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City Council approves Citizen Task Force recommendations
By Bonnie Baranoff, Chair, La Mesa Citizen Task Force on Homelessness
August 23, 2020 (La Mesa) - Homelessness in La Mesa isn’t new, nor is our community’s concern about or exasperation with it.  
In February 2019, a motivated City Council responded to local homeless advocate concerns by approving the formation of an Ad Hoc Citizen Committee consisting of five-seven residents.  In March 2019, the City Council selected seven community members with a variety of knowledge of and experience with the issue. On July 17, 2019, we came together for the first meeting of the Citizen Task Force on Homelessness.  

Our assignment was to make recommendations to the City Council on what La Mesa and other agencies should do concerning our unhoused residents.  We presented our recommendations to the City Council on August 11, 2020.  Here’s a bit of background. 
Homelessness in East County and La Mesa
San Diego County is frequently cited as having the fourth highest homeless population in the U.S. and for the second year in a row, East County has the second highest homeless population in the County.  Source: San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless 2020 WeAllCount Report
The 2020 Point-in-Time (PIT) count identified 1,001 homeless East County neighbors with 784 in El Cajon; 122 in the combined unincorporated areas of Alpine, Lakeside and Spring Valley, 25 in Santee, 18 in Lemon Grove and 52 in La Mesa.  Of these, 53% were unsheltered. 
The Point-in-Time Count is a federally mandated count of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires that Continuums of Care (CoC) conduct this count.  San Diego's Continuum of Care is the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.  
It's widely accepted that the PIT is a gross underestimate of the number of unhoused residents because not all homeless are counted. The count omits people that are doubled-up/staying with friends or family.  It also excludes homeless people in jail, in the hospital, couch surfers, folks enjoying an inexpensive motel room for the night, or those that volunteer counters can't find. 
For example, and to contrast, La Mesa's 2019 PIT was 46 people.  In 2018—the most recent full-year data the Task Force had access to—2-1-1 San Diego revealed 167 clients had identified themselves as homeless calling for housing referrals, nearly four times more than the PIT. 30% were seeking shelter immediately, and 48% were seeking housing "this week" or "this month." 
What makes La Mesa’s situation unique?  
La Mesa is home to Sharp Grossmont Hospital, the only emergency room and hospital serving approximately 500,000 East County residents.  Sharp Grossmont’s Emergency Room serves, on average, 15 homeless patients each day.  
La Mesa also has several unsheltered residents with complex needs.  There is one Outreach Specialist from PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) working in La Mesa, a position funded by Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP) funds awarded to service providers in East County in 2019. The La Mesa Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) provides homeless people with referrals for resources. 
From a transportation standpoint, La Mesa has five trolley stops, more than any other city in East County.  More people are using public transit, especially those that don’t have vehicles.  
Finally, there are only five existing projects with affordable housing units to serve roughly 60,000 residents.  La Mesa has 565 rent-restricted units: 209 for seniors and disabled, 276 for low income, and 80 for low-moderate income. To put how challenging this is in some perspective, on average, San Diego County’s Section 8 housing subsidy waiting list is 10+ years. 
Jack Shu, a community activist and 2020 La Mesa City Council candidate said, "When I advocated for the formation of the Task Force over a year and half ago, I did not realize how urgently we needed this team of committed caring experts to guide the City's response to help La Mesans who do not have a place to live."
Task Force meetings and conclusions
With staff support, we researched homelessness by inviting various service providers and other agencies to Task Force meetings.  Presenters shared information about who they are, what their programs do, and how they work.  Collectively, we all strive to reduce and ideally end homelessness in San Diego County. 
For eight months, we heard from 15 agencies, including the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, Home Start, and Sharp Grossmont Hospital.  We also listened to stories from people with lived experience. Task Force volunteer Mary Kate Miller said, "Despite our big daunting challenge, after each meeting, there was optimism as there were already many resources to connect with and so many dedicated, talented, and compassionate La Mesans willing to work to tackle homelessness."
Photo: November 2019: La Mesa’s Task Force hears from a Sharp Grossmont Hospital Emergency Room social worker.
After our research, our top-level concerns were: 
  • Unhoused residents with health problems and substance abuse issues
  • Ongoing tracking and support.  For example, what happens to a homeless person released from the hospital?  
  • Difficulty in finding affordable housing 
  • The anticipated increase in evictions and foreclosures resulting from COVID-19
  • Forthcoming emptying of Emergency Convention Center shelter
  • Limited City resources
  • Communication with the public
  • Funding

