Whomever holds the position of homeless services coordinator for the city of San Diego faces a couple of problems when it comes to budget cuts: the management-level position lacks union protection, and social-service jobs, in general, lack a strong, behind-the-scenes lobbying voice when it comes to avoiding cutbacks.
City Manager Lamont Ewell's 2006 budget, unveiled last week, proposes eliminating the $115,688-a-year job in order to help close a $25-million gap in the city's general fund. Right now, the homeless services coordinator is Sharon Johnson, a redhead with a boisterous laugh, who, in her short tenure, has earned a reputation for building relationships with a broad range of people with a stake in homelessness issues-from wealthy developers to street-level advocates. Johnson has been the city's homeless services coordinator since January 2003. Prior, she was the affordable housing project manager for the city's redevelopment agency, and in the mid-'90s, she worked as a development director with St. Vincent de Paul.
Ewell's budget summary doesn't dispute that Johnson's position is a significant one-"key" is the word that's used. Johnson is the go-to person when it comes to federal, state and local policy affecting homeless services. She's also a liaison to community groups and programs such as the San Diego Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team (HOT).
"I'm on the street, and she's behind the scenes making sure everything is working correctly," said Sgt. Rick Schnell, who heads the HOT team. "Any time problems need to be addressed, she a liaison to the City Council for us."
San Diego's homeless-services providers aren't happy about the cut, said Tony Phillips, who heads the Alpha Project. "If this were the sort of personnel move that affected other large industries in San Diego, those industries would be very well represented" in budget negotiations, he said.
On June 13, the public will get a chance to weigh in on cuts affecting the department of Community and Economic Development, which houses the city's homeless services program as well oversees two other programs slated for cuts: the 6-to-6 before- and after-school program and the city's 11 community service centers.
Ronald Villa, the city's acting director of financial management, said Ewell's focus when crafting next year's budget was to maintain core city services. "It does not negate the fact that social services are important," Villa wrote in an e-mail to CityBeat, "however when balancing available revenue against... providing public safety and sanitation services, there is a point where every need cannot be funded."
Ernie Linares, deputy director of the department of community services, said he plans to cover for the lost staff position with the help of Kim Pearson-Brown, who oversees city contracts with homeless-service providers. Those contracts include the winter shelter program, Cortez Hill transitional housing for homeless families, the Neil Goode Day Center in East Village and a transitional housing program for senior citizens.
"We understand there's pain across the board," said Linares. "The day-to-day nuts and bolts of the contracts we'll be able to handle with existing staff. There's no doubt that Sharon has a lot of experience and knows all the players in this region and that will have an impact on the city's ability to react to higher-level policy."
Phillips said he's concerned that this is happening at an inopportune time. Coming available soon is Prop. 63 money-the "millionaire tax" passed by voters last year that's expected to bring in $40 million for mental health services countywide-and additional federal money being made available through a program to combat chronic homelessness.
"Those funds are intended at least in part to make a region-wide impact on untreated and undiagnosed cases of mental illness among unsheltered people," Phillips said. "There's so many things that demand that this isn't the right time for the city to try to think it can go without at least one person in its government that represents homelessness."
Indeed, Johnson has dedicated the past several months to helping coordinate the city's effort to draw up a so-called 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness (please see our March 2 issue for more on this effort). Under the plan, additional federal money for things like long-term housing is contingent on whether the city can show not only how money will be spent to get chronically homeless people off the street, but also how programs implemented under the plan will be held accountable. So far San Diego's been praised by the president's "homeless czar," Phil Mangano, for being innovative and on-track with its plan.Johnson helped organize the committee now putting the finishing touches on San Diego's 10-year plan. Dene Oliver, CEO of real-estate developer OliverMcMillan, heads that committee. Oliver said that while Johnson will be missed, he trusts Linares will step in "to continue providing the level of support that is necessary from the city."