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Opinion: To end homelessness, we need a real-time database of all people experiencing homelessness

March 8, 2022

Kohler is CEO of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness and lives in Little Italy. Maguire is co-director of the Built for Zero initiative at Community Solutions and lives in Los Angeles.

Homelessness in California feels out of control. But some California communities, like Fresno and Bakersfield, have actually made major progress in recent years, even as housing costs rise.

We believe homelessness is solvable, and we have proof from “Built for Zero” communities that it’s possible.

Committing to actually reaching zero may sound like an obvious step, but the truth is many people don’t believe homelessness is a solvable problem. Seeing people without a place to live has become such a common experience that it has begun to feel normal. Yet homelessness is not normal — it is a deadly and urgent public health crisis. To solve it, we must first embrace the belief, at all levels of government and across our community, that solutions are both necessary and possible.

The next step is to focus on what we know works for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness — permanent housing. Most people vulnerable to homelessness are in the throes of a short-term health or financial crisis. Connecting them to permanent housing quickly can keep a one-time issue from defining the rest of their lives. In fact, exhaustive research has proven that even people living with severe addiction or mental illness can exit homelessness and improve their lives much more quickly when they are connected to permanent housing and support right away, rather than expecting them to get well on the street.

In high-cost San Diego, a housing-based approach will require new investments in workforce, affordable and supportive housing to create a broader range of options for people at all points on the income spectrum. Economists have known for years that these investments are good for everyone. They stimulate the economy, facilitate sustainable job growth and improve quality of life in our communities.

Local leaders, elected officials and those working in the homelessness response system must support San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s recent commitment to create hundreds of new units while going even further in future budget years to create the thousands of units we know we will likely need.

Our West Coast counterparts in places like Los AngelesPortland and the Bay Area have taken bold steps in recent years to recognize this reality and invest in the housing stock of the future. Community leaders and decision makers should come together to ensure all San Diegans have stable homes and that our local economy isn’t left behind.

A housing-based approach also requires a proven way of working together as a community designed to make new housing investments successful. We can’t just build or fund our way out of this problem — we also have to bolster the ability of our local housing and social service providers to deliver accountable results with those investments.

The Regional Task Force on Homelessness is part of “Built for Zero,” a national initiative of more than 90 communities working to equitably and measurably end homelessness. Through Built for Zero, 14 communities from Bakersfield to Bergen County in New Jersey have ended homelessness for at least one population — 12 have ended homelessness for veterans, five have ended it for people experiencing long-term chronic homelessness and three have ended it for both groups. These achievements have come through the application of a proven methodology that focuses on developing real-time, by-name data on every person experiencing homelessness to illuminate their unique needs and clarify the right resources to support them.

This data also allows us to understand the nature of homelessness at a community level so we in these communities say with certainty whether our collective efforts and investments are working to reduce homelessness over time, and make changes quickly when we don’t see progress. In San Diego, we currently have real-time, by-name data on all veterans experiencing homelessness, and we are now using that data month over month to rapidly improve our collective efforts. We should keep going by enlisting every relevant city, county and nonprofit service agency to build one comprehensive, privacy-protected, real-time data source on all people experiencing homelessness so that no one must go without housing for lack of another human being knowing their name.

More than 70 other cities around the country are already transforming their local efforts with real-time, comprehensive, human-centered data on homelessness — this approach recently gave Bakersfield the critical information it needed to reduce chronic homelessness all the way to zero, the first community in California to do so.

By committing to the shared aim of ending homelessness, taking a housing-based approach and enabling accountability through reliable, human-centered data, our community can do better than the quick-win, Band-Aid solutions that have defined too many failed efforts in the past. As a community, we must adopt the resolve to do the hard work of expanding housing options and building a more accountable, data-driven housing system in order to achieve long-term results that stick.