Author: Omar Passons

[Special Episode]: Tony – Abuse, AIDS, and Compassion

[Special Episode]: Tony – Abuse, AIDS, and Compassion

(click the button below to play the Special Episode – run time 14 minutes)

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Growing up in a home with six foster brothers and sisters who regularly rotated in and out of my life influenced my comfort in fluid environments.  Over the course of my young life I shared a house with dozens of brothers and sisters, for varying periods of time.  Many of them experienced trauma and attempted as best they know how to cope with its effects while we lived together – that had a profound impact on me.  One of my foster brothers was a little boy named Tony, and his life left an imprint that shaped why I am fighting so hard for system change to support – and protect – our children.

In this episode I depart from the usual question and answer format to tell a story about Tony’s life.  I explain the growing pains of grappling with physical deformities that made every interaction for him very different than what most children experience.  Tony’s life was both bright and full of life, and unbearably sad and tragic. Having a brother who dealt with so much, who needed so much care from such an early age, implanted a desire in me to fight for a society that is more nurturing and more protective of our young people.

As I have grown up and reflected on the formative experiences created by having a brother like Tony, I also realize that we must step in and be intentional about breaking cycles of poverty and violence in the home if we are to take seriously a commitment to giving every person real opportunity. My life experiences created in me a desire for system change from the earliest moments before a child is even born. Tony’s best chance at a different life started with supporting his parents before he was born and we have proof that early intervention can prevent the life he was forced to lead. Tony’s life was an important lesson for me as I’ve become an advocate for children, but he was also just my little brother.

Homeless and Hungry: Shame on us

Homeless and Hungry: Shame on us

At the invitation of a very kind man named David Mulvaney, I joined a group of volunteers to prepare food for San Diegans who do not have enough food to eat. We met at Father Joe’s Villages in San Diego, which is at 15th and Imperial, not too far from a major transit stop and across from the Metropolitan Transit System bus yard. I had been down there before, most recently on two tours of the property by the CEO Deacon Jim Vargas while I was deepening my understanding before releasing our Hope4Homeless plan (link below). Deacon Jim is the kind of compassionate, driven person necessary for this work, as the people in need have a range of very severe issues and the politics of truly helping can get messy.

I walked up the main courtyard and saw dozens of people. The men and women I saw were someone’s brother or sister or mother or father…and they were all struggling to make it. One good reason to spend time here is that it is an important reminder that the “homeless crisis” is about actual, flesh and blood human beings living in often awful conditions and in desperate need. It is a direct, specific reminder of the human difficulties involved – the disability, the varied hygiene, the mental health struggles…and the hunger.

We were assigned to the kitchen to help prep 900 hamburger patties from big tubs of seasoned raw meat.  Four of us were ‘team hamburger’ and with the help of the chef we quickly formed an assembly line to push through our task.  As the four of us stood and scooped and patted and shaped hamburger, we talked about our lives. I talked about running for the County Board of Supervisors and the elements of our Hope4Homeless plan, and about my biological mother’s own struggle with mental illness and homelessness.  More importantly, I listened to the three men volunteering with me from three very different life circumstances share about their companies, their life journeys, and their commitment to making a difference.

In the end, as I left and reflected on my own experience I felt the anger well up inside me.  I think when we allow ourselves to face homelessness and hunger up close it can light a more consistent fire to drive change.  What we are doing now as a community is unacceptable and you can really feel how intolerable it is when standing among hundreds of hungry people who are trying to survive.  I am grateful to have the opportunity to serve them, grateful to have volunteered with a few very decent people, and also grateful for the very direct reminder of why I wake up every morning fighting to represent the 4th Supervisor’s District.  It is not to hold down some political post or build some stepping stone to the future. It is about fundamentally changing our system in this community to improve the lives – and opportunities – of the people across San Diego County.

You can read our whole Hope4Homeless plan here.

Episode 5: Homelessness and Band-Aids – Getting to real, long-term action

Episode 5: Homelessness and Band-Aids – Getting to real, long-term action

(Click the play button below to listen to Episode 5 – 14:06 minutes)

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In 2016, over 5,600 people slept on the streets every night in San Diego County. Nearly 4,000 more were homeless and cared for in some form of temporary housing such as a shelter.  The trend over the last several years in San Diego County is an increase in senior homelessness and an increase in chronically homeless individuals – those who remain on the streets for more than one year and have some further disability. Our Hope4Homeless plan pushes to address these and other critical need areas.

