Opinion: We must work together to provide immediate help to people who are becoming homeless

Vargas is chairman and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages. He lives in La Jolla.

For the first time since 2020, the Regional Homelessness Task Force has held its annual Point-in-time counting report share a snapshot of the number of people left homeless in one February night.

In all, the 2022 Point-in-Time Count estimated 8,427 homeless people in San Diego County, up 10 percent from 2020. This number includes 4,106 unsheltered San Diegans, up 3% from 2020, and 4,321 individuals in shelters, a 26 percent more than in 2020.

It is critical to understand that this report is just one tool we use to understand the overall picture of homelessness in San Diego. After all, from October 1, 2020 through September 30, 2021, more than 36,500 San Diegans were in contact with homeless service providers. Yet the number is significant.

Now many of us – myself included – may look at these numbers and feel frustrated. How come, after the increase in funding and the increase in homeless services during the pandemic, the numbers have only increased? Why haven’t we moved the needle on homelessness?

At Father Joe’s Villages, we have provided more services than ever before. The number of people we serve through our shelters and housing programs has increased every night from 2,000 to more than 2,500 in distress over the past two years. Despite reduced shelter capacity to accommodate health and safety measures, our number of beds has increased with new shelters, in partnership with the City of San Diego and the San Diego Housing Commission. All of this is in addition to other expanded services—therapeutic childcare, employment and education, primary and behavioral health care, case management and outreach—and the addition of nearly 500 new units of affordable housing through our Turning the Key initiative.

We know that other service providers and government agencies have also worked hard over the past two years to meet the needs of our neighbors. So, with that in mind, why is the number of people homeless still increasing?

The truth is, San Diego is at the crossroads of three crises that are making people homeless and keeping them there for the long haul: the delayed economic effects of the pandemic, the exorbitant cost of housing, and the public health crisis of severe mental illness and disorder in the United States. the use of substances that affect a significant proportion of the population.

Perhaps we are only now seeing the economic impact of the pandemic – business closures, pandemic-related job losses and evictions that have slipped through the cracks of the moratorium. And inflation only exacerbates the problem. Prices in the area of ​​San Diego, as measured by the consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPI-U), rose 2.1 percent in February and March alone (US Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Rising costs are weighing on low-income families and individuals who already have very limited budgets. As a result, crucial things such as food, healthcare and housing can suddenly become unaffordable.

It is a widely accepted fact that when housing becomes less affordable, homelessness increases. With the average home price nearly $1 million and the average apartment rent for more than $2,700 per month, many San Diegans just struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Individuals and families living on limited household budgets — who have low-paying jobs or live off disabilities — simply cannot find home prices that fit their budget. Only 3% of San Diego apartments rent for less than $1,500 a month† Unfortunately, this problem has only become more and more aggravated in the past year, such as: Rents in San Diego in 2022 are up 18.84% compared to 2021

Finally, severe mental illness and substance use disorders among a segment of the population can prevent neighbors from going to shelters and accessing services. Heartbreakingly, despite the efforts of outreach teams, service providers often have to stand by when a person is unable to accept help. At the same time, there is an urgent need for additional behavioral health programming in San Diego. Fortunately, the County of San Diego has pledged new funds to expand its behavioral health services by 2022. We hope this will make a difference.

In general, homelessness is the end result of the failure of extensive and complex societal, economic and social safety net programs and policies, exacerbated by individual circumstances. Given the level of complexity and magnitude of the homeless shelter system in San Diego, one organization alone cannot affect all individuals experiencing homelessness, nor immediately change the entire system. We must continue to work together—citizens, governing bodies, and nonprofits—to provide immediate assistance to those who are becoming homeless, to build housing that families and low-income individuals can afford, and to develop behavioral health programs in our communities. Only then can we see the needle moving in the right direction.

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