That was the perspective offered by a panel of social-service providers who fielded questions from Peninsula residents at a July 10 public forum hosted by District 2 City Councilman Ed Harris.
Following the forum, panelists Kalie Standish of Path-Connections Housing, Piedad Garcia of County Mental Health and Tom Theisen of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless spoke about the new direction the war against homelessness is taking.
“Homelessness is an extremely complex and complicated issue that affects all of us; the neighboring resident, visitors to our city, area businesses and even the individual who calls the streets their home,” said Standish.
Noting “stereotypes and stigmas exist,” Standish said, “One of the best ways to educate citizens in our community is to put a face on the issue and provide solutions that work.”
Standish said roughly 8,500 people countywide are homeless, with nearly half (an estimated 75 percent) suffering from serious mental illnesses.
“San Diego is home to the largest homeless veteran population in the country,” she said adding, “The marriage between homeless street outreach and housing is critical, as is support from law enforcement.”
Garcia said she thought the July 10 homelessness meeting was fruitful as a means of engaging the community.
“It’s to be expected that individuals had a very resonant voice and that they were concerned about safety and police issues,” she said.
Noting a “housing first model” has been adopted regionwide in addressing homelessness, Garcia said that’s being coupled with support services — substance abuse, mental illness, employment, health care and other components — meant to get people off the street and back into productive lives.
“The key is to address the individual needs of the homeless population, which falls into three different groups: those with substance abuse problems, the mentally ill and those who’ve found themselves out on the street due to their economic situation,” Garcia said.
“We need to get these individuals anchored and provide assessment of their needs,” she said.
Garcia said it’s becoming more widely acknowledged that “the city and county have a duty and responsibility to address homelessness by providing affordable housing.” That, she said, is a challenge in itself because San Diego is among the nation’s most expensive places to live.
But with local government, nonprofits and the public all working together, Garcia said she is convinced it will be possible to “put a dent” in the homeless situation.
“In the last couple of years, we’ve been able to take 1,100 individuals who were previously homeless off the streets,” said Garcia, who added there’s still a long way to go given the estimated population of 8,000 to 10,000 homeless countywide.
“It’s not an easy situation to solve,” she said. “We’re moving forward a step at a time. That may not be as quickly as the community wants.”
The community needs to weigh in on homelessness.
“We need the community voice to inform us, guide us, on what course to pursue,” Garcia said.
Theisen, board president of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, referred to the 25 Cities Initiative, a national effort to assist 25 communities in accelerating and aligning existing efforts toward ending veteran and chronic homelessness.
Theisen spoke of a new pilot homeless pilot program under way right now in downtown San Diego called the Coordinated Assessment and Housing Placement Program.
That program surveys the homeless in order to pinpoint their social-service needs.
Theisen said the homeless populations runs the gamut.
“There are some people who can find their way out of homelessness without any financial intervention, and some with severe disabilities who will never find their way out of homeless without substantial intervention,” Theisen said.
Theisen espoused that the objective of the new downtown pilot program is to “assess every individual homeless person to determine what their needs are, then match those individuals to the resources that meet those needs.”
Theisen said the goal of the downtown pilot program is to have “taken 250 people off the streets” by mid-September, providing them with housing and services proving the system works.
“This is not a test model,” Theisen said. “This is what we’re going to be doing throughout the entire community.”
Theisen concluded homelessness can be resolved “if we can figure out the right approach to do it.”