My commitment to addressing homelessness grew from a letter I received from my biological mother when I was in my 20s.    In the letter, she asked me to go and thank her friends at the Neil Good Day Center, which provided her with help and support when she herself was homeless in San Diego many years prior. I knew my mother had mental illness and was disabled, but I didn’t know the extent of her experience, and as I walked from my car at 17th and Island past the discarded needles, trash, and sadness on the faces of the homeless men and women around me, I felt strongly I had to do more. I joined the board of Rachel’s Women’s Center and began to look for ways to better address homelessness.

This episode details the specific challenges San Diego faces and explains the types of shifts in approach necessary to decrease the number of San Diegans who are experiencing homelessness. Critically, this episode also covers the long-term thinking necessary to reduce the number of people who ever enter the homeless system in the first place. Thanks for listening!

Hope4Homeless: My personal connection to this crisis

Hope4Homeless: My personal connection to this crisis

In my early 30s I received a letter from my biological mother. I grew up in San Diego’s foster care system so I did not know my mother for most of my life. In the letter, she asked me to go and thank her friends at the Neil Good Day Center for their help when she was homeless in San Diego.  She was asking me to thank people who almost certainly were no longer there 25+ years later. I knew she had mental illness and was disabled, but I didn’t know the extent until I read that letter.

I did as she asked and as I walked from my car near 17th and Island past the discarded needles, trash, and sadness on the faces of the homeless men and women around me, the experience really impacted me. I didn’t find anyone who remembered my mother, but the experience stayed with me. It motivated me to do more.

I joined the board of Rachel’s Women’s Center and began to look for ways to better address homelessness. I joined the Board of United Way of San Diego County, who had been responsible for Project 25 – a wildly successful effort to house the most needy homeless San Diegans who were the highest users of health and law enforcement services.  My biological mother’s life experiences shaped the contours of my life in ways I did not expect. I am grateful for the support I received, largely from the County of San Diego, and feel deeply that I have a debt to be repaid to help more San Diegans lead a life of dignity and opportunity.

We released our Hope4Homeless plan as a recognition that the County can and must do more to focus on systems for reducing homelessness and must take on a bigger leadership role. It is a big part of why I am running for the Board of Supervisors and I intend to drive that leadership if elected.

Episode 4: Your child, OUR future – Why the economy, homelessness & health all depend on a strong early start

Episode 4: Your child, OUR future – Why the economy, homelessness & health all depend on a strong early start

(Click the play button below to listen to Episode 4 – 15:17 min)

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The County of San Diego supported me from birth – literally.  I was born 10 weeks premature and the County’s emergency care for the poor kept me alive. When my biological mother couldn’t care for me, the County placed me in foster care, where I got nutrition, a speech pathologist, a child psychologist, and quality support. Now, I am a successful lawyer with a professional background in public health and I am able to give back to this community.

I am living proof that early investment in young people works.  Most foster children end up struggling, failing to graduate from high school, homeless or incarcerated. This is a cycle – for all children not just those in foster care – that the County of San Diego can break.

Our StrongStarts4All plan envisions a broad system change that starts with parental education through expanded home visits for expectant parents and goes all the way through mental health and nutrition support, subsidized transportation for internships and education and focus on helping young people move into the world of work.  The plan recognizes that the path to a strong workforce requires greater investment in our young people. We make the bold assertion that the County must set an example by providing its employees with 4 months of paid family leave, because parents are a child’s first teacher and those early bonds are critical. What is more, paid family leave better enables gender equality so that women can more easily ascend to leadership roles in the workforce and any parent can elect to care for their children.

While my life experiences shape my values and my belief that every child has a right to strong start and support, the scholar in me also appreciates that the economics research supports that this is the smartest investment we can make as a region.

The unspoken homeless crisis: Supporting our seniors

The unspoken homeless crisis: Supporting our seniors

San Diego County has seen a spike in homelessness among our senior citizens and we have not done enough to raise the priority and visibility of this critical need.  By some research accounts, senior citizens make up the fastest growing proportion of San Diego’s homeless individuals in recent years.  This Voice of San Diego article helps highlight some of the challenges. The data for our region makes clear that the County must act.

