By Jeeni Criscenzo
Let me start with an apology. At the San Diego Select Committee for Homelessness meeting on Monday, July 24, I made some comments in response to a report by the new CEO of the Regional Taskforce on the Homeless, Gordon Walker, which came out sounding critical and petty.
When I watched myself on the video, I wasn’t pleased with my scolding tone. I had been trying to meet with Mr. Walker for over a month and finally got a voice mail from him politely explaining that it would be some time before he had time to meet with me and he hoped that I would understand. While I hadn’t planned on publicly reprimanding Mr. Walker, it certainly came out that way and I’m sorry.
I could blame my response on my Sicilian heritage or my New Jersey upbringing, but it was really my frustration with what I heard in Walker’s well-intentioned report that rattled my cage. Maybe, if we had the opportunity to talk prior to his report to this committee, he might have been better informed about the situation here in San Diego from a different perspective than what he’s being given by the people he had time for in his first month on the job.
Right now, it appears he’s hearing from the same old good ol’ boys perpetuating the same old song and dance to serve their same old self-interests.
Helping the Most Costly vs. the Most Vulnerable
Walker stated that in Utah, where as division director of the department of Housing and Community Development, he reduced homelessness by 91 percent, they focused on the chronic homeless population – 10 percent who use 50 percent of the resources, making this analogy:
“Just as if you were trying to pay off your credit cards, we focused on the most costly sector of society, so we would be able to bring it back in and reduce it all the way.”
Maybe if he was making a presentation to the head of a Fortune 500 corporation on ways to cut manufacturing costs, this would have been appropriate, but damnit, this isn’t the way to address homelessness.
We aren’t talking about credit cards, we’re talking about human beings! Triage should start with those suffering the most.
At the risk of sounding cold-hearted, most chronically homeless people have already figured out how to survive on the streets. I’m not suggesting that they don’t need permanent housing, but I’ve been listening to plans to address homelessness for ten years now and they always start with who is costing taxpayers the most. Makes sense if you are appealing to business folks.
But we have truly vulnerable people on our streets, including the elderly (29 percent are 55 and over) who played by the rules their whole lives and just didn’t get any breaks; mothers with young children in constant terror of being assaulted and having their children taken away; young adults aged out of foster care who have never known the security of a permanent home of their own; and people with disabilities who simply can’t survive without a place to live.
If Mr. Walker wants to use a “rifle approach on a specific population,” I suggest he starts with the most vulnerable. Tell your business folks that this population might not be costing you the most today, but if we don’t get them safely housed as soon as possible, they will be the costly chronically homeless of tomorrow.
What’s So Special about San Diego?
Likewise, Walker acknowledged that San Diego has “special issues,” as if he were talking about a child failing kindergarten while she was in the room. One could assume he was referring to the fact that Utah had housing for homeless people to move into, but San Diego doesn’t. We have a less than 2 percent rental vacancy rate, and in the Very Low to Extremely Low Income that rate is zero.
But when questioned later by Councilmember Zapf as to what these “special issues” are, Walker said that San Francisco has “given their streets away (to the homeless) and lost control.” San Diego, he warned is at the tipping point of being in the same situation. The implication being? Is he suggesting we increase our horrendous practice of ticketing people living on the sidewalk and throwing away their few possessions?
Walker did mention the high cost of housing but didn’t take it to the cause. Does he even know about the loss of 10,000 units for those with extremely low incomes?
The Myth of the 1,000 Empty Beds
Also under Zapf’s prodding, Walker stated that on the night of the Point in Time Count (January 29) we had nearly 1,000 unoccupied shelter beds. You could hear a gasp of disbelief in the audience.
Both Councilmembers Ward and Gomez questioned this figure. In fact, Gomez stated that she is certain that the number of people who don’t want housing are a small minority that “they” keep harping on in order to justify their lack of action. Walker didn’t get it. He had no explanation for the number, which no one in the room believed, so he simply stated that it was “a fact.”
I have to believe that in his busy first month on the job, or hopefully even before accepting the position, Walker took the time to study the actual PITC analysis. It’s right there on the Regional Taskforce on the Homeless website.
This graph shows that there were 1,736 Emergency Shelter beds in the county on January 29, 2017, and they were 90 percent occupied. HUD sees 75 percent to 105 percent as an acceptable utilization rate.
In fact, the only category that wasn’t above HUD standards for utilization was a strange category called “Other Permanent Housing.” At only 32 percent, this category had 246 unoccupied beds. I can’t seem to find an explanation for OPH, but it sure isn’t emergency shelter.
When you make a statement as “a fact” that there were nearly 1,000 unoccupied shelter beds, and you are making it to imply that homeless people are not going into available beds, you should be talking about actual emergency shelter beds – and not all of the other categories.
