County Board Chair touts quality of life, mental health during annual speech
County Board of Supervisors Chair Nora Vargas focused on improving life for families, a stronger economy, better infrastructure and mental health care, and combating homelessness during Wednesday's State of the County speech.
Speaking before a full crowd in county Administration Center West Plaza, Vargas, challenged the audience to help her "make San Diego County a better county for all."
"There's nothing we can't accomplish together, because you know what? We got this," said Vargas, first elected to the District 1 seat in 2020.
During her speech, Vargas also discussed strengthening public safety, reducing food insecurity, fighting for environmental justice and eco-friendly job creation.
That's welcome news to the director of policy at Climate Action Campaign, Mikey Knab.
“The way that she talked about ensuring justice through our investments in world class transit is exactly the right tone. And we're looking forward to watching that manifest through her leadership,” Knab said.
Vargas noted that between personal stories and government statistics, a speech doesn't mean much to families scrambling to put dinner on the table, or those struggling with their mental health.
Vargas added that it would "take a heck of a lot more than a speech" to fix major challenges.
"I won't rest until we make real changes," Vargas said, adding that the Board of Supervisors and county government "will keep fighting until everyone has a shot at achieving the American dream."
Vargas said that when she first came into office, she worked to protect renters struggling to stay in their homes as the COVID-19 pandemic caused serious economic harm and stop unfair evictions. The county gave out millions of dollars in assistance to working families needing help, said Vargas, who added she'll work with city officials in an attempt to expand rental protections.
Vargas said preventing and addressing homelessness "is a top priority," which is why the board in September declared it a public health crisis. While participating in recent official counts of those living on the street, Vargas said she understood "how years of bad policies had failed communities."
"I know there is no `one size fits all' solution," Vargas said, adding that in the county, there are nearly 100,000 families living who are one paycheck away from homelessness. "We must find the humanity in our solutions."
There must be a comprehensive strategy to confront the homeless epidemic, including working with the 18 city governments in San Diego County, along with faith-based and community groups to help seniors, veterans and LGBTQ residents, Vargas said.
Cathryn Nacario, CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness San Diego (NAMI), said that's especially important now. There’s often a strong correlation between homelessness and mental health struggles — especially with LGBTQ youth.
“There's a higher level of rejection and trauma that tends to occur in that community. And many times when that rejection and trauma does occur, that rejection often results in somebody being asked to leave their home at a very young age – at 15, 16, 17 years old. So they're automatically put into a situation of experiencing homelessness.”
Vargas pointed out her work with colleagues Joel Anderson and Nathan Fletcher on finding more emergency housing and helping veterans find a place of their own, respectively. "We know that 24% of the homeless population counted in 2022 were over the age of 55," Vargas said. "Can you believe we are leaving our senior citizens on the streets and without shelter?"
The county is giving each senior in a special program $500 per month to help pay their rent, and will upgrade senior centers. County government will also leverage federal, state and local funding sources to develop more housing "and remove bureaucratic barriers to get it done," Vargas said.
"If we listen to one another, we can start to make real change in our communities," Vargas said.
Vargas said that when she was an education advocate, she saw students sleeping in their cars, and relying on food pantries. "No more, not on my watch," she added.
One in four San Diegans doesn't have access to quality food, and so the county will partner with various food banks to help residents and increase community gardens, Vargas said.
"It's hard to believe that this is something we have to say out loud in 2023:
no one should be going hungry," Vargas added. It's also important that county residents take care of mental health, which became an especially crucial topic over the past three years, Vargas said.
She noted that last year, supervisors allocated $30 million for mental health services and projects to help children and youth, and $2 million for homebound individuals. The county is partnering with schools on a mental health screening initiative, including one for middle school students later this year and working with parents to break down mental health stigmas.
NAMI’s Nacario said that's especially important now as the need is great and prevention is key.
“The numbers used to be about one in five individuals would experience a mental health concern in any given year. That number looks like it’s dropping down to one in three coming out of the pandemic. So it's changed pretty significantly,” she said.
In response to recent mass shootings, county leaders must work together to reduce the epidemic of violence, Vargas said, adding that "thoughts and prayers are not enough."
In a partnership with Sheriff Kelly Martinez, "we are launching a community safety initiative to address gun violence and public safety," Vargas said. "I am committed to bringing stakeholders together to implement restorative justice policies and practices to keep our communities safe."
Vargas mentioned her work with fellow Supervisor Jim Desmond on educating young people about the dangers of fentanyl and other public safety achievements, including a South County resource center for abuse survivors and a fire station in East Otay Mesa.
Vargas said that healthy communities "bolster a healthy economy" with small businesses, hit hard by the pandemic, as the backbone.
"Not only do they make up most of the businesses in the county, but they also employ nearly 60 percent of our workforce," she said, adding that she championed a division on economic prosperity and community development. "This office serves as a hub to connect businesses to resources that will help them thrive and create a diverse local economy," Vargas said.
She added that the county has awarded nearly $26.2 million in grants to support local businesses. "This is real money for real people," Vargas said.
Working parents who support the local economy need help and "child care for all needs to be our goal," Vargas said, adding the county must find innovative solutions to make that possible.
"It's common sense that if we want more people taking care of kids, they must be paid well for their hard work." Vargas took a moment to praise local unions, including those for domestic workers, county employees, heavy industry, law enforcement and public defenders. "Together, we're going to create a pathway to the middle class," she said.
Another key to growing the local economy is having the right infrastructure in place, so residents have easier commutes to work or school, Vargas said. She touted a partnership with the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System on a program allowing people 18 or younger free public transit.
Since the program's start, youth ridership has risen by 84%, Vargas said, adding she wants to expand free transportation to college-age students.
Vargas said she was proud to lead efforts on welcome immigrants to the county, from helping children at the San Diego Convention Center to those meeting up with their families.
Vargas added she'll "continue to fight" so immigrants are treated with dignity and respect, and work to help them become citizens.
An immigrant herself, Vargas said she remembered being a little girl and waiting at the border crossing for hours in traffic. Vargas added the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, which will speed up waiting times, reducing air pollution and help the local economy by supporting over 80,000 jobs.
Along with a strong economy, "I believe it's our responsibility to expand outdoor access for every resident," said Vargas, who added the county must commit to more parks and recreational centers for every community.
While there is a goal to plant over 5,000 trees in county, Vargas challenged audience members to help her plant 10,000 trees. Elected as board chairwoman in January, Vargas is the first person of color and first-generation immigrant to hold the position.
Vargas' niece Fatima Jimenez emceed Wednesday's speech, describing it as "such an inspiring moment for me and young women like me."