When San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders vetoed funding for the city's winter homeless shelter two weeks ago, he promised he'd find a way to pay for the 21-year-old program without dipping into the city's general operating fund.
Last Friday, Sanders announced his plan: He'd already allocated $201,000 from a citywide pot of federal grant money intended for social services and neighborhood improvement. The Center City Development Corp., the governing body that oversees downtown's redevelopment, plans to take over a $344,200 loan from the San Diego Housing Commission, freeing up that money for the Housing Commission to spend on the shelter. The United Way of San Diego County, one of the region's largest nonprofit social-services providers, chipped in the remaining $129,800. With that total, $675,000, some 200 homeless adults and 150 homeless veterans will have a place to sleep from at least Dec. 15 through March 15.
It's a one-year solution for a program that's never had a dedicated funding source. Most recently, the San Diego Housing Commission paid for the shelter with federal grant money, but last year the Department of Housing and Urban Development put restrictions on how that money could be used, forcing the Housing Commission to dip into its dangerously low emergency reserves to pay for the shelter. In October 2006, the Housing Commission told the mayor he'd have to find another funding source.
At a press conference the mayor held Friday, there was talk about the need for a long-term solution, like a permanent city-run homeless-services facility, as opposed to a temporary tent structure and its year-to-year piecemeal funding. United Way CEO Doug Sawyer talked about "shared responsibility and future collaborative efforts" on matters involving the homeless, and several of the city officials backing the mayor brought up the Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, a regionwide effort-and part of a national program-to address the needs of a sub-population of homeless individuals who've been living on the street for at least a year and who have a co-existing condition such as mental illness or a physical disability. Studies have found that it would cost far less to put those individuals in permanent housing with supportive services than to leave them on the street, which makes them vulnerable to ending up in jail or emergency rooms. The underlying goal of the plan is to increase the region's supportive-housing stock, in effect decreasing the burden of the chronically homeless on social-welfare programs. Of San Diego County's roughly 10,000 homeless individuals, 1,383 are considered chronically homeless.
Collaborative efforts, regional plans, shared responsibility. So where was the county of San Diego last Friday?
It's probably not a big deal that no one from county government was at the press conference. At press time, a city spokesperson was still looking into whether the county was even asked to help the cash-strapped city fund the shelter this year. If anything, the absence is symbolic, indicative of a less-than-collaborative relationship between city and county leaders when it comes to the issue of homelessness. The county, for instance, has yet to vote to support the chronic-homelessness plan-something the San Diego City Council did unanimously last October at a meeting devoted solely to homelessness issues.
CityBeat contacted each of the county supervisors to ask whether they consider it their responsibility to help fund the city's homeless shelter and also to find out when they'd be voting on the plan. Pam Slater-Price and Greg Cox didn't respond at all; Supervisor Dianne Jacob didn't respond to the question about the homeless plan but did say that operating shelters are "the discretion of each of the region's cities.... The county is already partnering with cities for program costs and cities need to do their part." (Indeed, the county Department of Health and Human Services sends counselors and a public-health nurse over to the city's winter shelter.)
A spokesperson for Supervisor Bill Horn told CityBeat to direct the question about the chronic-homelessness plan to Supervisor Ron Roberts, chair of the board. Roberts did not respond by press time, despite repeated calls to his office.
San Diego City Councilmember Toni Atkins, who's recently been in touch with Roberts (whose district includes downtown San Diego), said she's not sure why the supervisors haven't docketed the plan for consideration.
"I find it curious that the county has taken a pass on supporting the plan," she said in an e-mail. "This should be a countywide effort.... It only makes sense."
The Plan to End Chronic Homelessness will happen in phases, with some steps requiring approval from the region's governing bodies. Among an increase in supportive housing, the plan envisions a joint city/county homeless-services authority, similar to what's in place in L.A., where an independent government unit oversees funding and service contracts, monitors the effectiveness of those services, as well as keeps counts of the homeless population and provides outreach and crisis intervention, among other things.
Several people CityBeat interviewed for this story said such an authority was badly needed. It was difficult to get anyone to comment on the record about the need for a better working relationship between the county and its largest city when it comes to the homeless-many feared criticism would put the supervisors on the defensive. But one person who's familiar with the Plan to End Chronic Homelessness said the joint-powers authority might not be realized if the supervisors never vote to support the plan in the first place.
The county, according to its own policies, is legally obligated to provide "basic health and supportive services to the region's homeless"; cities throughout the county are expected to make "fair share" contributions to help out their own homeless residents. The county administers tens of millions of dollars in federal and state housing and social-services grants each year, allocating money to private providers for homeless-targeted services like transitional housing, job training, drug and alcohol treatment and mental-health services. The county does not operate its own homeless shelter (nor is there a county general hospital), but it does provide funding for a winter hotel-voucher program ($225,000) and, in 2005, spent $125,700 to shelter families with children.
According to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, which puts together an annual report on public funding for homeless services, in 2005 (the most recent data available), the county spent 2 percent of its Community Development Block Grant money on homeless programs (discretionary federal dollars that are allocated to all city and county governments to assist low- and moderate-income residents). In 2005, the city of San Diego spent 4.3 percent of its CDBG money on homeless services.
There's long been a push for a better relationship between the city of San Diego, where roughly half of the region's homeless reside, and the county. In 2000, then-San Diego City Councilmember Valerie Stallings asked her fellow council members to pass a resolution asking the county to help fund a shelter program for homeless families with children and to "accept the responsibility of providing shelter for the homeless and take action." The council unanimously supported the resolution. Stallings, who's currently the governmental affairs coordinator for St. Vincent de Paul, said the lack of city/county collaboration that prompted the resolution seven years ago is still present today.
"I think the county still doesn't do what it should," she said. Social services "is supposed to be their job, not the city's. I would like to see the county become more of a partner in assuming the responsibility."
Shortly after that resolution, a joint city/county homeless task force was formed with the goal of "solutions through collaboration." The task force was to comprise two City Council members and two county supervisors. The task force met twice in 2000. Atkins, who was elected to the City Council that year, was appointed to the task force by Mayor Dick Murphy in 2001.
"When I was first appointed, I was excited [and] looking forward to meeting," she said. She asked her staff to find out when meetings were held-she was told infrequently-and so she waited. And waited.
"I've never been summoned to a meeting," she said.
But she sees a silver lining: At least such a task force exists. "I guess we have a vehicle in place to work with the county!"
Eric Wolff contributed reporting for this story.