A favorite recessionary pastime of Americans has always been to point the finger at those who have made it through unscathed — bankers, executives, regulators; you know the type — and grumble at the unfairness of it all.
“Look at us,” we’ll say, “tightening our belts and swearing off name brands in an age of unprecedented financial bonuses.” But rarely do we take a break from our cantankerous ramblings to consider the fate of those worse off than ourselves.
Virtually hidden in plain sight are the homeless, whose ranks have surged during the recession and this so-called recovery. According to a new study presented to the California State Assembly’s Committee on Homelessness, the number of homeless living in San Diego has increased to more than 9,000, in addition to another 9,000 on the brink of losing their homes.
This increase comes despite great successes in the reduction of chronic homelessness in San Diego. The chronically homeless are individuals with a history of long-term homelessness. They usually suffer from mental illnesses, addiction and severe medical conditions. These people require extensive medical help coupled with comprehensive support to lift them out of homelessness. Strangely, the number of chronically homeless people has actually declined this past year. But a new group has taken the stage — these episodic homeless, pushed out to the streets by systemic economic hardships.
These people aren’t suffering from medical or psychological issues often associated with those falling under the chronically homeless category. Ironically, this makes them ineligible for many programs available to help those living on the streets. Oftentimes, this group requires such simple help that they end up receiving none.
That’s not to say the programs that exist now aren’t helpful: Local organizations such as Home Again and Father Joe’s Village have been resoundingly successful in providing the long term psychological, medical and financial help the chronically homeless need. These organizations have been extraordinarily instrumental in the reduction of chronic homelessness in San Diego, but that emphasis has let many episodic homeless simply fall through the cracks.
It’s absolutely stunning that despite decreases in state and private funding provided to these homeless aid organizations, limited resources are concentrated on those most at risk. In the end, episodically homeless individuals are left on the streets, at risk of developing the medical and psychological issues that plague so many of the already homeless. Wouldn’t it make fiscal, moral and common sense to target that group before they fall in with the chronically homeless?
There needs to be a change to the system, and it needs to happen now. Understandably, legislators are wary to make costly alterations to the system in place. But there’s really no need for an all-encompassing — and expensive — support network for the recessionary homeless. Sometimes, all they need is food, shelter and a second chance.
However, these types of changes must be set in place before episodically homeless individuals lose the skills they need to reenter the workforce and become once again financially independent. First, we need to increase the number of soup kitchens and low-support shelters to provide basic living necessities. Second, to get off the streets they need to begin working and become financially stable. For that to happen, the city should sponsor skill-training classes and job fairs to prepare the episodically homeless for new jobs and help them connect with potential employers. To sweeten the deal for companies who may be wary of hiring a destitute individual, the city should provide tax incentives to companies that hire and keep persons that have been identified as homeless or are at a high risk of becoming homeless.
Unfortunately, employment alone won’t put an end to their vagrancy. The city needs to increase the availability of affordable housing. Recently the San Diego City Council voted to keep local redevelopment agencies alive. At least 20 percent of that money has to be spent on affordable housing. That means there is no excuse for the city to not provide cheap homes for the newly employed homeless.
The steps to address the needs of a new generation of recessionary homeless are clear. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be easily enacted in the current economic environment, where both the city and individuals face daunting financial challenges. But that is not an excuse to forget about the most vulnerable among us, those hit hardest by the recession. We cannot allow these hardworking families enduring hard times to be trapped in a cycle of homelessness and dependency. We have a chance to nip this new generation of homelessness in the bud, if only we have the compassion and willpower to act now.
— Leonardo Castaneda is an economics and journalism sophomore.
— The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.