To say the recently completed work of the San Diego City Council's Permanent Homeless Facility Task Force was a colossal failure would be unfair; at least it produced a plan, of sorts, to deal with the problem of chronic homelessness, and that is certainly cause for celebration. But to say it was a rousing success would be a gross overstatement.
The goal of the task force was to find a location Downtown for a permanent, year-round homeless shelter so that the annual misery of siting a temporary winter shelter could be avoided, but the plan ultimately produced seems to try to avoid having a shelter at all.
The first mistake was naming Kevin Faulconer as chair of the task force. Faulconer was chosen because Downtown is in his district, but that's precisely why he was a bad choice. He telegraphed his motivation during the first two meetings, when he talked about his desire to allow the police to again begin ticketing homeless people for sleeping in public. His goal seemed to be to simply rid the Downtown streets of homeless folks, for the benefit of his constituents, Downtown businesses and residents.
Under Faulconer's leadership, the task force seemed to start from scratch despite the humongous amount of work that's been done—locally and nationwide—on how best to help homeless people who deal with mental or physical illness and drug and alcohol abuse. Eventually, the task force got around to focusing on the so-called “housing first” model, under which people get a roof over their heads before their various problems are dealt with. It's easier to help people who aren't stressed about being knifed in the night.
The result of the task force's work was a call to developers and service providers to pitch proposals for a central intake facility and permanent housing for the chronically homeless, which would be paid for by government and private grants. On Tuesday, the City Council was asked to approve the request for proposals.
Rosemary Johnston, president of the county's Regional Task Force on the Homeless, was quick to point out that the document gives short shrift to the need to have an emergency shelter as part of the permanent solution. City Councilmember Toni Atkins, who should have been the task-force chair, echoed that complaint, and Councilmember Donna Frye urged city staff to incorporate Johnston's comments into the request for proposals.
On the flip side were Faulconer, Ben Hueso and Tony Young—judging from their remarks, their ultimate goal seems to be to simply get homeless people off the streets of their districts. They repeatedly trotted out the tired old concept of homelessness being a regional problem, which is politician-speak for “not in my backyard.” Homelessness isn't solved merely by dispersing homeless people throughout the region; it's solved by addressing the underlying individual causes of homelessness. We'd have been encouraged if the council members' comments were more about that.
In that light, we're certainly glad that a central intake facility is a key element of the plan, because that's where these underlying problems can be assessed on an individual level, whether it's access to medication to alleviate the symptoms of mental illness, help getting off the bottle or dismissal of illegal-lodging tickets or other homelessness-related legal trouble. And, of course, we agree that permanent housing is the Promised Land.
But we're worried that Downtown politics and/or convenience is brushing aside the need for a year-round emergency shelter. A person won't just walk into the intake facility and be escorted directly to his brand-new apartment. That person has be offered a place to sleep while permanent housing is being arranged. And permanent housing isn't going to work for everyone, so some folks are simply going to need a roof, four walls and a bed.
We're concerned that the powers-that-be are trying to avoid the politics of locating a permanent shelter, or that a site has already been identified that doesn't have room for a large shelter. Jennifer LeSar, a board member of the Centre City Development Corp., which will play a key role in this process, has her eye on a development at Ninth Avenue and Broadway. A project like that makes a certain amount of sense, because it includes supportive housing for people with chronic problems, but if it doesn't include a shelter, in our view, it's a nonstarter.
This was a decent first step, but there's much work ahead.