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Opinion: How new funding for homelessness can make the biggest impact in the San Diego region

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 6/8/2021 Tamera Kohler
a group of people walking on a city street: The Supreme Court refused to hear a major case on homelessness, letting stand a ruling that protects homeless people's right to sleep on the sidewalk or in a public park if no other shelter is available. Here, homeless people line the sidewalk on 16th Street in San Diego on Dec. 16, 2019. (K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune) © (K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune) The Supreme Court refused to hear a major case on homelessness, letting stand a ruling that protects homeless people's right to sleep on the sidewalk or in a public park if no other shelter is available. Here, homeless people line the sidewalk on 16th Street in San Diego on Dec. 16, 2019. (K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Kohler is the CEO of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, and lives in Little Italy.

Housing ends homelessness. While it’s a complex and layered issue, if we start every conversation about homelessness with the truism that if a person has a home, they are no longer homeless, other aspects can fall into their proper place.

It is easier to talk about solutions to supportive services, crisis response, an adequate shelter system, rental assistance, property storage and outreach, if we can agree that housing must be the backbone of all of these discussions.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom just announced a major infusion of state dollars to this end. Coupled with an unprecedented amount of one-time federal dollars heading to local municipalities to assist in their recovery from the pandemic and another potential major revenue source if Assembly Bill 71 passes, it is important that we use that money where it can make the most impact: increasing the capacity of our housing stock, diversifying our shelter system and investing in our homelessness supporting work force.

A recent report published by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless identified a 21 percent increase in the last year in the number of people accessing homeless services in the county. Significantly, there was a 78 percent increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time.

Yet in the same year, one challenged by a pandemic, 6,028 people in San Diego were helped to remain in or exit to a permanent housing setting. It can be done. The regional task force believes there are three primary areas where this windfall of funding should be focused, with the majority of it going toward housing.

While building new affordable housing is critical, it is not the only way to provide housing. Local leaders should be looking to acquire properties that can be easily turned into temporary and permanent housing. San Diego saw success last year with the purchase of old hotels through the state’s Project Home Key. The governor is now expanding the resources available for us to continue doing this in a significant way. No stone should go unturned. No property should go unevaluated. The county and every city in the region should actively be looking at properties in their jurisdiction and considering an application.

The region should also be making better use of its existing rental market. With some creativity the units that already exist in San Diego can be unlocked to help individuals, families, veterans and youth get off the streets. Nearly 40 percent of adults in San Diego live with a roommate, for example. Yet shared housing is not a strategy we typically think of to end homelessness.

The Regional Task Force on the Homeless has contracted with Brilliant Corners, a nationally known nonprofit that specializes in innovative methods to acquire units in the private rental market and make them available for homeless households. Just last month Brilliant Corners cultivated 24 new units of housing through private landlords willing to rent to people experiencing homelessness. Scaling this program up could lead to hundreds of new units of housing.

Strategically, housing needs to be the priority. However, there is an opportunity and need to improve the regional shelter system so that people have somewhere to live while waiting to be matched with housing resources. The shelter system needs to be more diverse, to include places to go, for example, for women who cannot be around men. Shelters should better accommodate the aging homeless population, many of whom have disabilities and lack any income. Or some people have pets they do not want to leave behind.

Additionally, every government owned parcel in the region should be assessed for its viability as a place where people can live or shelter safely temporarily. Regional leaders need to be creative and consider all options. Having low barriers to entry and high focus on housing as the end goal on these lots can better serve our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness than can a sidewalk, a bench or a park.

And finally, once someone has been housed, there is still a need for people to work with them, to ensure they are remaining in a stable situation. The pandemic has taxed a work force that is already in a high-stress environment. San Diego needs to invest in the training and paying of the workers who take on this incredible challenge.

Homelessness is solvable. As a region, we have an incredible opportunity in front of us to do just that. Let’s be thoughtful and strategic about how and where we are investing our resources.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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