May 3 2016 06:10 PM

Making sense of San Diego’s new raw data 

Photo by Michael McConnell
A homeless encampment in East Village

Homelessness—what if it was you experiencing it, or your brother, sister, mother, father, friend? What if you saw the plight of our vulnerable neighbors every day as you left your warm and safe downtown condo?

You'd be as frustrated as I am, frustrated by our inability to make the significant inroads we should be making locally. In 2015, San Diego was ranked fourth highest in the nation—at 8,742—in the number of people experiencing homelessness, only behind Seattle, Los Angeles and New York City.

Homelessness is a word with so many implications and stories behind it, and an issue that I've been passionate about helping to solve for many years. Having lived downtown, I've seen the heartbreaking struggles that our homeless neighbors face on a daily basis.

The problem also deeply resonates with me on a personal level, because my brother suffered from mental illness—a disease that afflicts many people experiencing homelessness—and I often meet people on the streets who remind me of him.

Since 2009, I've served on multiple local and regional homelessness advisory committees in San Diego and acted as the San Diego team leader for "25 Cities," a national initiative to end veteran and chronic homelessness. I am also an active member of the Regional Continuum of Care Council (RCCC), an organization that engages stakeholders in a community-based process to end homelessness.

The conclusion I've reached through my experience? It's simple: Not enough is being done to solve the problem.

When I was approached to contribute to CityBeat on a regular basis, I welcomed the opportunity to speak for those whose voices often go unheard. I will use this platform as another tool to continue to push the city and government agencies to implement policies and procedures that effectively address the problem, while advocating for the fair and humane treatment of people experiencing homelessness.

By now, you may have heard that the 2016 point-in-time count (PITC) numbers of people who are homeless in San Diego have been released. The overall numbers were virtually unchanged from 2015. While the PITC gets a lot of attention and is often the most quoted number, it is far from the most important piece of information in this large puzzle. Multiple factors can cause an inaccurate number, including how many volunteers have signed up to count people and the weather conditions, so we must be careful when deciding how much importance to place on it.

The PITC, conducted in the early-morning hours on one day each January, when a horde of volunteers fans out across the county and engages with people living on the streets, consists of two main components: the counts of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. The sheltered count, which is by far the most accurate part of the PITC, is determined by looking at the occupancy of San Diego County's shelters and temporary housing beds. The unsheltered count looks at those who are living on the street, in tents or other structures, and in cars.

The unsheltered count has problems: It does not tell us how long people have been homeless, and it's often unclear whether these same people were the ones counted last year. This information is vital, because it plays a key role in determining how well our homeless services system is functioning.

So, what should we be doing to remedy these problems? We should be implementing strategies that have been proven effective in other cities:

· Develop a by-name list: We need to develop a by-name list of the people counted, which would include specific information about each person's unique needs and how long they've been homeless. This approach would provide the information needed to prioritize resources for those people who need them the most.

· Create a coordinated entry system: This prevents duplication of services, which is both costly and ineffective, by creating a mechanism that allows all agencies across the county to access information about people experiencing homelessness in real time, and deploys resources quickly and effectively.

For instance, a military veteran might be experiencing homelessness and in need of help, but lacks the wherewithal or know-how to determine how to access the financial benefits to which he's entitled, has no way to get himself into housing (other than a shelter that he has to check himself into and out of every day) and no one to help guide him through the process.

A coordinated entry system will improve communication and coordination among providers, increase his access to services (with better results), and monitor his status and progress. This also results in better data quality, so we can benchmark and measure results.

The bottom line: We don't need to reinvent the wheel. Other cities across the nation have already shown these systems to be effective in the fight to end homelessness. Now is the time for San Diego to roll up its sleeves, take action and implement these procedures so that maybe next year, the number of formerly homeless people housed will be greater than those still living on the street.

In future columns, I'll cover the latest developments, setbacks and progress on this issue, and highlight some of the local "heroes" and "hooligans" in the homelessness arena.


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