. It is the idea that a homeless person first must be housed, followed by an assessment of the individual’s needs.

“It’s not put them in a house, give them a key and walk away,” LaCava said. “It’s [asking] what does this person need. ... But it’s more complex, more challenging and more expensive to do it that way.”

Another idea, he said, is to take what some of the region’s smaller organizations — specifically Housing 4 the Homeless — are doing and “scale it up” to reach more people. Housing 4 the Homeless works with people deemed “service-resistant” or “not ready” to get off the streets and provides them with services the clients say they need.

“Everyone has to be on the same page. In San Diego, we are not on the same page. We are a fractured system.”

— Joanne Standlee, Housing 4 the Homeless

Measuring success

Along with the challenge of obtaining ever-elusive funding is the question of defining success.

“The money goes out, but there is no metric that says, ‘Did you do a good job?’” LaCava said. “We have to get some kind of transparency and not fund programs that are [getting funds but not] doing the benefit. But we don’t have a system of accountability because we don’t have a way of measuring success.

“The San Diego Housing Commission and Regional Task Force on Homelessness are starting to look at hard data to look at what is working and not working. You also have to pound on the table and demand results.”

According to the regional task force, ending homelessness “does not mean there will never be another person who will face a housing crisis in San Diego again. Rather, it means San Diego will have a robust coordinated system in place to prevent housing loss when possible, and when not prevented, to respond with urgency, eagerness and compassion to engage people in a meaningful way, connect them to permanent housing as quickly as possible and provide stabilizing community support. San Diego embraces the vision of making homelessness rare, brief and one-time.”

“Ideally,” Vargas said, “I would love a world where no one is on the street ever again. But realistically, we must look at our area, which has rising rents and inflation. We as a community need to come up with a robust system that keeps people from falling into homelessness … and then if they fall into the streets, we have a wide enough network to get people off the streets readily and move them into housing.

“We’re not there on the housing side, so that needs to be a focus. When we do that, we’ll get our arms around the homelessness. We’ll have a system in place to really help people. It takes political will and community will. It’s not easy and it [involves] making hard decisions and attaching the dollars that are necessary.”

“We have to get some kind of transparency and not fund programs that are [getting funds but not] doing the benefit. But we don’t have a system of accountability because we don’t have a way of measuring success.”

— San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava

Nonprofit leader and La Jolla resident Scott Silverman, who among other efforts founded San Diego Second Chance in 1992 to help transition people out of homelessness, said success ultimately means a decrease in those who exit homelessness and then re-enter it.

Silverman said no solution he’s seen addresses the cycle of homelessness and that there is no “continuum of care” for people exiting the system.

“If you have a system where people know they can make the phone call and somebody cares about them,” those receiving support will be successful, he said.

Drew Moser, executive director of the nonprofit Lucky Duck Foundation, which seeks to fund shelters and homeless support programs locally, said “success is reducing the numbers of individuals suffering on the streets and working collaboratively in an urgent and deliberate manner across government, the private sector and philanthropy.”

Specifically, he said, success is measured by “the number of individuals who move into shelter, the number of individuals who secure housing [and] the number of individuals who are prevented from entering homelessness.”

The Lucky Duck Foundation also measures success “in a multitude of ways,” Moser said, “including but not limited to the number of individuals who secured part-time or full-time employment and the number ... who improved their housing situation.”

He added that his organization works “to quantify every program [the foundation] invests in so we can explain clearly and simply to our donors the impact of their support.” ◆