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County approves program to detect who may become homeless

A tent in front of San Diego's Central Library.
In this photo from August, homeless people begin setting up tents outside the San Diego Central Library in the early evening hours.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A similar program used in Los Angeles has helped prevent people from falling into homeless. Certain data can reveal if someone is facing homelessness.

County supervisors Tuesday, Oct. 25, unanimously approved a plan that will use data to identify people who are at risk of becoming homeless as a way of keeping them in their homes and off the street.

“We really need to do everything we can to try to intervene early,” said Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher, who proposed the initiative, which is modeled on a similar one in Los Angeles said to have been successful.

Fletcher and other supervisors said the new initiative would address a wave of new homeless people who are overwhelming efforts to provide housing for people already homeless. Supervisors referred to a new Regional Task Force on Homelessness report that found an average of 13 people become homeless for every 10 homeless people who are housed.

Supervisor Joel Anderson said preventing homelessness is more efficient and cost-effective than trying to help people once they are on the street, and Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said she loved that the approach was data-driven and followed best practices.

Fletcher said the initiative calls for integrating a data system with multiple county departments, creating a risk assessment from the data and launching a new homeless prevention unit to reach the people identified as at-risk.

The initiative also could include a new app that about 60 county employees would use to connect with people like librarians and park rangers who might detect who is at risk.

As an example of who might be flagged, Fletcher said the integrated data might find someone who owes money to the county, may be facing arrest or may be coming out of a detention facility.

Other indicators could be state food assistance, general relief payments, mental health services or contact with four or more government agencies, according to a 2019 report from UCLA’s California Policy Lab.

“These data points might not be predictors on their own, but taken together they can afford the opportunity to intervene,” he said.

A few people who called into the meeting opposed the program and raised concerns about privacy, and one man suggested that everyone in the county one day would be on some kind of list.

John Brady of Lived Experience Advisors said the initiative also will be a way to quantify the number of people who are at-risk and the resources needed to help them.

“Why should we allow anyone to experience homelessness when it’s not necessary and we can support their needs?” he said.


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