By JEFF CLEMETSON
Homelessness is a problem throughout San Diego, but its severity and visibility varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. In Downtown or certain beach communities, unsheltered people are easily found on streets or in large encampments. For a variety of reasons, bedroom communities like the Navajo neighborhoods don’t experience the large numbers of homeless camps – but the issue still exists.
“It’s only recently that our teams have been going to calls out there,” said Brian Gruters, associate director of outreach for PATH, one of San Diego’s homeless outreach groups contracted though the city’s housing commission. “We really started to go out there when we started going work with the GetIt Done app and that’s how neighbors have been letting us know to go out there.”
Answering calls about homeless used to be the job of SDPD’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) until the housing commission empowered groups like PATH to respond to reports of unsheltered people in San Diego.
“What we want is to find everyone who is experiencing homelessness and offer them services,” Gruters said. “It doesn’t matter to us if they are in a big tent in a middle of a park that everybody sees or they’re sleeping under the radar somewhere. We still want to find them and make them aware what services are available. And especially in the last year with COVID-19, we want to make sure they are in the loop on health and safety issues that might affect them.”
PATH’s resources are distributed throughout the city based upon the annual point in time count, where volunteers throughout the city go and document as many homeless people as they can. Areas that have high numbers of unsheltered people are designated an outreach specialist to stay in contact with the homeless population and work to find them supportive housing and other needed resources. Only along the San Diego River area in Grantville was found to have enough of a population to warrant an outreach specialist.
“In Navajo and that part of town, we just didn’t have it on our radar that there was a huge presence of folks living unsheltered from the point in time count,” Gruters said, but added that although neighborhoods like Allied Gardens, Del Cerro and San Carlos or Clairemont (where he lives) tend to not see giant encampments like there are Downtown or at the beaches, there still are homeless there with a “high level of need” because they have mental health issues.
“A lot of those folks are from those neighborhoods have never been in the homeless management information system … and so in bedroom communities, it’s really important to know that a lot of the folks who live in those communities, grew up in those communities, remain in those communities and for that reason are not trying to go Downtown to seek services in a lot of cases,” he added. “And for that reason, if you don’t provide outreach services in those communities you may never come into contact with them.”
For Navajo residents interested in helping with the work to end homelessness, Gruters has several suggestions. First, is to volunteer for the annual point in time count. The count is better if local residents volunteer because they often know where the homeless are living and are familiar with the problems in the neighborhood.
“And then you can get a good reflection of what the population size is,” he said, but added that no matter how thorough the volunteers are, the count is always lower than the actual number of homeless.
This year, the point in time count will take place on Jan. 27. Interested people learn more and sign up at the Regional Taskforce on Homelessness website: rtfhsd.org/about-coc/weallcount-pitc.
Besides volunteering, residents can help is by supporting the “gold standard for addressing homelessness” – supportive housing projects.
Supportive housing projects – such as the Zepher project in Grantville – are subsidized apartment units and provide important services like social workers, medication monitoring, financial services and addiction counseling.
“Retention rates for people in supportive housing are in the 90 percent range,” Gruters said, emphasizing the need to support and not fight construction of these projects. “Where we get into a bottleneck is in the number of units available. So if we have more units available, we’ll get more people off the streets and ultimately create a homelessness service system hat is better able to address this problem as it arises.”
Gruters also suggested a way that all people can help their homeless neighbors:
“Just in general, try not to make their day worse than it already is. Try to be empathetic, smile at people. And if you are comfortable with approaching homeless folks, share things like socks or water. A little bit of kindness goes a long way.”
— Jeff Clemetson is the now former editor of Mission Times Courier.