(Written by Dennis Bone for the Times of San Diego)
Homelessness throughout the San Diego region is at epic proportions, despite the millions of dollars spent annually to address this issue.
For years I have been reading about 5 and 10 year plans to end homelessness and they have all failed; and now a new approach called “housing first” is all the rage. As a pastor in North San Diego County, I have been actively involved with helping homeless individuals and families for over 25 years and can tell you first hand that although housing is essential, housing alone will never solve this issue or even slow it down.
The solution is not in spending more money around programs that seek to contain the homeless or simply address the symptoms of homelessness, rather it’s to adopt a completely different model and approach to this cycle of poverty that continues to adversely impact men, women, children and communities.
The mission of Solutions for Change, located in North County San Diego, is to solve family homelessness. With this goal in mind, Solutions for Change has pioneered an innovative and sustainable solution for homeless families in our community, an effort that has led more than 800 families and 2,000 children out of homelessness since 1999. Solutions for Change has implemented a “university model” in which Solutions engages the families in a partnership that creates permanent transformation over a 1,000 day period. Each family is provided access to the skills, knowledge and resources they need to gain and maintain physical, emotional, spiritual, mental and financial health. This model addresses all of the factors that caused their homelessness, not just the loss of housing, in order to equip parents to permanently resolve these underlying factors.
Unfortunately, this is not the way most communities, including downtown San Diego, approach the issue of homelessness. These types of positive outcomes and personal success stories are not what we see in the city of San Diego. I believe that it is not an issue of not enough money or caring people.San Diego is full of caring people in churches, non-profits and city government. It’s first and foremost a design issue, rooted in how one see the homeless, engages the homeless and the desired result that you envision: both for the homeless and the community.
Imagine for a moment the homeless man currently sleeping outside the mayor’s office in downtown San Diego, two years from now working in the mayor’s office as a productive member of the San Diego community. Imagine again that the homeless woman sleeping under the bridge at Petco Park, next season is working in Petco Park. This will not happen when a community continues to see the homeless as liabilities that need to be displaced or contained behind a door, so as to be out of sight and off the streets. It won’t happen when non-profits continue to chase money for failed programs instead of changing their model in ways that will produce success. It won’t happen if churches and faith groups primarily focus on transactions and symptom relief at the expense of accountability and true change.
I have worked closely with hundreds of families from the first day they arrived at Solutions for Change until the time they graduated from the program. They came to Solutions homeless, most withlittle or no hope for the future. They became homeless for many different reasons: addiction, unemployment, lack of education, unhealthy or violent relationships, mental illness, criminal behavior, poor decision making, etc. They chose to come to Solutions for Change because they wereseeking change and wanted a better life for themselves and their children.
Not one of them would say that simply giving them housing and offering them optional services would have permanently solved their homelessness. In fact for the majority it would have made things far worse. Yet this is what housing first promotes: free or subsidized housing with optional service. This is the model that the Federal government is promoting and funding; and that many communities around the country, including San Diego, are adopting.
The Solutions for Change model equips and empowers families stuck in the churn of dependency,poverty, and addiction. Those who come to Solutions for Change, like many in the homeless population, truly want a solution, not just a place to live. Housing may solve an immediate need, and be an important first step, yet unless it is just one step to the path to freedom, self-sufficiency and responsibility, this issue of homelessness will not be effectively solved for either the homeless or the community.