Vargas is president and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages. He lives in La Jolla.
For the first time since 2020, the Regional Task Force on Homelessness released its annual Point-in-Time count report sharing a snapshot of the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in February.
Overall, the 2022 Point-in-Time Count estimated 8,427 individuals experiencing homelessness across San Diego County, a 10 percent increase from 2020. This number includes 4,106 unsheltered San Diegans, a 3 percent increase over 2020, and 4,321 individuals in shelters, a 26 percent increase over 2020.
It is critical to understand that this report is just one tool that we use to understand the total picture of homelessness in San Diego. After all, from Oct. 1, 2020, through Sept. 30, 2021, more than 36,500 San Diegans interacted with homeless services providers. Still, the number is significant.
Now, many of us – including myself – might look at these numbers and feel frustrated. How is it, after the boost of funding and increase of homeless services during the pandemic, that the number has only increased? Why haven’t we moved the needle on homelessness?
At Father Joe’s Villages, we provided more services than ever before. The number of people we serve through our shelters and housing programs increased from 2,000 to more than 2,500 neighbors in need each night over the past two years. Despite decreased shelter capacity to allow for health and safety precautions, our number of beds increased through new shelters, in partnership with the city of San Diego and San Diego Housing Commission. All of this is in addition to other comprehensive services – therapeutic child care, employment and education services, 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 to meet the needs of our neighbors over the past two years. So, with that in mind, why has the number of people experiencing homelessness still increased?
The truth is that San Diego is at the nexus of three crises sending people over the edge into homelessness and keeping them there for the long term: the delayed economic effects of the pandemic, the exorbitant cost of housing, and the public health crisis of serious mental illness and substance use disorder affecting a significant portion of the population.
We may just now be seeing the economic impacts of the pandemic – the shutdown of businesses, pandemic-related job loss and evictions that slipped through the cracks of the moratorium. And, inflation is only exacerbating the issue. Prices in the San Diego area, as measured by the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), increased 2.1 percent in February and March alone (US Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Rising costs squeeze low-income families and individuals who already have very limited budgets. This can make critical items like food, health care and housing suddenly unaffordable.
It is a widely accepted fact that when housing becomes less affordable, homelessness increases. With the average home price nearing $ 1 million and the average apartment renting for more than $ 2,700 a month, many San Diegans struggle simply to keep a roof over their heads. Individuals and families living with limited household budgets – working low-wage jobs or living on disability support – simply can not find housing prices that fit within their budgets. Only 3% of apartments in San Diego rent for less than $ 1,500 a month. Unfortunately, this issue has only become more and more amplified over the past year, as San Diego rents in 2022 are up by 18.84% compared to 2021.
Finally, serious mental illness and substance use disorder amongst a portion of the population can prevent neighbors from entering shelters and accessing services. Heartbreakingly, despite best efforts by outreach teams, service providers often must stand by and watch if a person does not have the capacity to accept help. At the same time, there’s a desperate need for additional behavioral health programming in San Diego. Fortunately, the County of San Diego has committed new funds to expand behavioral health services in 2022. We hope this will make a difference.
Overall, homelessness is the end result of the failure of vast and complex societal, economic and social safety net programs and policies, exacerbated by individual circumstances. Given the level of complexity and size of the homeless response system in San Diego, one organization alone cannot impact all individuals experiencing homelessness nor immediately change the entire system. We must continue to work together – citizens, governing bodies and nonprofit providers – to provide immediate assistance to those falling into homelessness, build housing that low-income families and individuals can afford and develop behavioral health programs in our community. Only then can we start to see the needle move in the right direction.