REGION — Several local officials gathered recently to demand more solutions to better address the underlying causes of homelessness, such as drug addiction and mental illness, in San Diego County and statewide.
Supervisor Jim Desmond, Vista Mayor John Franklin, Oceanside Deputy Mayor Ryan Keim, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells and Solutions for Change founder Chris Megison held a joint press conference on June 2 in San Diego criticizing the Housing First-only model as failing to adequately deal with the state’s growing unsheltered population.
According to Desmond, the state’s homeless population has exploded over the past seven years largely due to Housing First, a low-barrier program that provides permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness.
Since 2019, homelessness in the Golden State has grown roughly 6% each year. As of 2022, 30% of all people in the United States experiencing homelessness resided in California, including half of all unsheltered people (115,491 in California; 233,832 in the US), according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
“Right now, it’s the only tool in the toolbox if you want state or federal dollars to come in and help for the homeless solutions,” Desmond said. “We need many other tools as well. While Housing First works for some, it’s not the panacea that everyone expects it to be. We need to humanely get people into help and programs.”
Only nonprofits and local governments using a Housing First model are eligible for state and federal grants. But groups like Solutions for Change that don’t utilize the same model are excluded from those monies and must rely on donations to fund their services and programs.
Megison said his nonprofit lost $600,000 in grants in 2016, and the cumulative total loss of contributions is in the millions. Solutions for Change was eventually forced to give up five of its complexes, which have since transitioned to Housing First, costing millions to construct and fund.
Megison chided the program for mixing individuals in recovery and children with others actively abusing drugs or alcohol, which Solutions for Change graduates called a lose-lose proposition.
“We need more of our electeds on both sides of the aisle,” Megison said. “It’s time. In my 30 years, there have been 12 plans to end homelessness that have failed. This one (Housing First) scares me the most because this one has so much money and is fully addressed at the surface … and ignores the underlying causes.”
As reported by CalMatters, the state’s Interagency Council on Homelessness issued a report showing the state spent nearly $10 billion on homeless services between 2018 and 2021, helping more than 571,000 people. But despite the increased number of people receiving services, California’s unhoused and unsheltered population continues to grow.
Wells, who spent his professional career working on psychiatric evaluations in hospitals, said Housing First was initially conceived and deployed as a program for those homeless individuals with mental illness but has swelled into the only state-sponsored model.
“They have to deal with the demon of drug and alcohol abuse … and it’s the same with homelessness,” Wells said. “This is a never-ending problem and until we have the political will to deal with that, we are going to continue to keep wasting money … and watching people die.”
Keim, a former Oceanside police officer, said the state must add options to meet the specific needs of all homeless individuals, especially those with disabilities, and incorporate a variety of options, including drug court, treatment facilities, mandatory drug and alcohol testing, workforce training and educational opportunities.
“Our goal is not to send somebody to jail or keep them there,” Keim said. “Our goal is to get them the treatment and services they need, and we need to have that ability.”