SAN DIEGO (CNS) - Around 2,500 units of housing for the homeless could come on line in San Diego over the next few years, representatives of two organizations said Monday.
At a City Council forum on homeless issues, Deacon Jim Vargas said Father Joe's Villages planned to added 2,000 housing units over the next five years. Vargas, the agency's president and CEO, said he estimates that 2,500 to 2,800 people could be helped.
Some units will be constructed while others will be acquired, according to Vargas, who didn't spell out how the units would be paid for.
Richard Gentry, president and CEO of the San Diego Housing Commission, said it would add another 500 units over three years.
For all the causes of San Diego's complex homeless problem, area leaders pointed to a lack of affordable housing as the biggest.
Supervisor Ron Roberts told the council members that a 6-month-old county program that targets severely mentally ill homeless people has found 227 people places to live.
"We still have another 145 on the streets who are already qualified for housing, and have a voucher in hand, and we have no house for them to move into," Roberts said. "We simply have to address the housing issue."
Nearly 8,700 homeless people were counted in a tally in San Diego County last year, the fourth-highest in the nation. More than half were living on the streets, with the rest in shelters or doubling up with friends or relatives.
The forum included reports from the city's top official on homeless issues, a county representative, San Diego State University and the Housing Commission. Representatives of various social service agencies also spoke, along with members of the public.
"Right now, we do have an opportunity to come together as a region, with this focus, like we haven't done in the past, to address in a meaningful way one of the most vexing and important problems facing our city," Mayor Kevin Faulconer said.
"There is support to do things differently and take decisive action."
Faulconer said later this year, he would begin a push for a ballot measure that would raise the hotel room tax, with some of the new funding to be targeted for infrastructure and more for homeless programs. He first broached the idea in his "State of the City" address in January.
The SDSU report said, in part, that more than 15,000 people sought assistance from local agencies between Oct. 1, 2015, and Sept. 30, 2016 -- and more than half of them were trying to get help for the first time in at least five years.
SDSU population health scientist Sue Lindsay, executive director of the SDSU Institute for Public Health, said the finding made it clear that more prevention and intervention programs were required in the region.
Gentry outlined six proposals the Housing Commission would bring forth this summer -- one on the 500 new housing units -- and another to tackle the prevention side of the issue.
"So what we're proposing to do is make a significant effort to try to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place," Gentry said. The $1.9 million program would bring together partners to help 1,050 people, he said.
The commission's other proposals are to:
-- coordinate outreach efforts by social service agencies;
-- expand incentives to landlords to reduce the risk of renting to the homeless;
-- grow the rapid re-housing program that provides short-term help to homeless families; and
-- provide rental assistance to 50 people who are leaving the region's system for helping the homeless.
In total, the six points in the plan would cost an estimated $78.7 million over three years, with funding already identified, according to Gentry. He said the money won't be impacted by federal budget proposals that could include major spending reductions.
Of that, around $61 million would be used on the new housing units, he said.
Several members of the public offered suggestions, including building "sleeping cabins" that could be built quickly and inexpensively, and turning the sprawling Qualcomm Stadium property into a homeless village.
A group is also seeking to build a stadium to house a Major League Soccer team on the site, along offices and other commercial developments.
Councilman Chris Ward, recently named vice chairman of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, also issued a series of proposals.
Among them were to establish a city-sponsored community land trust to support affordable and permanent supportive housing, update zoning to allow for micro units and tiny homes, and providing areas for the homeless to go about their daily activities without fear of arrest.
"We cannot continue to criminalize homeless people without fulfilling our responsibility to provide them with sufficient places to go," Ward said.
"We'll continue to push aggressively for permanent supportive housing, but in the meantime we need to consider all options to connect homeless individuals with safe places to receive services and get back on their feet."
Ward represents downtown, Hillcrest and North Park, three of the San Diego neighborhoods most impacted by homelessness.