ENCINITAS — Stephen Russell, executive director of the San Diego Housing Federation, summarized a 90-minute panel discussion on solving homelessness in Encinitas with seven words on March 20.
“The solution to homelessness is a home,” Russell said.
“Housing first” was the mantra of several of the panelists, who spoke to a packed audience at the Encinitas Library about the ongoing efforts to help the homeless throughout the community.
The panelists at the event, hosted by the Community Resource Center, included Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, Sheriff’s Capt. John Maryon, Russell, homelessness advocate Michael McDonnell and author Michael Williams, a former homeless veteran who provided a first-person experience on being homeless in San Diego County.
They touched on the efforts both locally and regionally to address the rising tide of homeless people in San Diego County and in Encinitas, and discussed what needs to be done to make the system function more efficiently in getting people off of the streets.
Both locally and regionally, the panelists agreed, more housing is needed to accomplish these goals.
“We need to focus on getting people into housing,” said McDonnell, who frequently reports on homeless issues throughout the county on blogs and social media sites.
McDonnell said that regionally, some programs are working to reduce homelessness, such as efforts to house homeless veterans, which has cut that segment of the population roughly in half since 2010.
But he said that the maze of services available to assist the homeless are often too disjointed and disconnected, creating a maze that is difficult to navigate.
“By transforming the system from that maze to a coordinated entry system gets people into the system in a more quick, coordinated way,” McDonnell said.
He also said that while the number of emergency and transitional units available to get people off of the streets on a temporary basis has grown over the years, the number of permanent units — apartments, support housing and the like — has not kept pace.
McDonnell likened it to a hospital with the same number of emergency beds as inpatient beds.
“The hospital would be totally dysfunctional,” McDonnell said.
Russell, whose agency promotes the creation and preservation of homes that are affordable to low-income families, said the chief reason why that disparity exists is because the region as a whole has not produced enough homes to keep pace with its growing population. He pointed to statistics from the San Diego Association of Governments regarding the growth of the county’s population and its housing production by 2050.
Since the recession, he said, “housing production is well below the average demand, and (has) never been made up.”
Meanwhile, Russell said, the region has produced more homes than it needs for upper-income levels.
“We have a crisis there,” he said.
Russell said that locally, residents can advocate for infill development, housing adjacent to public transportation, and support policies and resources that can both build and preserve affordable housing.
Turning to Encinitas, Blakespear said that the city has taken steps to add more affordable housing, including a recent vote to ease restrictions on building accessory dwelling units and a pilot program with the Community Resource Center to get homeless veterans off the streets, which has helped nearly 50 people find homes in two years.
But, she acknowledged, residents have had a palpable “anti-housing” sentiment, evidenced by the city’s inability to pass an affordable housing policy since 1993. Blakespear pointed to failures of previous iterations — one where housing was focused along El Camino Real, and the 2016 attempt known as Measure T, which focused on creating mixed-used zoning in Leucadia and Old Encinitas.
“There is just no denying looking at the slides that we need more homes,” she said. “But what is clear from witnessing this (housing element process) is that there is never a good place for it.”
Blakespear said that the city’s reputation of being a housing scofflaw has put it in the crosshairs of the state, which has passed a litany of housing laws that “seem targeted at us.”
“We just have to accept just a little bit of housing is not going to be the end of the world, and we will be able to absorb it,” she said. “We might have to wait a little bit longer at a stop light, but we will be providing housing for people already working in the community.”
Ultimately, she said, the city will have to adopt a housing plan either by vote of the people or a court mandate.
“I’d rather do it with the support of the community,” she said.
At the heart of the city and region’s housing and homelessness plans, panelists said, are people who have fallen through the cracks. Treating them with dignity, despite their lot in life, is paramount, they said.
Williams, a former military veteran and economics degree holder, provided the human element of the panel discussion, telling his story of how he fell into homelessness and what it took to get out.
Williams was diagnosed with a health issue that stripped him of his ability to walk without assistance, which caused him to lose his job. With thousands in savings, he thought he would be OK, but his medical bills exhausted his savings, sending his life into a spiral.
He said the Veterans Administration “let him down” by taking 19 weeks for a diagnosis and prescribing him the wrong medication for four of those months. He also learned that while there were programs for people with alcohol or drug addiction problems or mental health issues, there weren’t programs for people who “just got sick.”
“That part shocked me,” he said. “The safety nets were just dropping through.”
Finally, he found himself on the street, where he said he slowly lost his humanity.
“The longer I stayed out in the streets, slowly but surely I was losing my humanity because I didn’t think anyone cared,” Williams said.
He added that the difficulty of climbing out of homelessness is that you have to focus your energy on survival, leaving little energy left for the task of finding a way out.
Finally, he said, he found help with the Community Resource Center and was able to emerge from homelessness. The center hosted a book signing with Williams after the panel discussion.
“If there was one thing communicate to people today, it’s that not all people who are homeless are alcoholics are drug addicts, and even if they are, they are still human beings,” he said. “There are segments of people who got sick, husbands left them, just got in car accidents, just lost jobs, but regardless of which segments, they are human beings with a wealth of emotions, dreams and emotional inner worlds just like we have, and when we don’t pay them attention, they hurt, just like we do.”