By Miriam Raftery
April 1, 2022 (San Diego) – In his State of the County address, Nathan Fletcher, Chairman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors cited homelessness as the top challenge to be addressed as the region moves forward out of the pandemic, unveiling a new plan to help local cities help homeless people.
He also unveiled a plan to help families afford activities in county parks, as well as addressing pandemic, the economy, housing needs, childcare, the opioid crisis, wildfire safety and more.
“For too long, the response to our homelessness crisis has been inaction, empty promises or just indifference.” He noted that people demand action, yet often oppose solutions proposed, which has resulted in camps cleared out when people have nowhere to go and people with mental illness having no long-term plan.
“Supervisor Anderson is leading the push to identify locations in East County,” said Fletcher, a Democrat, praising his Republican colleague. “Joel understands you can’t push the problem from one area to another – you’ve got to deal with it…So tonight, I am announcing our county government is providing all 18 cities in our county a standard agreement to rapidly open homeless and support sites without delay.
If cities provide structures and operations, the county will provide behavioral health services. Fletcher also said the county will make funds available to cities with limited resources to kick start efforts toward shelters, safe parking and safe camping. “If your city is ready to act on homelessness, your county government is here for it,” Fletcher affirmed.
Fletcher cited several recent accomplishments to help unsheltered people, including ‘unprecedented investment into long-term solutions” as well as launch of Mobile Crisis Response Teams that have already helped 941 individuals. Other actions include new crisis stabilization centers across the county to help those with mental illness or addiction get long-term support, nearly 500 at-risk youths placed in supportive housing last year, and 1,420 individuals helped to find permanent homes. He announced new shelters and services in San Diego, but noted that the problem is countywide.
Supervisor Anderson issued this response. “I appreciate Chair Fletcher’s support for a regional approach that focuses on the root causes of homelessness and sheltering solutions for East County. This will help get folks off the streets instead of sweeping the problem under the rug. I am confident that the Board of Supervisors can work together in this coming year to address East County’s most pressing needs, including the issue of homelessness.
Chairman Fletcher acknowledged hardships faced during the pandemic, but added, “For all the challenges around us, we also see signs of real progress.” :
He praised the community for coming together to mount one of the most effective COVID-19 responses in the nation, noting that San Diego County has over 93% of residents vaccinated and one of the lowest death rates in the nation. Besides saving lives, the county provided funds to help businesses, workers and families and COVID restrictions locally have been lifted.
The economy and wage
“Together, we are rebuilding our economy,” he said, noting that small businesses “took an immense hit and need our support moving forward. But working families are now feeling a whole new kind of pain. The cost of everything is out of control. Gas. Utilities. Rent. Even food.”
Fletcher said he understands, recalling growing up in a working class factory town where he saw factories closing and jobs offshored. He praised colleagues for voting unanimously to make San Diego the first county in the state to support the Governor’s plan for rebates to consumers hit by high gas prices. That motion also supports a repeal of the gas tax temporarily that thus far Sacramento leaders have not adopted.
“But a rebate alone won’t build back the middle class,” said Fletcher. He indicated the county passed a Working Families Ordinance to provide apprenticeship training and union wages on projects on county land. Next up, he hopes to see a living wage enacted and to overturn Project Labor Agreements.
“More unionized workers means a stronger economy. Stronger families,” he said. “It also means less homeless—I’ve never met a senior with a pension living on the streets…I say in San Diego we should fight to ensure that no one who works full time lives in poverty.”
Housing focus in urban areas, not wildland fire risk places
He cited efforts to boost construction of homes, particularly affordable housing, noting that this year the county is on pace to issue over 1,600 building permits for new housing in the unincorporated areas—a 50% increase over last year, with another 4,000 unis green lighted to be built soon. By contrast, prior to Fletcher’s tenure, the county had issued only 600 units a year on average for the prior seven years.
But he noted, “Our region’s housing cannot be met in the unincorporated areas alone – too rural, too much fire danger. Which is why we are taking swift action to convert underutilized county-owned land in urban areas into housing,” adding that 1,000 units are underway with more locations being made available soon for affordable housing.
The San Diego Foundation has pledged a $10 million donation to jump start this effort.
Childcare and help for youths
Next month, Supervisors will consider a $10 million investment to expand childcare for all of San Diego. “We partnered with Congresswoman Sara Jacobs to secure $1 million in federal funding to help smaller childcare facilities expand,” said Fletcher.
But he adds, “We need Congress to act” to do more. He criticized those in Congress who have opposed help for parents in need of childcare, adding that some don’t understand that “the lack of affordable childcare is one of the biggest barriers to women’s success in the workplace. Or that the cost of pre-school is now often as much as the cost of a mortgage.”
He announced he will call a special conference for Supervisors on this issue co-chaired by the Labor Council and Chamber of Commerce. “It is time to align behind a regional plan which must include both affordable childcare and better pay for childcare workers.”
Fletcher also cited a need to “do more to help children who face neglect and abuse, noting that in the past three years, all 88 recommendations from a community working group have been implemented to reform the county’s child welfare system.
