Opinion

San Diego Refines its Approach to Homelessness

By | Mar 4, 2013

Hamburger patties on the grill filled the air with a welcoming aroma, while hotel-sized shampoo bottles rested neatly on crisp bedsheets. This was the opening day of a new, cutting-edge homeless housing program in downtown San Diego called Connections Housing, developed by Affirmed Housing Group and PATH Ventures.

It took six years to get to this opening, from the formation of a vision task force in 2007 to the moving in of some of the city’s most chronically homeless citizens.

It took six years to create a center that tackles the growing issue of homelessness in California’s second-largest city. Six years to garner a majority of support from city leaders to allocate initial funding, and to find a qualified homeless agency and developer willing to risk public scrutiny and leverage additional revenue to build a multimillion-dollar structure. Six years to convince a leery neighborhood that such a facility would actually reduce homelessness in the area, not attract it.

Was six years too long? In this polarized environment, where anything that even hints at politics is delayed or shot down for being too extreme, building a structure to house hundreds of chronically homeless and disabled people rarely succeeds.

But in San Diego’s case, six years later, success has been found as the first person moves off the streets.

Still, many in the community will criticize this, and any homeless housing development, as not being enough given that the region is home to nearly 10,000 homeless individuals.

How can a development that houses 223 people solve the city’s homelessness problem? Connections Housing is not the sole answer to homelessness in the region; rather, it is one part of a larger strategy to address homelessness called the Ending Homelessness in Downtown San Diego Campaign.

City leaders, along with the San Diego Housing Commission and leaders of Connections Housing, have created a new approach to addressing local homelessness that doesn’t only help a few hundred people living on the streets, but actually reduces homelessness in the neighborhood that hosts the facility.

The hope is that other neighborhoods wanting to reduce local homelessness will replicate the approach.

Traditionally, when a homeless shelter is completed and the sheets are finally tucked into the beds, the doors open and thousands of people struggling with homelessness flock to the shelter like it’s a mad game of musical chairs. But, in many cases, it’s more like “musical beds,” resulting in thousands of people stuck on the streets with many still lingering in the neighborhood around the shelter.

In Connections Housing’s approach, however, outreach to those on the streets has been strategically targeted toward people sleeping in the area around the building and those who have been stranded on the streets for years, most of whom are struggling with long-term disabilities. For months now, outreach teams have been methodically preparing people on the streets for their new housed lives.

The goal is to ensure that the neighborhood surrounding the development benefits from a reduction of homelessness.

Integrated street outreach teams – including PATH’s case workers, Downtown Partnership’s outreach and the San Diego Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team – will continue to monitor the streets around the facility in order to prioritize people who have been homeless for years, encourage people to access Connections Housing’s services and make the streets safer by targeting criminal activity.

When people on the streets choose to access services at Connections Housing, they are literally embraced by 35 San Diego service agencies that will be based out of the PATH Depot, a multiservice center located within Connections Housing. Strategically linked to these services is a comprehensive, federally-qualified health center operated by Family Health Centers of San Diego, with a goal to reduce costs to public health systems by treating the most frequent users.

Long-term housing, rather than simply providing “three hots and a cot” (meals and a bed), is the real goal of Connections Housing, where Alpha Project and PATH will be providing intensive services geared toward moving people into permanent apartments.

Connections Housing is housing, not shelter, with an emphasis on finding permanent solutions rather than temporary ones. Although Connections Housing may look like a homeless shelter at first glance, the fact that outreach teams target neighborhood homelessness, that health care and permanent housing are priorities and that several dozen agencies are coordinating efforts on site makes this new approach a model for other communities in the region.

When outsiders think of San Diego, they envision a city filled with world-class universities, gorgeous sunsets and renowned tourist destinations. Let them also see a community that is making serious efforts to reduce its homelessness.

This article was first published in the San Diego Union Tribune on Feb. 28, 2013.