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Q&A With New CEO Of San Diego County Homeless Task Force

Gordon Walker, the CEO of the San Diego County Regional Task Force on the Homeless, is pictured in this undated photo.
Courtesy Photo
Gordon Walker, the CEO of the San Diego County Regional Task Force on the Homeless, is pictured in this undated photo.

The task force that is responsible for getting homeless service providers across San Diego County on the same page has hired a new CEO.

Gordon Walker started at the San Diego County Regional Task Force on the Homeless on June 21.

Walker was previously the director of Utah's Division of Housing and Community Development. In that role, he gained national attention for utilizing the housing first model to reduce chronic homelessness in the state.

The last homeless count found that the unsheltered homeless population in San Diego County increased 14 percent between 2016 and 2017, while the overall homeless population increased 5 percent.

On Wednesday's Midday Edition, Walker discussed how his experience can help reduce San Diego County's growing homeless population.

Below is a transcript of that interview lightly edited for clarity:

Q: What have you been doing during your first week? Have you been seeing for yourself the plight of homeless people in this county?

A: We had an opportunity to speak with the media, which is an important part of making changes because one of the things that we really do want to do is to involve people who may not have been involved previously. It takes a lot of unity of all the citizens in the city and the county in order to make a successful program.

Q: The concept of housing first worked in Utah for many reasons, but one of them is because there was housing. We have homeless people with vouchers for housing in San Diego, but they can't find any available place to live. What do you think San Diego should do about that?

A: I think that we were successful because we helped build housing. It wasn't that the housing existed when we started, but rather we built housing. There may be other areas or other problems here, but certainly, over the long run, we will certainly encourage housing to be built, both by the private sector and the public sector. But here what we have to do and what I'm doing, in fact, yesterday I spent time out looking at affordable housing projects to see both the quality and the quantity and some of the locations, we do have to use those vouchers. It's a real gift to have the vouchers. That was something that we had fewer of in Utah and yet here in San Diego, what we need is a physical location because the supporting documentation of the vouchers is a real advantage. So in many ways we are starting with more resources than we started with in Utah.

Q: What do you think about the concept of spending money to make more short-term shelter beds available while permanent housing is being located?

A: It's very difficult to ignore short-term solutions, but the fact of the matter is, this is a long-term problem and so we need to think very strategically about how to do it on the long term. My only concern with short-term solutions is that sometimes they become long-term solutions and if it's only a partial solution then it remains a partial solution. Certainly, we need to have concern and compassion and I have felt that with the people that I have met here. There truly is an interest in solving the issue short-term. But I certainly would not want to lose the thought, that 'well it's too hard to solve long-term because there are people following us that we need to solve it for.'

Q: How much money did Utah sink into its effort to eradicate chronic homelessness, and how important do you think it is to have a substantial allocation of funds?

A: I really can't give you a number, I never really added it up. What we learned was that it was cheaper to house individuals than it was to leave them on the street. So it's not how much money it takes. When we first started I admit we had no clue what we were going to do. We did do an analysis of what we thought it was going to take us and it was in the hundreds of millions of dollars and that day our pocketbooks were empty, but what was interesting was that there are resources that do come available. In creating housing, even housing is being created here. We just have to figure out some ways, make some suggestions to key leaders that if they modify just a little bit, that a few housing units come available in this project and in this project, and what is interesting is that all of a sudden in just slowly chips away. Now, the words slowly may not be acceptable to a lot of people because what I realize here in San Diego is that the level of expectation is very, very high and that’s great but we have to make sure that we efficiently allocate the resources. The one thing I would hate to see is to have an extensive short-term solution that is really not necessarily proven, but is a very good idea dissipate resources that could be worked for later. One of the things we did do is that we worked to develop collaboration and cooperation among various groups and organizations, the private sector, the banking sector, the housing sector, and bring them all together where they brought the resources that they had to bear, where they would've used them in another way but we showed them that this is a good way to use your resources, you benefit by participating with us and the collaboration level was very high. By having that cooperation, by being united as a community this is a solvable problem.

Q: The firm Focus Strategies has been hired by the county to come up with a regional plan to address homelessness. Do you know when that plan will be introduced?

A: I am actually not sure. And the reason I say that is, it's great to have really good plans, but what we want to do is get to work and actually start doing something, we don't want to spend forever developing a plan because some things are really great that come out of think tanks, and others are reflective more of the community standards and what the community wants to have. You cannot enforce a speed limit that the community will not enforce or will not abide by. And so I think it's very important that we develop some of these things locally and think strategically as to what San Diego residents are interested in and what they will support.

Q: San Diego leaders have been talking for years about homelessness while the numbers of homeless continue to rise. What do you think is different now that makes it the time that we can actually solve this issue?