In this article by long-time senior activist Bill Kelly, he sounds an important alarm that we as County residents have not been heeding with nearly enough urgency. A few key statistics help highlight the challenges:

  • Approximately 240,000 seniors in San Diego County cannot afford the basic combination of food, housing, healthcare and transportation
  • Social Security payment average around $1,360 despite basic expenses exceeding $1,900
  • Ratio of working age individuals to seniors is shifting from 3-to-1 to 1-to-1 over coming decades

The truth about our existing – and growing – crisis among seniors for healthcare, housing, transportation, and even basic food security is that this is a serious problem for all of us, regardless of income.  Seniors in failing health are disproportionately cared for by their female children – compounding the challenges women face while trying to close a persistent wage gap and, often, maintain primary responsibilities for children.  The issue is also especially acute for members of the LGBTQ community, as our government policies long made it illegal to even have children – which places greater strain on individuals and peer networks.

The challenges are significant but help exists. St. Paul’s Senior Services runs the Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) is exactly the type of comprehensive senior support that makes a huge difference.  The challenge is that we have not sounded the alarm regarding scaling our support for such programs. PACE is funded by state MediCal coverage – which is health coverage for poor residents.  I took a tour of St. Paul’s to make sure I had a firsthand appreciation of the issues.

As San Diegans look to shoring up our fraying and unstable safety net in the county, elevating system supports like this one will become critical. An important step in the process is making sure more people understand the crisis we are in so we can build the will now to address it. That’s exactly what I am pushing to do. Thanks for reading.

Episode 3: The rent is killing us! Explaining Housing4All and our plan to address the housing crisis

Episode 3: The rent is killing us! Explaining Housing4All and our plan to address the housing crisis

(Click the play button below to listen to Episode 3 – 15:03 minutes)

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Summary of Episode 3

San Diego is a beautiful place to live. The weather is great, the people are friendly, and there is plenty of year-round outdoor fun to be had.  Add to that one of the top life sciences regions in the world, fun and economically impactful craft beer and hospitality sectors, and world class higher education, and San Diego is a highly desirable city to call home.  One problem. We have a finite amount of land, too much climate-crippling sprawl, and a growing population of residents. The result? Really, really expensive housing.

In this podcast episode, we explore the basic mechanics of how our high cost of living is driven by the housing market, and  specific policy steps identified in our Housing4All plan that we can take to change this.  San Diego will always have a weather advantage over most of the country. We can’t rest on that advantage because if more people in the middle class cannot afford to live here, there will be no one to build new homes, no one to work in our local industries, and no one to teach our children or care for our seniors.  A top-heavy economic structure hurts our long-term economic competitiveness.

You’ll hear in this podcast how I believe that specific steps, like overhauling County zoning, streamlining building processes and investing in youth construction workforce and paid internships can bring down the cost of entry level homes.  My campaign was also the first of any candidacy in the region to call for a long-term, local source of affordable housing funding because we recognize that the market simply cannot solve all our housing needs on its own – no matter what the textbooks might suggest.

As a construction and land use attorney, I have spent much of my career focused on helping get things built in the public and private sectors – so I understand the challenges and our Housing4All plan reflects my background and perspective. Thanks for listening!

Running for ALL San Diegans: Labor leaders do not owe me anything

Running for ALL San Diegans: Labor leaders do not owe me anything

I received a note Friday night that the Labor Council – an umbrella organization made up of the leadership of over 100 affiliated unions in San Diego and Imperial Counties – decided to only invite one candidate in the race for County Supervisor to be considered for endorsement.  I’d like to go to every organization that represents San Diegans, regardless of party affiliation or ideology.  My policy positions and actions are shaped by my values and by listening to voters, so their representatives should have audience – if those leaders want one.  In the case of the leadership of the San Diego/Imperial Counties Labor Council, it appears they did not want to hear me out or learn what I stand for.

Here’s the thing, though, that is completely their right to elect not to invite me in. They don’t owe me a thing. Let me explain.

It is my job to try to work with everyone, to be fair, and to be open-minded.  It is the Labor Council’s job to represent their members as they see fit and to take or reject anything I say as they choose. I am a supporter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI) San Diego chapter, for example. This is a group of primarily African American members of the United Domestic Workers Association, the labor union that represents in-home healthcare workers.  My campaign manager and I went to their most recent general meeting on the 18th of this month. We went even though the leadership already decided to publicly support another candidate.  We went because the issues in-home healthcare workers face are not less important because they endorsed someone else.  We went because my values drive my actions.

