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Modern Approaches to Homelessness

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Amanda L. McGimpsey
February 14, 2019

In the modern era, public administrators must re-examine complex social problems like homelessness. The recent Hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego exemplifies a city being forced to redefine their approach to a decades-long social problem. The city must now explore issues of place, it’s relationship to community partnerships and vertical government structure.

In the 1980s, the City of San Diego made a large push to make Downtown San Diego a tourist destination. To this end, San Diego offered significant benefits for homeless services to move to the outlying East Village district of Downtown. The goal was to group homeless populations into specific areas to consolidate access to services, and to clean up the rest of Downtown. While this was in theory an innovative approach, unfortunately the relocation efforts for these services were largely promoted by the city government without consulting with the service organizations. This approach did not offer long range, sustainable funding.

In the 1990s, recognizing that the area needed additional support, the City Council developed a comprehensive plan to bring more funding into this area and setup more locations around the county that could address issues of homelessness in similar ways. However, while this plan had the best of intentions it was only partially implemented and funded. The East Village continued to be one of the few neighborhoods in San Diego with an accumulation of services, but did not have the full support and funding from the city in order to make it a success.

By the time Petco Park was developed in the area in the 2000s, the East Village area served the largest homeless population in the county. As the area rapidly began gentrifying with the development of Petco Park, luxury condos and trendy restaurants, the homeless population continued to grow. Yet funding from the city and federal government continued to be prioritized for other types of services not offered in the East Village.

This leads us to 2016, when gentrified residential and business communities began demanding that the homeless population be moved from East Village. Mayor Faulkner was struggling with the public relations nightmare of having the fourth largest homeless population in the country and a growing chorus of angry residents and businesses. That is when the Hepatitis A outbreak began spreading through the homeless population of East Village, killing 20 people and infecting over 500 others, including homeless individuals and community members.

Facing the political aftermath of the Hepatitis A outbreak, the city responded with more direct engagement such as regular street cleanings, more public restrooms and setting up temporary housing near East Village. But they also continued to rely on community partnerships. The key challenge that San Diego must solve is how it can ensure administrative accountability while networking with these services. In order to avoid repeating historic mistakes, San Diego will need to transform from a vertical approach to a more horizontal approach so it can build the capacity to manage these partnerships effectively.

San Diego should also reconsider how it organizes it’s approach to homelessness. In his Notes on the Theory of Administration, Luther Gulick outlines four distinctive forms of organization: By process, by clientele, by place, or by major purpose. He argues that to be truly effective, public administrators can not pick parts of each approach. They must instead choose only one approach. To do otherwise will lead to dilution and the organization will not work.

For the last 50 years, San Diego has been organizing by place. The homeless population was purposefully channeled into the East Village with the goal of being able to centralize services. However, this strategy has proved ineffective and the city should reconsider other forms of organizational approaches that may be more sustainable.

The East Village must also overcome issues of hyperpluralism, where groups or factions become so strong that the government is unable to function. San Diego must resist the temptation of repeating history. The city should not appease business owners and gentrified communities by moving the homeless population into another undeveloped area just like they did 40 years ago. This strategy does not work and San Diego’s government must develop a more city-wide approach that involves listening to all stakeholders—most importantly, the homeless themselves.

To develop a horizonal form of management, San Diego officials must focus on being adaptable to new challenges, developing the capacity to manage effectively and consistently and show a willingness to redefine their role to better scale to the issues at hand. It is the administrator’s job to maintain effectiveness by being highly adaptable in the modern era.

Author: Amanda L McGimpsey is a community outreach specialist focused on creating partnerships to solve social issues. She is currently pursuing an MPA from San Diego State University. With a decade of experience working in the field of higher education she has an interest in reexamining complex social issues to promote social equity. [email protected]

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