​​These concerns resulted in recommending six program service areas supporting housing, outreach, prevention/diversion, coordination, safety, and communication.  Program initiatives will help La Mesa meet some of their strategic housing, service, and financial goals. 

Housing First
Our most crucial counsel was for La Mesa to adopt a "Housing First" policy position. Housing First is a nationally recognized best practice model acknowledging that unhoused persons need a decent, safe, and permanent place to live before they can achieve a quality of life or pursue any personal goals. 
Anna Marie Piconi Snyder, Consulting Project Director for the East County Homeless Task Force said, “The committee's number one recommendation supporting the establishment of a continuum of bridge through permanent housing for our community members with diverse needs is the critical component to a comprehensive approach.”
We recognized that adopting the Housing First approach is critical for a safe, healthy, and equitable community. Per SANDAG, La Mesa's population is forecasted to grow 34% by 2050. A Housing First policy can align with La Mesa's Housing Element goals, objectives, and programs. 
La Mesa City Councilman Colin Parent was on the City Council's Ad Hoc Homeless Subcommittee and agreed with this proposal.  "I'm very grateful for the work of our Homelessness Task Force, and their prioritization of housing as a key solution. We need more affordable homes if we are going to meet our homelessness crisis."
In light of COVID-19, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) is revising Home Together: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), one of the organizations the USICH is consulting with, is committing to a Housing First approach for the next strategic plan.  
Other recommendations
Our next recommendation was outreach. We recognized that La Mesa could help more unhoused residents by contracting with service providers trained in and focused on supporting those experiencing homelessness.  Ongoing, proactive outreach is needed. 
We were encouraged that prevention services could soon be underway if La Mesa uses recently released State CARES Act allocations to fund a Rental Assistance Program. We can avoid adding to our homeless population by assisting eligible residents affected by COVID to stay housed.  We were delighted that the City Council approved initial funding for this program later in the evening. 
The coordination suggestion included developing an internal committee that will implement these programs and continue the task force's work.  Miller expressed, "we need to collaborate with other East County communities because homelessness doesn't stay within our city limits." 
Safety will address resident and business concerns such as improved lighting and increased patrol at trolley stations. The communication program will establish a unique hotline and email that residents and homeless individuals can use to report concerns and service needs. This program will also provide the public with regularly updated news and information. 
Finally, funding and other resources are required for all of these programs. Both the City staff and the Task Force identified several potential sources.  For now, state and federal grants represent the lion's share of possible funding sources.  
Conceding that the time is ripe for building on work that’s already in motion, Council this month unanimously approved the Task Force’s recommendations, requesting staff to develop an action plan by December 31, 2020.  
Piconi Snyder added, "I applaud the process that the ad hoc citizens committee used, under the direction of now City Manager, Greg Humora - listening to subject matter experts in homeless services, healthcare, and housing - to inform the recommendations to the City Councilmembers." 
Homelessness is a complex issue.  We enjoyed listening, learning, and working alongside City Staff on solutions designed to help all residents of our City.  We look forward to the City taking action on these recommendations.
You can stay informed by signing-up for email alerts from the City of La Mesa and the East County Homeless Task Force.
Bonnie Baranoff is a volunteer with the East County Homeless Task Force, La Mesa First United Methodist Church’s Fresh Start Saturday program for those experiencing homelessness, and a Board Member with the Friends of the La Mesa Library. She also co-chaired La Mesa’s 2019 and 2020 WeAllCount events.  She cares about all people affected by this issue, including homeowners, business owners, first responders, and both her housed and unhoused neighbors.  She looks forward to seeing La Mesa shine as a positive example of how a community can work together to tackle a shared concern.