The plumbers and hotel workers and caregivers and sheet metal workers and federal government employees and many others who are members of those unions deserve candidates who will fight for a better region for every San Diegan. That is what I’m doing.  They will all benefit if we implement the tenets of our StrongStarts4All plan with things like affordable quality child care and after school support. They will all benefit from our campaign’s attention to making housing more affordable with an approach that recognizes, as our Housing4All plan does, we must have market and subsidized solutions.

I am grateful for the opportunity to fight for every San Diegan. I would prefer the chance to have an earnest dialogue with every constituent, but I do recognize that no group owes me the right to that dialogue.  We will just keep working hard and fighting for what we believe in.  Thanks for reading!

Building a strong campaign: Perspiration and persistence

The numbers are in. My campaign connected with over 16,000 individual likely voters between June and December last year. This included nearly 300 1-on-1 in person meetings and 174 community meetings.  To put those numbers in perspective, that’s nearly 7 community meetings per week. For anyone who has attended a planning group or town council or neighborhood meeting, you can appreciate how much time, effort, and time away from family that is.

My team knocked on doors and attended community meetings and made phone calls.  As a candidate, I personally knocked on the doors of thousands of San Diegans.  I went to community picnics, houses of worship, children’s play groups, craft breweries, schools, union general membership meetings, business networking events and any other place people would have me.

Every action I took was based on one fundamental belief: I believe candidates should earn your votes with hard work, substance behind the positions we take, and the courage of real leadership.

Running for office is hard work, especially in today’s climate.  Sandwiched around all of our critical voter outreach work was a daily push to raise the funds necessary to actually run a political campaign for a major office.  That means sitting down and calling friends, colleagues, family and others in our community and asking them to help me be a champion for the 263,000 children under the age of five in San Diego County and the 240,000 seniors who cannot pay their basic necessities of life. I am not a career politician and I still remember making my first political donation. My wife and I really didn’t understand how important the donations were to the campaign process but we knew that there was no guarantee our preferred candidate would win. Now that I am calling and meeting with hundreds of people to have the same conversation, I have to be persistent and keep asking to get the support we need to reach our voter target on June 5th. The money helps us raise name identification, contact voters, and be sure we do all of it while paying campaign staff a legally permissible and livable wage.

With the election just under six months away, we have a ton of work to do and welcome everyone to join our volunteer outreach efforts. Join us in believing that elections aren’t pre-ordained by insiders with political connections. Join us in believing that hard work, passion, and relevant professional experience matter in who we elect. We are fighting for every San Diegan and look forward to continuing to work hard moving forward. Thanks for reading!

Episode 2: Give me the basics – what does the County actually do?

Episode 2: Give me the basics – what does the County actually do?

(Click play button below to listen to Episode 2 – 17:07 minutes)

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Summary of Episode 2

The first question most people ask me when I tell them I am running for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors is “what does the County do?”  Now that I’ve given a little background about myself and my reasons for running in Episode 1 this episode is a basic conversation about what the County government does.

The County has many roles in our region.  One major role is in the social safety net and the region’s health. This includes:

  • Public Health (e.g. Hepatitis A, Flu Outbreak),
  • Mental Health (e.g. homeless support, youth support, psychiatric care),
  • Community Health (e.g. disease prevention, public safety), and
  • Social Health (e.g. early childhood development, senior care & support, etc.).

One of the largest parts of the County’s budget is in Health & Human Services – almost $2 Billion.  To put this number in perspective, in 2015 the City of San Diego’s entire budget was $2.6 Billion.

The County is organized kind of like a company. It is led by a Chief Executive, called a Chief Administrative Officer (her name is Helen Robbins-Meier), five business groups that function like divisions of a company, and a five member Board of Directors, called the Board of Supervisors.

The Board of Supervisors sets the direction for the County’s $5.8 Billion budget to impact everything from homelessness to land use (where you can and can’t build), mental health and social services, child and senior welfare, and a range of public safety and criminal justice issues.  It is a very big job that is well-served to have leaders with technical knowledge and experience in the key areas of the government.

The purpose of this episode is to give listeners a quick overview to understand what areas the County operates in and how it does the people’s business.  I will talk more about specific substantive areas in later episodes. Thanks for listening!