Veteran’s Day is an appropriate holiday to take stock of a dire situation facing too many of our city’s heroes who served in the armed services: homelessness. There are too many veterans living on our streets. Compared to other U.S. cities, San Diego lags in implementing proven steps that can end veteran homelessness.
This issue has gotten heaps of national attention, and it’s inexcusable that a Navy town like San Diego is failing to create a safety net for former warriors and protectors who’ve fallen on hard times.
There have been several multiyear, national initiatives launched that attempt to address this issue, such as The Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, 25 Cities and Zero: 2016. All three slightly overlap, with backing coming from the Obama Administration, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Veterans Administration.
Let’s focus on Zero: 2016. In October 2014, 75 communities, including San Diego, signed on to participate in Zero: 2016’s goals of ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015 and homelessness in general one year later.
There are 26 cities on track to functionally eradicate veteran homelessness at the end of the year, according to Community Solutions, the New York City-based nonprofit social services organization that coordinates Zero: 2016. That list includes Houston, Phoenix and New Orleans, which have already announced success. San Diego is not on the list. And not close.
San Diego County’s 2015 WeALLCount survey reported 631 unsheltered homeless veterans. Add 750 sheltered vets and the number of homeless veterans bumps to 1,381. It’s projected 1,400 new and recurring veterans will also enter homelessness this year.
A Zero: 2016 dashboard of progress for cities shows San Diego placed about 100 veterans per month in housing this year, well below the local “take-down target” of 450 per month.
“We are slowly increasing our veteran housing placements,” says Michael McConnell, San Diego’s regional lead for Zero: 2016. “The pace is frustrating. One main issue is the availability of rental units. Our clients often have issues that might make a property manager hesitant to rent to them. We have many veterans with rental assistance and a case manager without a front door to walk through. The second issue is coordination between all the [local] agencies. Even though we have improved coordination, there is still much that needs to be accomplished.”
What about good-faith help from the political realm? Many local leaders in the effort to end homelessness are fearful of criticizing the elected officials who might be key in getting funding for their programs.
“If a politician is prepared to put the muscle of the office into this effort that can be tremendously powerful,” says Jake Maguire, national spokesperson for Community Solutions and Zero: 2016. “New Orleans Mayor [Mitch] Landrieu went out and said which heads do I have to crack here to get us all together, and working together? The mayor set a clear goal.”
Has San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer set a clear goal? “The mayor remains committed to finding permanent solutions to homelessness with an emphasis on helping homeless veterans,” spokesperson Craig Gustafson wrote in an email. Gustafson notes that the city funded a 350-bed shelter, with 40 percent of beds dedicated to veterans, at an annual cost of $2 million, and the mayor also invested $400,000 in a Homeless Management Information System.
Few, however, think the mayor is willing to “crack some heads” to kick start a strong, willful push to end homelessness.
“Mayor Faulconer has definitely let homelessness fall by the wayside,” says San Diego mayoral candidate Gretchen Newsom. “It’s not a priority. This needs more attention all year, not just on Veteran’s Day, and yes, as mayor I would leverage all the regional assets and make this a main priority.”
Asked if San Diego lacks the political will in the mayor’s office to end veteran homelessness, McConnell, the local head of Zero: 2016 replied by email:
“We can always use more political will.”