Superintendent Vargas makes references to quality of life and mental health during his county’s state speech

Superintendent Nora Vargas.  Photo by Chris Stone
Superintendent Nora Vargas. Photo by Chris Stone

Chairman of the County Board of Supervisors Nora Vargas He focused on improving life for families, a stronger economy, better infrastructure and mental health care, and fighting homelessness in his county’s state address Wednesday night.

Speaking to a full crowd at the West Plaza County Management Center, Vargas, Vargas challenged the audience to help her “make San Diego County a better county for everyone.”

“There’s nothing we can’t achieve together, because you know what? said Vargas, who was first elected to the District 1 seat in 2020.

During her speech, Vargas also discussed promoting public safety, reducing food insecurity, fighting for environmental justice and creating green jobs.

Vargas noted that between personal stories and government statistics, the speech doesn’t mean much to families struggling to put dinner on the table, or those struggling with their mental health.

Vargas added that it will “take more than rhetoric” to fix major challenges.

“I will not rest until we make real changes,” Vargas said, adding that the Board of Supervisors and the county government will “keep fighting until everyone has a chance at realizing the American Dream.”

Vargas said that when she first took office, she worked to protect tenants struggling to stay in their homes as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked serious economic damage and to stop unfair evictions. The county has provided millions of dollars to help working families in need of assistance, Vargas said, adding that she will work with city officials in an effort to expand rent protections.

Vargas said preventing and addressing homelessness is “a top priority,” which is why the board declared it a public health crisis in September. As she shared the latest official statistics for those living on the street, Vargas said she understood “how years of bad politics have failed communities.”

“I know there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Vargas said, adding that in the county, there are nearly 100,000 families living within one paycheck of homelessness. “We must find humanity in our solutions.”

There must be a comprehensive strategy to address the homeless epidemic, Vargas said, including working with 18 city governments in San Diego County, along with religious and community groups to help seniors, veterans and LGBT people.

Vargas noted her work with colleagues Joel Anderson and Nathan Fletcher to find more emergency housing and help veterans find a place of their own, respectively. “We know that 24% of the homeless population that was counted in 2022 is over the age of 55,” Vargas said. “Can you believe we are leaving old people on the streets and homeless?”

The county is giving each of the seniors in a special program $500 a month to help pay the rent, and it will upgrade the seniors. Vargas said the provincial government will also tap into federal, state and local funding sources to develop more housing and “remove bureaucratic barriers to getting it done.”

“If we listen to each other, we can start to make a real difference in our communities,” Vargas said.

Vargas said that when she was an advocate for education, she saw students sleeping in their cars and relying on food pantries. And she added, “No more, not on my watch.”

One in four San Diegans does not have access to good food, Vargas said, so the county will partner with different food banks to help residents and increase community gardens.

“It’s hard to believe that this is something we should be saying out loud in 2023: no one should go hungry,” Vargas added. It’s also important for county residents to care about mental health, Vargas said, which has become an especially important topic over the past three years.

She indicated that the supervisors allocated 30 million dollars last year for mental health services and projects to help children and youth, and 2 million dollars for individuals residing in their homes. The county is partnering with schools on a mental health screening initiative, including one for middle school students later this year and working with parents to break down stigma around mental health.

In response to the recent mass shootings, county leaders must work together to reduce the epidemic of violence, Vargas said, adding that “thoughts and prayers are not enough.”

“We are launching a Community Safety Initiative to address gun violence and public safety,” said Vargas, in partnership with Sheriff Kelly Martinez. “I am committed to bringing stakeholders together to implement restorative justice policies and practices to keep our communities safe.”

Vargas mentioned her work with fellow superintendent Jim Desmond educating youth about the dangers of fentanyl and other public safety accomplishments, including a Southern County resource center for abuse survivors and a fire station in East Otay Mesa.

Vargas said healthy communities “foster a healthy economy” with small businesses, which have been hit hard by the pandemic, as the backbone.

“Not only do they make up most of the businesses in the county, but they also employ nearly 60 percent of our workforce,” she said, adding that she advocated a division around economic prosperity and community development. “This office serves as a hub to connect businesses to the resources that will help them thrive and create a diversified local economy,” Vargas said.

She added that the county has awarded nearly $26.2 million in grants to support local businesses. “This is real money for real people,” Vargas said.

Working parents who support the local economy need help and “childcare for all should be our goal,” Vargas said, adding that the county must find creative solutions to make this possible.

“It makes sense that if we want more people to take care of children, they should be well paid for their hard work.” Vargas took a moment to pay tribute to local unions, including domestic workers, county and heavy industry employees, law enforcement and general attorneys. “Together, we will create a path to the middle class,” she said.

Another key to growing the local economy, Vargas said, is having the right infrastructure in place, so that it’s easy for residents to commute to work or school. Promoted a partnership with the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System in a program that allows people 18 and under to take public transit for free.

Since the program’s inception, youth ridership has increased by 84%, Vargas said, adding that she wants to expand free transportation for college-age students.

Vargas said she’s proud to lead efforts on welcoming immigrants to the county, from helping children at the San Diego Convention Center to those reuniting with their families.

Vargas added that she will “continue to fight” so that immigrants are treated with dignity and respect, and work to help them become citizens.

Vargas, a migrant, said she remembered being a child and waiting at the border crossing for hours in traffic. Vargas added the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, which will speed up waiting times, reduce air pollution and help the local economy by supporting more than 80,000 jobs.

Besides a strong economy, “I think it’s our responsibility to expand outdoor access for every resident,” said Vargas, who added that the county should commit to more parks and recreation centers for each community.

While there is a goal to plant more than 5,000 trees in the county, Vargas challenged members of the public to help her plant 10,000 trees. Vargas was elected president of the board in January, the first person of color and first-generation immigrant to hold the position.

Vargas’ niece, Fatima Jimenez, received the speech Wednesday, calling it “an inspiring moment for me and young women like me.”

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