SAN DIEGO, CA. — Carla Venagras remembers hitting her low 18 years ago when she was living on the streets of San Diego County.
"I was homeless on the street dealing with addiction and I was just... I was really tired," said Venagras.
She sees herself in the thousands of people living here without a home, and because of that, she sees the potential for hope.
She’s now turned into a helper, working for the very place she credits for getting her out of homelessness: the San Diego Rescue Mission, an organization that provides housing and rehabilitation. Venagras works directly with those experiencing homelessness on the street, offering them resources, like food or a shower, meeting their needs where they’re at.
"The only way we can do that is showing up every day. Showing up every day, consistently saying, 'Hey, I'm here today. How do you feel today?'" she said.
Now, the Rescue Mission is teaming up with the county to address the issue that’s been growing exponentially.
"It's more than an issue. It's a crisis [of] proportions now, especially here in San Diego, and we've all got to do some things differently. If we're going to get ahead of this," said Donnie Dee, the president and CEO of the San Diego Rescue Mission.
Across the nation, the number of people experiencing homelessness is increasing. Between 2019 and 2020, the national county of people living on the streets, in shelters or in cars was 580,000. That’s a 2% increase from the year before. However, in San Diego County, the homeless population nearly doubled during that time period, growing by 79%.
No matter where you live in this county, the issue is becoming more of a visible one, as many municipalities are seeing more tent encampments are popping up, not just in urban centers.
"Homelessness is no longer just a downtown issue. This is now a county-wide problem. We believe that the solution has got to be more than just providing services. So, we are moving from just providing services to building a system," said Dee.
He says for the first time, a public-private partnership between San Diego County and the Rescue Mission will be establishing three brand new shelters in the northern, eastern and southern parts of the county, away from the city of San Diego.
Properties are being bought in these areas to bring shelter beds where there have not been before.
"These will all be low barrier shelters. The only requirement will be, as you have to see a case manager. And it's through that one-on-one case management that we believe that we'll have the opportunity to help them navigate a path forward," he said.
The case managers will check on their progress, set them up with services, and hopefully, enter them into the mission’s 12-month rehabilitation and job training program.
Dee believes this model should be replicated across the U.S. as more and more communities are seeing their neighbors experience homelessness.
"There's the opportunity for us both to work together on behalf of a neighbor, of somebody for the most part, grew up in this community and went to school in this community. They're from here, we get a chance to help that person take a step in their life out of homelessness," Dee said.
For helpers like Venagras, these new approaches mean more individuals can get on the path she did.
"I'm here to help you. I'm here to walk along beside you," she said.