A: Actually I see a lot of very positive political will right now. I would not have been interested in coming, even though you have beautiful sunshine here, if there were fights between local political leaders, but rather I sense a commonality of purpose. In fact, just recently, Supervisor Ron Roberts committed and the entire (board of supervisors) committed $25 million and 11 county-owned properties. $25 million is a lot of money. Not enough to solve homelessness I assure you, but the 11 properties give a lot of hope because that may end up representing, really hundreds of millions of dollars of resources that can come to bear. That's very exciting to me. And the enthusiasm that I sense with local political leaders makes it so that more can be done. And in fact, as we started we were fortunate to have political will. The will of the presiding authorities made it so that we could move forward and not just stop. We didn't have the money. I had to sell this as a business proposition to the legislator every year that this was a cheaper solution because - and every year I would end my presentation by saying 'oh and by the way, we're saving lives.' Because we were. We were. Let me say one other thing, this isn't a one-solution fits all strategy, but rather we are looking at the individuals and if we take each individual individually, deal with their needs, we can set up a system that processes that very rapidly on an individual basis and that's exactly what is in the process of happening right now with the coordinated entry system. And from there, we'll be able to deal with the issue individually.

Q: What kind of support are you hoping to get from the public?

A: Full support. And actually one of the reasons that I am here today is to try to generate some interest among people who may not rub shoulders with people that just need a little help. They may not relate to them, they may need to have an introduction, but just like many people hug their children this morning a homeless individual needs to be hugged also because no one really wants to hug them. And so what we hope to do is make it so that they are more huggable and the fact that people begin to relate more to the plight. San Diego is a wonderful place and there are a lot of very successful people here. Your unemployment rate is low so people who want a job are employed and what we have to do is to share that with others that are less fortunate than we are and make it so that they can make their way in life also.

Q&A With New CEO Of San Diego County Homeless Task Force
Q&A With New CEO Of San Diego County Homeless Task Force GUEST:Gordon Walker, CEO, San Diego County Regional Task Force on the Homeless

Today marks one week on the job for the new CEO of said Eagle County's regional task force on homeless. Gordon Walker is in the process of finding out if his success in Utah can be translated here. He served as Utah Director of housing and community development while that state conducted a major effort to reduce chronic homelessness and achieved dramatic results. Homelessness in San Diego is up and a 40% increase in street homelessness is making the problem more visible. And more peerless than ever before. Gordon Walker joints me now. Welcome. Thank you very much. What have you been doing during your first week? Have you been seeing the homeless people in this county? We have been looking around and visiting various individuals. We've had a opportunity to speak to the media, which is an important part of making changes to something that we do want to do is involve people that may have not been involved previously. It takes a lot of unity of all the citizens in the city and county in order to make a successful program. The concept of housing worked in Utah for many reasons. One is because there was housing. We have homeless people with vouchers for housing in San Diego but can't find any available place to live. What you think San Diego should do? I think that we were successful because we helped build housing. It wasn't that the housing existed but rather we built the housing. There may be other areas or other problems here but certainly over the long run, we certainly encouraged housing to be built both by the private sector and the public sector. What we have to do and what I am doing -- yesterday I spent time looking at affordable housing projects disabled the quality and the quantity on some of the locations. We do have to use the vouchers. It is a real gift to have the vouchers. That was something that we had fewer of in Utah and here in San Diego what we need is a physical location because the supporting documentation of the vouchers is a real advantage. In many ways, we are starting with more resources that we start with the new top. What you think about the concept of spending money to make more short-term shelter beds available while permanent housing is being located question Mark It is difficult to ignore short-term solutions but the fact of the matter is, this is a longtime problem. We have to think strategically about how to do on the long-term. Short-term solutions become long-term solutions and if it's only a partial solution, then it remains a partial solution. How much money did you put into chronic homelessness and how important do you think it is to have a substantial allocation of funds? I never added it up. What we learned is that is cheaper to house individuals that it was to leave them on the streets. It is not how much money it takes. When we started we had no clue what were going to do. We did do an analysis of what we thought it was going to take us and it was in the millions of dollars and our pocketbooks were empty. There are recesses -- resources that to become available. We have to figure out ways and make suggestions to leaders if they modify just a little bit a few housing units come available in this project and what's interesting is all of a sudden it just slowly chips away. The word slowly may not be acceptable to a lot of people because when I realize here in San Diego is the level of expectation is very high. That is great, but we have to make sure that we officially allocate the resources. Something I would hate to see is to have an extensive short-term solution that is really not necessarily proven, but is a very good idea dissipate resources that could be worked for later. Something we did do is we work to develop collaboration and cooperation among various groups and organizations to the private sector, housing specter and thinking -- housing sector and banking sector. We show them that this is a good way to use your resources. You benefit by participating with us and the collaboration level was very high. By having that cooperation and by being united as a community, this is a solvable problem. Here in San Diego leaders have been talking for years about homelessness while the numbers of homeless continue to rise or go what you think is different now that makes it the time that we can actually solve this issue? I see it political will right now. I would not have been interested in coming even though you have beautiful sunshine here if there were fights between local political leaders. I sense a commonality of purpose. Just recently supervisor Roberts and the entire counsel committed $25 million and 11 county owned properties. That is a lot of money not enough to solve homelessness but they 11 properties give a lot of hope because that may represent hundreds of millions of dollars of resources. That is exciting to me and the enthusiasm that I sense with local political leaders makes it so that more can be done. This is in a one solution fits all strategy. Rather we are looking at the individuals and if we take each individual individually and deal with their needs, we can set up a system that processes that very rapidly on individual basis and that is what is in the process of happening right now. From their we will be able to deal with the issue individually. I've been speaking with Gordon Walker CEO of Sanyo counties regional task force on the homeless. Thank you so much. Thank you very much.