By Matthew Manosh and Miriam Raftery
Photo: Outreach team members speak with homeless person in local park
May 22, 2022 (Lemon Grove) – The 2022 Point in Time Count of homeless people reveals some shocking statistics. While countywide the rate rose 10% from January 2020 to January 2022, in San Diego’s unincorporated areas the number was up 540.7% to a total of 173 individuals. The numbers also soared in several East County communities including Lemon Grove (up 72.2% to 31 individuals), El Cajon (up 68.8% to 1,308 people, though most are in shelters), and Santee (up 488% to 147), Lakeside (up 162.5% to 63 people). Some communities fared better; Spring Valley had 38.1% fewer homeless people (60) and La Mesa held relatively steady, up just 1.9%, and Alpine had just one person homeless person identified.
County ramps up efforts
“Your county is committed…like it has never been before,” Nathan Fletcher, Chairman of the County Board of Supervisors, said at a recent forum on homelessness at the Lemon Grove Library on hosted by the East County Homeless Task Force and Thrive Lemon Grove. “There is not a zip code or a community anywhere in San Diego that is not impacted by homelessness.”
Fletcher outlined plans to help both the homeless and communities, asking support from residents, which are detailed below. Other panelists also addressed new efforts to reduce homelessness in East County.
Moderator Bonnie Baranoff, Consulting Program Manager with the East County Homeless Task Force posed questions of the four panelists:
- Tamar Kholer, Chief Executive Officer, Regional Task Force on Homelessness
- Karina Hernandez, Housing Program Manager for East County with Home Start, a nonprofit
- Lieutenant Pat McEvoy with the Lemon Grove Sheriff’s substation
- Nathan Fletcher, Chairman, San Diego County Board of Supervisors
Kohler said San Diego County has one of the largest continuum care programs among the 400 nationwide. A continuum of care means bringing together everybody that has “skin in the game,” she explained. Locally, the group’s board (formerly co-chaired by Fletcher) includes elected officials, service providers, health professionals, educators, law enforcement, youth providers, domestic violence experts and more.
Point in Time Count
The annual Point in Time County done early one morning each January. Volunteers count as many homeless as they can find who are living on the streets ,in vehicles, and in shelters. The volunteers also talk with each homeless person to learn why they are homeless and what they need.
“It’s humbling and it’s powerful because you don’t think someone would want to talk at 5 in the morning…and actually they are really grateful that we take the time to speak to them, hear about their experience and be charged with solutions,” Kohler said.
For example, a person may be homeless due to loss of a job, health issues mental health issues, a choice between repairing a car to go to work or paying rent, or more. A person with disabilities or health needs may face special challenges, for example, while someone with addiction issues may need rehab.
Baranoff said the counts show that East County has the highest number of people experiencing homelessness in our region, outside of the city of San Diego.
Kohler praised Lemon Grove’s participation in the count, stating, “Communities like Lemon Grove turn it into something powerful and impactful.”
Hernandez explained, “One of the things people don’t understand about this population is that homeless in East County are actually from East County,” adding that many have ties in communities and want to leave the area.
Court ruling prompts push for shelters
Lieutenant McEvoy explained that due to a court decision, Martin v. Boise, cities and counties can no longer clear homeless camps or arrest people merely for being homeless if there are not enough shelter beds available. “It’s a different story if there is shelter available and they refuse to take shelter,” he said, “but at the moment in East County, that is not an option that we have available.”
Hence the new push by the county to collaborate with cities, nonprofits and other groups to create shelters with services, as well as safe parking locations and more.
Fletcher explains county’s new efforts to help cities address homelessness
“The true root cause of homelessness is poverty,” Supervisor Fletcher noted, adding, “We have a society where people who work full time still live in poverty,” adding that this is exacerbated by high housing costs and lack of protection for renters. Some are combat veterans who have endured trauma in conflict, said Fletcher, a veteran, adding that but for the Grace of God, “That could be me.”
The impacts of homelessness are significant on neighborhoods and small businesses, as well as on the homeless themselves, Fletcher said.
As Chairman of the Supervisors, he is leading efforts to have the county take the lead on behavioral health, mental health and substance abuse – efforts he indicated prior Supervisors largely ignored.
The County is seeking partnerships with cities, in which cities provide a location and the county funds service, for example, with nonprofits and faith-based groups also assisting. In the past three years, Fletcher said, “The County has been making an unprecedented investment—the largest increases ever in investment in behavioral health” and more. Some of these programs have rolled out and others are still in the works.
“I also know a lot of the cities, especially the smaller ones, may not have the money tu buy the shelter,” Fletcher acknowledged. So the county is offering $10 million dollar grants to cities “who are able to provide quick solutions and get safe parking, safe camping and shelters…I can give you a list of 47 other things that we have done.”
“Shelter solves sleep. Housing solves homelessness,” said Fletcher. But he said siting shelters is costly and takes time. So he wants to see temporary steps such as safe parking and safe camping. These options can work for people who don’t feel safe in shelters, such as some elderly individuals, and for those with pets not allowed in shelters.
He also voiced frustration. “There’s always opposition,” he said of efforts to provide locations for the homeless to get services, mental health and drug treatment as well as shelter. “My plea to everyone is we can’t simultaneously say that you have to deal with homelessness and get people off the streets – and turn around and oppose every single thing that actually gets people off the streets. I know nobody wants safe parking near them or safe camping near them, but you also don’t want the folks on the streets…we’ve got to get a way to get a yes on some of these things,” he told the audience, adding, “We will work with the cities to make it safe and secure and not have it be a blight.”
The County has recently opened crisis stabilization centers to help those with substance abuse crises, often avoiding the need to overburden already crowded emergency rooms. “1,083 individuals as of today have been helped by our mobile response teams,” said Fletcher. Said that the county had “a policy in place for 20 years” that did not provide harm reduction, i.e. treatment. “We reversed that policy and now launched a comprehensive harm reduction strategy to get people into treatment.
Sheriff’s department supports efforts
Homestart is contracted with Lemon Grove to do outreach 20 hours or more a week, doing things such as taking homeless people to the DMV to get a California ID card, as well as a Social Security card and copy of their birth certificate so that they can quality for housing.
The Homestart team members go out with the Sheriff, public health nurses and county eligibly workers twice a month to help the homeless, though there are often long waits as the number of homeless has increased..
In addition, PERT (Pscyhiatric Emergency Response Teams) are also now dispatched regionally to respond to incidents with mentally ill homeless people if they don’t pose a threat of violence to themselves or others. McEvoy praised the effort as helpul to law enforcement.
“It’s not always a criminal justice issue or enforcement issue,” Lt. McEvoy noted. “Do we really need to make someone’s life worse when we don’t need to – and we can really offer them help?”
He also noted that some homeless have wandered into Lemon Grove’s substation after being put on a trolley in San Diego to get them out of downtown, only to wind up lost.
Baranoff, the moderator, concluded by praising the increased engagement process since November 2020, during the pandemic, as “very successful.”
As homeless advocates learn more and work to develop solutions in our communities, she said, “Really it comes down to housing the homeless…That’s it. Get people off the streets.”
To those present at the forum, she urged, “Keep doing what you’re doing – showing up, learning and advocating for these missions.”