El Cajon 'Housing Navigator' ready to help homeless

El Cajon’s plan for connecting homeless persons to housing opportunities has taken root.

Crisis House employee Karina Hernandez, whose business card reads “El Cajon Housing Connections, Housing Navigator,” was hired by the city several months ago at the urging of the City Council.

Crisis House partners with the city to provide Housing Connections. Hernandez will remain employed by Crisis House during the 12-month program.

El Cajon’s “housing navigator” position is similar to a recent pilot program that was a success in Encinitas.

Hernandez, 32, has already placed one needy family in housing and is closing in on finding a suitable rental for a homeless man. She has been out with the El Cajon Police’s Homeless Outreach Team and handed out her card to several individuals.

The goal of the City Council is for the navigator to find homes for 25 individuals by June 30, 2018.

Hernandez is a 2004 Eastlake alum with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from Cal State Los Angeles. She said she has known since age 15 that she wanted to be a social worker.

Hernandez has been employed since 2015 by Crisis House, a community resource center based in El Cajon. The nonprofit has been helping people become self-sufficient and gain access to social services in East County since 1970.

“I’ve been working with the individuals and families through Crisis House for two years,” Hernandez said, “and one of the main things they ask about is housing. I’m very happy I can finally help them in that way, to help them get off the streets, even if it’s just a room to rent for a little bit of time. A lot of them are just asking for a place to lay their head.”

In her job for the city, Hernandez will focus on establishing relationships with persons who are homeless, match those persons with suitable housing, and guide them toward programs and services.

Mary Case, executive director of Crisis House, said Hernandez has already established relationships and built trust with many homeless people in the city. That connection will make her job less complicated than it would have been for someone from outside Crisis House, Case said.

Hernandez will be paid $37,440 for the year, plus have use of a cell phone, laptop computer and other perks.

The council earlier this year dedicated up to $150,000 for the position, $80,000 of that for housing assistance funds.

In May, pushed by City Councilmen Steve Goble and Gary Kendrick, the city decided to take a more hands-on approach to the homeless situation in El Cajon.

Kendrick and Goble said they were concerned that El Cajon’s most recent homeless numbers showed a 21 percent increase in the past year.

The annual “point in time” count of homeless persons in 2017 showed 65 people in sheltered housing and 323 living unsheltered in the city, for a total of 388. That number was 321 last year.

Mayor Bill Wells said homelessness is a top priority and top concern for citizens in the city of nearly 100,000.

“Obviously, there is no one simple solution to this,” Wells said. “The housing navigator is one piece of the puzzle. It’s easy to be discouraged because to really do enough would cost millions of dollars. A city does what it can with enforcement, with helping people access the system and opening up opportunities to get off the street.

“All those things working in combination start the process of working toward more solutions.”

Case said she is glad the city is funding the position and that Crisis House can help.

She acknowledged that the effort will be a challenge, but that just providing the opportunity for Crisis House is a big dea.

“We can’t wait to really get going,” Case said.

Hernandez said she is “just excited to be part of this project and finally being able to be a housing resource for everyday clients.”

The city is also working with several other partners, including the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless, the County of San Diego, the East County Homeless Task Force and Crisis House in an effort to decrease the number of people living on the streets or in their cars.

karen.pearlman@sduniontribune.com

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