County affirms public health crisis

Board wants to create unified approach to region’s homelessness

By Gary Warth

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously declared homelessness a public health crisis Tuesday, a move the board said will create a more unified, regional approach to the problem.

In another unanimous vote, supervisors also approved a $3 million pilot program to provide $500 a month to 220 seniors to help them avoid homelessness over 18 months.

“A public health approach to homelessness will help align efforts, share resources, and more purposefully help address the root causes of housing instability and health on a large scale with a humane response,” said Vice Chair Nora Vargas, who with Chairman Nathan Fletcher introduced the policy.

“Today, our county takes a significant step, by serving as a regional convener, bringing cities, business organizations and service providers together in a collaborative effort to develop innovative, sustainable, long-term solutions to prevent and end homelessness.”

While the declaration itself does not create new programs or generate new funding, supervisors said it would elevate homelessness as a regional issue and call attention to the health aspects of the problem.

A count conducted in February found 8,427 homeless people throughout the county, with more than half living without shelter.

The Regional Task Force on Homelessness, which conducts the count, found 14 percent of homeless people have chronic health conditions, 18 percent have mental health conditions, 12 percent have physical disabilities, 13 percent have substance use disorders and about 25 percent are 55 and older.

Following the vote, Father Joe’s Villages President and CEO Deacon Jim Vargas issued a statement in support of the declaration.

“Together, we can solve the crisis of homelessness, but we must move out of disciplinary and jurisdictional silos to collaborate and work as partners with measurable goals, he said. “This declaration is a key step to drive further collaboration between our local jurisdictions, homeless services providers, health care professionals, and others to develop resources and a comprehensive approach.”

During the meeting, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s chief of staff Nick Serrano spoke in support of the declaration and said all levels of government should work together on the issue.

Jordan Beane, director of policy and communications for the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, called the declaration incredibly important.

”One thing is clear,” Beane said. “Simply being without a home is a dangerous health crisis.”

Homeless advocate Martha Sullivan called into the meeting in support of the policy and said the county Medical Examiner’s Office had reported 495 deaths of homeless people in 2021, up from 334 in 2020.

Fletcher said the county has become more involved than ever in working on solutions to homelessness, but more needs to be done regionally.

“The easiest thing in the world is for folks to stand up and say, ‘Not here, not there, not this program or not this program,’” he said about the resistance some communities have put up to shelters and services. “The hard, difficult work is putting in place things that, while imperfect, will actually help get people off the street and get people the services and help and support they need.”

Most callers and public speakers were in support of the public health declaration and of the rent subsidy program for seniors facing homelessness.

Providing some background on the subsidy proposal, Serving Seniors President and CEO Paul Downey spoke before the board and said his organization had released a needs assessment report last year and found many seniors said another $300 a month would stabilize their housing situation. Downey said 80 percent of 400 seniors interviewed in the assessment said they faced housing instability because of economic reasons.

Beane told supervisors that the latest count by the Regional Task Force on Homelessness found about 25 percent of homeless people on the street were 55 or older, and the oldest person counted this year was 87.

“When it’s just a few hundred dollars, we should do everything we can to fill that gap,” he said about the rent subsidy. “The easiest way to solve homelessness is to make sure nobody experiences it in the first place.”

Sullivan, the homeless advocate who had supported the public health declaration, also called in to voice support of the subsidy program, but said she was disappointed that payments would not begin until March.

“The urgency is dire,” she said. “These folks don’t have until March. There’s a lot of folks who are going to become homeless waiting for this. And I’m very dismayed it’s only 220 households.”

To qualify for the subsidy, an applicant must be at least 55 years old and the head of household. The applicant’s household income may not exceed 50 percent of the area median income, and the household must be severely rent-burdened, which is defined as paying more than 50 percent of household income toward housing.

During the pilot program, preference will be given to applicants 60 years or older whose income is at or below 30 percent of the area median income and to seniors who live within one of the 39 Health Equity Zip Codes, areas identified as having some of the poorest access to healthy living conditions.