San Diego Homelessness Advisor Reflects On Challenging Year
Anyone else who walks by a homeless person curled up in a sleeping bag on a downtown sidewalk might not see much hope. But Jonathan Herrera does.
“I see a person. A person that matters,” said Herrera, senior advisor on homelessness for the city of San Diego. “I see my brother, I see my sister. ‘Cause that’s who they are.”
Sporting a suit and tie with a shaved head and tattoo on his neck, Herrera, 32, has been on the front lines of the nation’s 4th largest homeless crisis for ten months. He collaborates with groups and other regions on projects and solutions and spends much of his time getting to know the people he’s working to help.
“That was an element when I stepped into this role that I saw that was missing,” Herrera said. “You know, there’s a lot of stakeholders, service providers, well-intentioned advocates and things of that nature, but I didn’t see homeless individuals being part of the conversation.”
Herrera, who grew up in Southeastern San Diego and Chula Vista, said just like those living on the streets, his road has not been easy. He took some bad turns after high school and ended up in jail, serving time for possession of firearms and narcotics.
Hitting rock bottom was his turning point, he said.
“I can remember sitting in the prison cell thinking, all the hard work my parents, my mother, her parents, really put forward to make a better life for me and how I was just throwing that all away,” he recalled.
That’s why he knows it’s possible to turn people’s lives around. He has found his calling, he said.
“It’s been a crazy, crazy ride,” he said. “But I’m absolutely thrilled to be able to serve my city in this fashion.”
When he started his position in July, more than 1,100 people were sleeping on downtown streets, a stroll away from his City Hall office.
“Nearly 5,600 homeless people in the city of San Diego alone, 3,600 of them unsheltered,” he said.
Block after block of makeshift encampments overflowed in despair and misery along the outskirts of the East Village. Hepatitis A was spreading with no end in sight. Emergency shelter waiting lists stretched hundreds of names long.
“So it was not only an increased population, it was far more visible,” he said. “And the Hepatitis A outbreak was... an opportunity for us to be able to take the action that was necessary. It was unfortunate that individuals lost their lives under this crisis,” he said.
Some blamed the outbreak on insufficient bathrooms.
“Yes, a lack of sanitary facilities definitely contributed to it and that’s why the city stepped up in providing additional restrooms and has continued to provide those facilities after the outbreak has been rescinded,” he said.
Along with added porta potties came handwashing stations and sidewalk bleaching, followed by a major transformation on East Village streets. Police in large caravans spent months clearing out encampments, and the people living in them.
“That was one of the leading contributing factors to the unsanitary conditions that cause hepatitis A,” he said.
Advocates argued the aggressive enforcement pushed people to canyons and other hidden crevices away from downtown services they depended on. But Herrera said everyone was offered a bed, and the city set up additional shelters for increased capacity.
“The campground, the bridge shelters, the safe parking program,” he listed off.
A temporary campground on the outskirts of downtown provided single and family size tents for 200 people. Safe parking lots opened for people to sleep in their vehicles without worrying about citations. And three large Bridge Shelters opened, providing beds for 700 people with a goal of moving them into permanent housing.
“And they’re really working on providing employment opportunities, supportive services -- everything an individual needs to try to help transition from a life out on the streets,” he said.
Still, hundreds if not thousands continue to sleep on the streets. Many are mentally ill or disabled. Some are just down on their luck.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” Herrera said “And we’re committed to being able to work with every individual to provide them an opportunity to get off the streets. Are we there yet? No.”
But Herrera said progress is being made. A focus in the coming months will be outreach and mental health treatment he said, with the help of a newly created neighborhood police division. The city is also opening more storage facilities for people to keep their belongings, and a one-stop-shop for homeless services in the East Village called a Navigation Center.
“This is really part of our overarching strategy to connect, support and house homeless individuals,” he said.
Herrera said he knows what’s it’s like to be faced with a series of closed doors, so he intends to open as many as he can, and save lives.