County creates homeless department, launches North County outreach

Bria McClain, a Patient Engagement Specialist with Family Health Center of San Diego, spoke with a client in Spring Valley.
In this photo from December 2019, Bria McClain of Family Health Centers of San Diego (left) speaks with a homeless man at the Lamont Park in Spring Valley.
(John Gibbins)

Supervisors also vote to rescind a previous action seen as criminalizing homelessness


The county’s efforts to help homeless people will expand beyond the unincorporated area and into cities as part of a new department created by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, April 6.

Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher said he proposed the new Department of Homeless Solutions and Equitable Communities as an efficient way to collaborate with other jurisdictions and partners throughout the county and to leverage state and federal funding.

“Centralizing our work involving people experiencing homelessness in one department will make us more effective at putting the unsheltered on a path to safe, secure housing and make us a better regional partner,” Fletcher said in a statement released before Tuesday’s meeting. “Taking this step signifies a renewed commitment to addressing homelessness, not just in the unincorporated areas, but across the region.”

In a related action Tuesday night, supervisors agreed to launch a homeless outreach pilot program that would cover much of North County, which Fletcher said will work well within the new department.

While county health and human service programs are open to everyone in the county, including homeless people who live in incorporated cities, most of the county’s efforts to directly help homeless people have been focused on unincorporated areas. Those efforts have increased in recent years and include the Sheriff’s Department’s Homeless Assistance Resource Team formed in June 2019.

The new Department of Homeless Solutions and Equitable Communities, which will be part of the county’s Health and Human Services Agency, is expected to strengthen the county’s collaboration with regional service providers and streamline the delivery of those services to homeless people in unincorporated and incorporated areas, Fletcher said.

Tuesday’s board action also directed Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer to suspend a May 2020 directive to develop an ordinance intended to minimize the impact of homelessness on county parks.

“Making such changes to ordinances goes against best practice and risks punishing someone simply for being unsheltered,” Fletcher wrote in a letter to the board.

Supervisors Joel Anderson and Jim Desmond joined board members in unanimously supporting the new department, but both said they had issues with restricting enforcement of homeless activities in parks.

Anderson noted that Lamont Park in Spring Valley, which is in the East County district he represents, had at times been so impacted by homeless activity that families were staying away.

“That’s wrong,” he said. “We have to do better.”

Fletcher told Anderson that the situation at the park has improved because of robust homeless outreach, not because of enforcement. He also said Tuesday’s action would not stop enforcement of existing laws, but instead halt the creation of any new ordinance targeting homeless people.

The board also called for Robbins-Meyer to accelerate another May 2020 directive to work on zoning changes that would streamline the process of locating emergency and supportive housing for homeless people.

Fletcher’s letter stated that the process would include input from community member in finding locations for housing projects. He also called on all jurisdictions to contribute to increasing the region’s housing supply.

A gap in coordination with other jurisdictions became apparent last year when the county abandoned a plan to purchase a La Mesa hotel and convert it into housing for homeless people. Staff members had pursued state funding for the project, but the plan hit a snag when La Mesa City Council members and city residents complained they were not included in discussions about the purchase.

Supervisors withdrew an application for $19 million in state funds for the project in September.

Also on Tuesday, supervisors unanimously voted to created a homeless outreach team with at least 10 members as a pilot program covering North County.

Similar to a new outreach approach recently launched by the city of San Diego, the new team would not be led by law enforcement and would concentrate on specific areas to develop relationships with individuals there over time.

The teams will be deployed in county District 3, represented by Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, and District 5, represented by Supervisor Jim Desmond. District 3 includes the cities of Del Mar, Encinitas, Escondido and Solana Beach, and District 5 includes Carlsbad, Oceanside, San Marcos and Vista.

Lawson-Remer said mayors and community leaders in the two districts have been working together on a collaborative approach to addressing homelessness. Desmond, former mayor of San Marcos, said smaller cities do not have the budget to fund social services at the level of the county, so it was critical for the board to support their effort to create the team.

Anderson said he thought the approach was a great idea, and he asked that District 2, which he represents, also be included.

Fletcher suggested that the pilot programs continue with just the two districts, but when details about the outreach team return to the board in 90 days, it includes a plan to expand it to District 2. Anderson agreed.

The annual cost of the plan is estimated at $1.5 million, and the outreach team will have the ability to transport clients and use discretionary funds to buy clothing and food and to help them obtain short-term motel vouchers.

—Gary Warth is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune