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National homeless leader urges more action in visit to San Diego

The head of the only federal agency focused solely on homelessness praised local efforts during a two-day visit to San Diego this week and urged elected officials and service providers to do even more.

Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, visited homeless outreach workers in Escondido and San Diego and had one-on-one meetings with officials before speaking at a public meeting at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral on Tuesday evening.

Olivet, appointed to the agency by President Joe Biden in February, gave some details about an upcoming federal strategic plan on homelessness that will be released in about two months and said he had read San Diego’s action plan on homelessness released about two years ago.

“You still have some work to do on that,” he said about the plan’s goal of reducing by half the number of people living without shelter in the city. “And you’re up against some steep odds.”

Olivet, invited to the area by the San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness, said the federal response to homelessness also has had mixed results. While doing a good job reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness — the population of homeless veterans has decreased by about 50 percent over the past decade — he said more focus is needed on other populations and on preventing homelessness.

“We’ve seen family homelessness grow,” he said. “We’ve seen youth homelessness grow in a way that we’ve not seen before. And it’s not new. So we better be in this for the long haul. That’s one thing I want to prepare you for.”

While many homeless people throughout the nation find permanent housing each day, Olivet said that success is negated by an equal number of people who become homeless.

“Until we pair the successful solutions that we have with upstream prevention work, then we’re going to keep seeing this problem,” he said. “So this is a challenge to you all.

“I think it’s the new frontier in our work,” he continued. “We don’t have this one figured out yet. I’ll be real honest about that, but we’re going to push really hard on it.”

The upcoming federal homeless plan will have a new focus on homeless prevention and equity, he said.
As part of the new plan, Olivet said communities will be asked to set their own goals for reducing homelessness.

Olivet said he had met that afternoon with the Regional Task Force on Homelessness’ ad hoc committee on black homelessness, a recently formed group that is examining why Black people are over-represented in the county’s homeless population.

“Even if it’s hard, we have to be courageous in understanding the structural root causes of homelessness, and one of those is the ongoing impact of racism,” he said.

After hearing concerns from several homeless advocates about recent police actions at homeless encampments, Olivet said there is an alarming trend of jurisdictions across the country enacting policies to criminalize homelessness.

Most severe, he said, were new laws that make sleeping outdoors a felony in Missouri and Tennessee. Olivet said the U.S. Department of Justice might look into whether those laws violate civil rights.

“When police response is the kind of leading tool communities are using to address unsheltered homelessness, it’s not effective,” he said. “It’s also inhumane.”

A better approach is a collaborative strategy that includes public health providers, homeless outreach workers and law enforcement, all tied to a pathway to housing, he said.

Olivet cited efforts in Boston, Houston, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. as examples of the strategy, which has law enforcement move in to enforce non-camping ordinances only in areas where people already have been moved into housing.

“I think there is a way to address encampments that’s respectful of the people living there, but also to businesses, also to neighborhoods, also to politicians who are under immense pressure to deal with this crisis of unsheltered homelessness,” he said.

“I think we can find common ground on this one, because I’ve seen it happen in some red states and some blue states,” he said. “So I think it’s possible, but you can’t just sweep camps and hope it goes away, because it’s just going to pop up somewhere else.”

Olivet said he sees homelessness as a systems failure, not a failure of an individual. Everybody makes mistakes in life, he said, but those mistakes should not result in someone losing their home or being denied service. He also stressed that providing services and stable housing were the most effective ways of helping someone overcome homelessness.

That approach differs from his predecessor, Robert Marbut, who held Olivet’s position during the Trump administration and prescribed housing and shelters as rewards for people who first participated in rehabilitation programs.

Addressing the San Diego City Council members in the room, Olivet said the city should compete for a share of a $365 million grant program recently released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, one of 19 agencies that make up the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

After hearing an audience member bring up the lack of affordable housing in proposed plans for the Midway District and other areas, Olivet said he sees empty office buildings and public spaces that are sitting empty around the country that could be put to better use.

San Diego Community College District Chancellor Carlos Cortez, who attended the meeting, told Olivet that his district wants to build 10,000 housing units for employees and students on its property, and he said the federal government could help provide resources to build them.

Olivet said the federal government stopped building housing 50 years ago, but that should change.

“There needs to be a full-scale rethinking of housing development in the country, and that’s hard to swallow at the local level, state level and federal level,” he said.

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