Sept. 30 2015 11:56 AM

Why not create a Homeless Czar in the Mayor's Office?

    Michael McConnell
    Photo by Michael McConnell / LinkedIn

    San Diego's homeless community needs a lot of things, but what it could desperately use right now is a champion. A power player. He or she doesn't need to be a superhero but should have some special powers: a will of steel, a unifying omnipresence and the persuasive ability to convince a skeptical public that real solutions actually exist.

    Our region isn't lacking in numbers of governmental, nonprofit or faith-based organizational stakeholders. Nonetheless, the number of homeless people, including veterans, continues to grow. A count earlier this year by the Regional Task Force for the Homeless found that the number of people living on downtown streets grew 26 percent this year over last and that numbers for the region are up nearly 3 percent.

    To halt the endless cycle of street living to services and back to the streets, we could use a leader who owns the issue and possesses an ability to harness disparate groups and enable them to work together as one energized unit.

    How about a Homeless Czar, a position that could be created within the office of Mayor Kevin Faulconer? Someone with political teeth could demand cooperation and build interdepartmental communication.

    Mayoral spokesperson Matt Awbrey says, “Homelessness is a regional issue that requires significant coordination that spans between many regional leaders.” But there's no indication a czar is in the near future.

    The mayor did hold a meeting with downtown leaders on Sept. 11, reportedly to discuss ways to eliminate homelessness from East Village in time for TV cameras that will come for the 2016 MLB All-Star Game at Petco Park. Awbrey confirms the meeting took place and says it was an effort to provide permanent solutions and “provide the best service possible to residents and visitors, but the issue of homelessness transcends any specific event.”

    Someone like a Homeless Czar, though, could champion a program like Project 25. That it doesn't have full awareness in the business community is a travesty. Project 25 grew out of the United Way and is a public-private partnership now in the hands of St. Vincent de Paul Village. It's a housing-first concept that focuses on the street people who most often get picked up by police or ambulances and most frequently are taken to jail or emergency rooms. The group was intended to include 25 people but grew to 36. A two-year study showed that housing and counseling these chronic homeless men and women reduced public resource costs by 67 percent. Savings amounted to $3.5 million over two years.

    Project 25's $1.5 million in seed money from the United Way was well spent. But earlier this year when it looked like funding was drying up, St. Vincent de Paul director of tenant services Marc Stevenson went into crisis mode. The United Way pitched in an additional $100,000. A grant has since been secured, and hospitals and managed-care providers are beginning to see how Project 25 can save them money, according to Ruth Bruland, division director at St. Vincent de Paul Village.

    “Project 25 proves you can solve this for everybody, but the problem is that it takes years of engagement and some people want faster results,” says homeless advocate Michael McConnell. “Project 25 should be Project 250. Or more. It makes zero sense we're not doing more of it. It's not easy or cheap. But it's cheaper than the way we do things now. And we know that if we don't do this people will die on the streets.”

    McConnell is the regional coordinator of 25 Cities San Diego, Setting a Path to Zero. It's a national alliance of federal agencies aimed at ending veteran and chronic homelessness.

    Coordination of effort is the key for 25 Cities (which is active in the 25 cities where 39 percent of the nation's homeless veterans are; that it uses the same numeral as Project 25 is a coincidence). The goal is to gather and share information on clients so individual needs can be met, rather than push people into inefficient, one-size-fits-all programs.

    It's a different way to approach a problem where new solutions are sorely needed. A lack of coordination of effort in the past was not breaking the cycle of homelessness. Full results remain to be seen, but a better process can only help. And a champion/ czar/leader with political clout would definitely aid the crusade.

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