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By President and CEO, Deacon Jim Vargas.

Every night nearly 5,200 men, women, and children sleep on the streets of San Diego in dangerous situations, a 10% increase, with more unsheltered seniors and women since this time last year. This tragedy has ballooned into an untenable crisis that worsens every month. At Father Joe’s Villages, we see the impact these unsafe conditions have on our neighbors. It creates trauma, mental health issues, substance use disorders, physical harm, and developmental delays. 

If we are to truly stem the tide of homelessness, we must adopt a coordinated multifaceted solution. This approach requires the investment in two key factors that drive the homelessness crisis – housing availability and behavioral health care. Inability to execute both elements simultaneously will result in failure. 

Housing is key to getting our neighbors off the street. The fact of the matter is, people are falling into homelessness faster than they are finding housing. And with soaring housing costs and rising inflation, many San Diegans are experiencing homelessness for the first time in their lives. This creates a new cohort of individuals who are exposed to unsafe conditions and caught in a cycle that is increasingly difficult to break. We will continue to see more and more new faces living on our streets, including those of families and children, if we do not create more affordable and accessible housing.

Father Joe’s Villages believes housing is a human right. Every single one of us deserves the opportunity to have a safe place to live and rest. Housing that is affordable and accessible is a core requirement to ending homelessness. As an affordable housing developer, Father Joe’s Villages sees the critical need for permitting and entitlement processes, and public funding sources, at all levels, to be streamlined in order to both reduce the cost of housing construction as well as expedite housing development.

In concert with housing, behavioral health services are essential if we are serious about helping people transition from homelessness. Living on the streets exposes you to violence, drug use, predatory behavior, and other traumatic experiences. These factors exacerbate or create new mental health and substance issues which increase the likelihood of prolonged homelessness. Being exposed to such a high level of trauma for a long period of time makes it even more difficult to acquire and retain housing without proper behavioral health care.

Even more pressing, we are experiencing a new plight in the unhoused community to a severity never confronted before – Fentanyl. In 2019 there were less than 100 deaths on the streets. In 2022, that number has risen to a devastating 600 individuals, half of whom died from Fentanyl related causes. We cannot help someone if they die from an overdose or if we shun them from services because they are still active users. To confront this devastating crisis and stem the loss of life, a new philosophy is needed – harm reduction.

Harm reduction is a proven evidence-based model that not only helps people reduce the life-threatening risks of their substance use, but also gives them the gift of time and resources to work through the challenges that led to their substance use in the first place. This means educating people on the dangers of their drug use in a judgment free way, and providing them with the tools and knowledge that lowers harms. With harm reduction, we can keep people alive, build trust with the individual, prevent disease, and help guide them to support and services.

Everyone deserves care regardless of their struggles with substances or mental health. People do not need to be sober and drug-free to deserve food, shelter, and kindness. Once trust is built and people have a safe, stable place to live, we can better uplift them with a diversity of wrap-around services like medical care, counseling, and other services to help them stay on a healthy productive path.

We cannot help someone stabilize through behavioral health care and place them back on the streets expecting them to get better. People need both a safe place to live and behavioral health care to succeed. Our unhoused neighbors need housing, they need compassion, they need support, and they need all of this now. Everyone must work together so all people in America’s finest city have a safe place to thrive.