Next, he wants to focus on supporting families before they reach a crisis state, noting that two of his family’s five children are adopted. “Adoption has given us the greatest gift imaginable,” he said, then urged people to consider adopting or becoming foster parents to help children in need. He said foster families of color and those who will embrace LGTB youths are especially needed, as well as families willing to accept siblings and teens.
He pledged to reenergize Faith in Motion, a county partnership with faith groups such as churches to recruit new foster families and mobilize congregations to provide clothing childcare and prayers for those families. So far, congregations have signed up, “but we want more,” Fletcher said, then revealed, “I know these kids in need. Because I was one. And we have to do everything we can to do right by them,” recalling his own childhood with a “violent and unstable biological father…”
Refugees, immigrants and equality
He voiced continuing commitment to fight for racial justice and equality for everyone and to embracing immigrants and refugees “fleeing oppression and tyranny. We have welcomed those from Central America, Africa, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine. But we need the outpouring of support we see for Ukrainian refugees…for ALL refugees,” Fletcher said.
He aims to bolster efforts with federal partners to establish a “permanent shelter for those fleeing violence” and pledged to partner with Vice Chair Nora Vargas, a Latina immigrant, in this effort
The county outlawed untraceable ghost guns that Fletcher called “among the biggest threats to public safety today.”
He pledged support to work to continue improving public safety while also voicing appreciation for law enforcement, as well as a commitment to civil rights and building trust between law enforcement and communities. “We fight for both, because that’s how we truly build a better San Diego that’s safe,” he said.
Over 1,000 San Diegans died of opioid overdoses last year, a 16% increase over 2020, but the rate has been rising annually for a decade. He cited the overdose death of Alex Nava, a 23-year-old skateboarder with an injury that led to an oxycontin prescription, addiction, and an overdose death. Alex’s mother, Lisa Nava, founded the Addiction Awareness Initiative to support families impacted by addiction.
“Our county is among the leading plaintiffs in the legal action against Purdue Pharma, the drug company that knowingly addicted millions of Americans,” Fletcher noted. “We stand on the verge of a settlement that could bring $100 million dollars to our County to repair the damage they’ve done.
To do that means starting with cutting off supplies, expanding use of Naloxene to reverse overdoses and getting peer support specialists to anyone in an emergency room recovering from an overdose, as New York has done.
“Together with Supervisor Anderson, whose East County district has been hit hardest by the opioid crisis, we will be launching a series of convenings across San Diego County,” Fletcher said. The goal is to bring ideas forward for best uses of opioid settlement funds and to develop a comprehensive plan to save lives.
“Our sea levels are expected to rise up to a foot by the middle of this century,” said Fletcher, adding that this means significant flooding for coastal areas. Climate change is also driving increased drought, worse storms, and heat waves, he said.
“A new Climate Action Plan is underway, with a pathway to 100% renewable energy,” he said. Over 14,000 new renewable energy permits have been issued in the past three years as the county also moves to a regional decarbonization strategy and has adopted community choice energy as an alternative source for cleaner energy and potentially lower cost.
He called for growing more food locally, a means of cutting greenhouse gas emissions from transporting food.
Fletcher noted that Supervisor Dianne Jacob began calling for dual engine firefighting helicopters capable of night flights 15 years ago, but her colleagues didn’t listen.
“We must take emergency action to appropriate $15 million to obtain our first dual engine fire fighting helicopter,” Fletcher announced, adding, “We are working with members of Congress Scott Peters and Darrell Issa on other fire preparedness needs, but this one is urgent. Let’s act now.”
Parks access program for families
Fletcher announced a new “Outdoor Experience Program” to help families experience county parks for the first time. Under the plan, the county will cover admission as well as provide gear, instruction and assistance to any individual or family needs, as well as transportation if needed. Activities to be covered include hiking, rock climbing, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, mountain biking and camping.
He said his own family has enjoyed camping in our region’s parks such as Agua Caliente with natural hot springs and stargazing, Flinn Springs County Park with shaded oak groves, Lake Morena County Park with fishing and camping, Sweetwater Regional Park with horseback riding and a new bike track, to name just a few.
“Starting this summer, we will launch an aggressive monthly campaign to highlight our regional parks,” he said. “The joy I watch in my children experiencing the outdoors is a joy I want every child in San Diego to have.”
A Marine Corps veteran, Fletcher said the experience taught him commitment and dedication to service. His son recently graduated from boot camp at the Marine Corps recruit depot in San Diego, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
He introduced his former drill instructor, now a county employee, and pledged to join with fellow veteran Supervisor Jim Desmond to double the number of veterans in the county’s workforce.
Call for unity
He noted that over 94% of the actions he’s brought before Supervisors have passed with bipartisan support, and reminded everyone that the responsibility to work toward a better San Diego is for all of us, not just elected officials.
He called for setting aside divisiveness, adding, “If we can seek out our `better angels,’ embrace the fight to confront our most challenging problems and never be afraid to drive bold solutions, if we can do that, the state of our county will continue to get stronger.”