Is it true that any homeless person who wants shelter can get a bed? Ask Ellis Rose, who spoke at the Amikas Housing Solutions event last June. He doesn’t have a problem with substance addiction. He is about as mentally stable as any of us these days. Any time I’ve seen him, he’s dressed clean and professional. And he’s really smart, so if anyone can figure out the system, it would be him.
But when he found himself homeless last January, it took him 10 weeks to get a shelter bed at Father Joe’s and he wasn’t being picky – there are 175 men in one room! If there were 1,000 empty beds, why couldn’t Mr. Rose get into one for ten weeks? He was certainly ready, able and willing.
If Walker likes analyzing data as much as I do, he can find the Housing Inventory Count for the night of the PITC (Excel spreadsheet) on the RTFH website too.
I pulled the Emergency Shelter beds data from the spreadsheet, which is for all of San Diego County. My analysis doesn’t take into account the impracticality of sending a homeless person in East Village to shelter into a bed in Ramona or Lakeside because most of the beds are in the city of San Diego.
Of the 41 sites with Emergency Shelter in this report, there was a total of 165 unused beds. But some of the sites actually have negative numbers in the occupied column — meaning they have more people in the beds than actual reported beds. So that would mean, before even looking at it closely, in all of San Diego County there were only 203 unused shelter beds. A far cry from the 1,000 touted by Walker as a fact.
Upon closer examination, 48 of those unoccupied beds are in programs serving Households with Children (HC). These beds are very likely in units where they have placed a family with fewer members than the available beds. For example, a unit that has 4 beds but is occupied by only 1 mother and 1 child would show up as having 2 unused beds.
YWCA-Cortez Hill has 156 beds with 14 indicated as unused. But they actually have only 47 units – so obviously most or all of the units have several beds. And all of the units are for Households with Children. Same goes for Salvation Army’s Door of Hope, which has 32 beds, but only 9 units.
The highest number of unused beds (75) are in programs for Domestic Violence (DV). We can assume the same explanation as units for households with children can be applied, plus the unpredictability of when emergency DV shelter is needed. One night might be very busy (ex. Super Bowl Sunday was the week after this count with a typically high incidence of DV calls) versus another might not have any activity. But it is essential to always have beds available.
Under the category of shelter beds for Single Males (SM), only 13 beds were unoccupied for the entire county, including St. Vincent de Paul’s inclement weather beds. At St. Vincent’s, 40 out of the 50 beds for families with children were filled (again the family size issue explained above), but 204 of the 200 beds for single males and females were filled – more than 100 percent capacity. PATH Connections Housing showed that 129 of their 130 beds were filled.
So let’s put this myth of available emergency shelter beds to rest. It is not a fact.
When a Bed is Just a Piece of Paper
Another category of housing included in the HIC report is Rapid Rehousing (RRH) which is actually just a count of vouchers given out. Interestingly enough, they are all shown as 100 percent utilization except for the SDHC Moving Home program which lists 200 beds available and none used.
RRH beds are not even actual beds. They are a piece of paper that guarantees that if the individual or family can find a unit that accepts vouchers, the voucher will cover some or all of the rent. So none of the 200 vouchers in the Moving Home program had actually been used but they are listed as open beds.
People go for months looking for units where they can use their housing subsidy vouchers, and often the vouchers expire before they can find a place. There is often little assistance in helping people find a unit and when you are living on the street with no money your ability to do the searching is limited.
Let the people who say “the person with the voucher has to take the initiative,” actually try to do that when you can’t even afford bus fare.
Desperate people also often get sucked into scams — such as the one where a unit is listed as available and the applicant pays $35 per adult for a credit check, which of course they fail. The landlord or management company gets $35 or $70 over and over again for the same unit — which might not even exist.
Another scam is when the “owner” claims to be in Oklahoma or some other state. They tell the applicant that they qualify and that when they mail a deposit, the key with be mailed to them so they can see the unit.
This really happens; they do it over and over, and these desperate folks get sucked in. I know because Amikas has run into these creeps repeatedly when trying to help people find housing. But that’s another whole can of worms that needs to be included in why it’s so difficult to get homeless people housed.
These are just some of the things I had hoped to discuss with Gordon Walker in addition to Amikas’ suggestion that when people entered into the Coordinate Entry System, they are quickly tethered to an actual unit that will be available within one year. And while waiting for that unit to become available, they are housed in appropriate bridge housing (such as an Amikas Bridge Community sleeping cabin).
That would mean that we create a database of housing units by status (including housing in the pipeline) and any housing that gets public funds or any kind of break — such as inclusionary units — must be in this database with a commitment to its date of availability, along with severe penalties if deadlines are not met.
So, Mr. Walker, even if you can’t find time for our meeting, I hope you’ll at least read this column so you’ll stop calling things facts that are simply not true. Some of us have been working for a long time to dispel these myths because they really impair our ability to solve homelessness based on reality.
Feel free to steal anything I’ve written here, and make it part of your next report.