Sept. 29 2010 10:32 AM

Homelessness initiative promises to move 125 people off the street in a month; we're stoked

Volunteers survey the homeless in East Village
Photo by Kelly Davis
I spent a few hours two Sundays ago at a training for volunteers participating in San Diego's "Registry Week"-an effort to survey people living on the streets of Downtown to identify the most vulnerable and get them into housing. At one point, Becky Kanis, director of innovations for the New York-based housing and social-services provider Common Ground, who was in San Diego to help oversee the survey, brought up the issue of bureaucratic hurdles to getting people off the street.

"Throw those things out the window," she said. "As many as possible." That might make some people cringe, but look at the data the survey collected: There are more than 1,000 people who are homeless Downtown-at least 200 more than a January count revealed. Modest estimates show that these folks ran up more than $23 million in medical bills last year. Research shows, overwhelmingly, that getting a person who's chronically homeless into housing cuts costs like these by at least half.

San Diego needed someone like Kanis back in 2004 when the regional Plan to End Chronic Homelessness (PTECH) was rolled out. At that point, PTECH's housing-first focus was considered a new approach. The theory behind housing first is that people living on the street are more likely to take advantage of services if they're in a stable housing situation. PTECH got folks talking about homelessness and what needed to be done, which was great. But, for three or four years, nothing came of it. Why? Just look at how difficult it is to site San Diego's annual winter homeless shelter. Look at the delays to getting final approval for an innovative housing-and-services program proposed for Downtown. PTECH became a convenient thing for too many decision makers to point to whenever the subject of homelessness came up: Well, I supported the Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.

It's not like San Diego doesn't know how to be innovative. In the late '90s, three programs started here that are held up as models nationwide: homeless court, designed to deal with the unique problems of homelessness in the criminal justice system; Stand Down, the annual weekend-long event that provides shelter and services to homeless vets; and the San Diego Police Department's Serial Inebriate Program, which offers the option of treatment rather than jail time to homeless chronic alcoholics. But when it comes to providing housing and shelter, San Diego has lagged.

While the survey that Common Ground helped organize here-and in roughly three-dozen other cities-has a goal of breaking down the problem into manageable sets of data (finding out, for instance, the number of homeless seniors who might qualify for housing vouchers), it's also an attempt to put names, faces and stories to homelessness.

"Seeing the homeless as ‘other'"-as less than human-"is part of what allows it to perpetuate," Kanis told me.

Last week, roughly 200 volunteers, in teams of four or five with a mental health professional as a team leader, spent three days surveying all of Downtown, block by block from 4 to 6 a.m. Out of the roughly 1,040 people approached, 738 agreed to participate in the survey. Around one-quarter of those surveyed-275 people-were found to have health conditions that put them at a high risk of death. The organizations working on the registry-the Downtown San Diego Partnership, United Way, San Diego Housing Commission, Centre City Development Corp., Dept. of Veterans Affairs-promised that 125 of those folks will be moved into housing within 30 days.

(Running parallel to the Downtown program is the United Way's Project 25, which was rolled out last month. Similar to L.A.'s Project 50, Project 25's focus is on finding the 25 people who run up the highest tabs in the criminal-justice and emergency-services systems and moving them into housing.)

The two women who brought Kanis and her team to San Diego-affordable-housing developer Jennifer LeSar and attorney Robin Munro- said a goal of Registry Week was community buy-in. In looking for volunteers to help conduct the survey, they reached out to Downtown homeowners associations and community groups-the folks who normally line up to speak out against homeless services moving into their neighborhood. The point, Munro said, was to help Downtown residents channel frustration into action as well as interact with the homeless in a way they might not have before. They also invited elected officials to participate-among them county Supervisor Ron Roberts, who admitted to me that this was the first time he's gone out and talked to homeless folks.

"We've been looking at this problem from 80,000 feet above," he said.

I tagged along with a group on Monday morning. The first person we found was Sonya, a tiny, fragile woman who was rolling out her sleeping bag near the corner of 13th and G streets. Barely able to communicate, she declined to be surveyed.

Like too many people living on the street, she was clearly mentally ill and unable to answer even the most basic questions. When it comes time to pull up names and photos to move people into housing, Sonya might as well not exist.

"Our guess is some of the most vulnerable people out there are the ones who don't appear on the survey," Kanis told me. She said the goal is to help communities build an infrastructure so that the surveys become a regular practice and more people make it into the registry.

"People taking action generates more will and more momentum," she said.

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