If you'd told us that now-former San Diego City Councilmember Brian Maienschein would, following his tenure as a politician, be hired to an important leadership position in the battle to combat homelessness, we'd have thought you were pulling our leg. So, imagine our surprise when we learned last week that Maienschein has been named by United Way of San Diego County as the organization's “commissioner” of the Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.
Unfortunately, this is not a joke.
CityBeat has been closely covering homelessness throughout all of its six-plus years in existence—mostly through the work of associate editor Kelly Davis—and Maienschein has been a member of the City Council that entire time. We never got the impression that he considered homelessness an important issue.
The two now-former members of the City Council who did regularly demonstrate a commitment to the cause are Jim Madaffer and Toni Atkins—Madaffer though his support of San Diego's Alpha Project and Atkins as part of her overall work on the issue of affordable housing. We can't recall Maienschein uttering so much as a peep about homelessness. So, what on Earth is he suddenly doing as head of a regional effort to help the people who are the most deeply, chronically mired in it?
It would make sense if Maienschein were hired to lobby city officials, because he has the access, but, appropriately, there is a law prohibiting someone like Maienschein from lobbying during the first year after leaving the city's employ. Mayor Jerry Sanders, who used to be the United Way's CEO, suggested that Maienschein talk to current United Way CEO Doug Sawyer and San Diego Foundation CEO Bob Kelly—because Sanders knew Maienschein was interested in working in the nonprofit sector—but Sanders “was not asked about this hire and was not aware of the selection in advance,” mayoral spokesperson Rachel Laing told us. We asked if Sanders considered Maienschein qualified for the job, but we didn't get an answer.
Maienschein's hire is an insult to everyone who feels passionately that homelessness is among American society's most egregious shortcomings and to everyone who has tried to do something about it here in San Diego—whether it's by simply handing a slice of pizza to someone on the street or by working hard on the campaign to provide permanent shelter.
Maienschein's job will be to lead implementation of the region's Plan to End Chronic Homelessness (PTECH). “It will entail working with local officials, social-service agencies, community groups, nonprofits and the private sector to fulfill the goal of ending chronic homelessness” in San Diego County, a United Way spokesperson told us.
That's an important job, one that should have been filled by someone who'd already been involved with the PTECH or someone with experience in nonprofit social services. Wrangling government and private funding in the nonprofit world can be considered a complicated science. This is a position for someone who's serious about social services and not for someone who needs a post-politics soft landing and is interested in dabbling in the exciting world of nonprofits.
To say that we're not terribly impressed with the local effort so far to house chronically homeless men and women and address the problems—mental illness, substance abuse, physical disabilities—that prevent them from joining mainstream society would be a gross understatement. Other large metropolitan regions, under their own plans to end chronic homelessness, have already built hundreds of units of permanent supportive housing—apartments that come with the services necessary to help get folks back on track. San Diego County's PTECH got off to an ambitious start—a 2005 draft of the plan had a stated goal of putting an end to chronic homelessness in the region by 2012.
But, since then, the plan's languished; there's been a lot of talk, far too many presentations, but not much action. The United Way has long needed a point person whose sole job is getting the PTECH moving forward.
But in our opinion—and in the opinion of many people we've talked to in the past week who are involved in housing and homelessness issues—Maienschein's not that guy. He hasn't exactly made a name for himself as an advocate for bringing social services to the disadvantaged. This was a bizarre hire for the United Way, one that doesn't give us reason for renewed optimism.