Pushback on housing funding illustrates division on homeless programs
The city had proposed winding down a housing program but reversed course after criticism from Housing Commission
A housing program that just last week was in jeopardy of winding down appears to have been given new life after the San Diego Housing Commission raised concerns that the city was more focused on temporary homeless solutions such as shelters rather than housing,
At stake were three city-funded rapid rehousing programs, which provide rent subsidies that gradually taper off as individuals or households become self-sufficient. The San Diego Housing Commissioners learned last week that the city had planned to end the programs, sparking sharp criticism from board members.
“This is a situation where there’s a clash with reality,” Commissioner Eugene “Mitch” Mitchell said about the proposal to wind down the programs, which commissioners said were needed to help households avoid homelessness.
Housing Commission interim CEO Jeff Davis said he has since been reassured by Mayor Todd Gloria that the programs will continue after all, though that has not been formalized and a funding source hasn’t yet been identified.
The brief dispute may point to a larger, more complex issue that San Diego and other cities face as the number of homeless people living outdoors appears to surge and the public demands action. Shelters will get hundreds of people quickly off the streets, at least temporarily, while housing has a greater long-term success rate at solving homelessness.
And when there’s only so much money available, sometimes choices have to be made.
At the Housing Commission’s May 5 meeting, Executive Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Lisa Jones told board members that she had attended a city Budget Review Committee meeting the previous day and learned that the city’s Homeless Strategies and Solutions Department was focusing on crisis response beds to get people off the street.
Staff members also told commissioners that the city had plans to wind down the rapid rehousing programs it ran through the Salvation Army, Home Start and People Assisting the Homeless. Together, they had found housing for 148 households since 2019, but 63 households still needed assistance.
The three programs cost about $2 million annually, and commissioners agreed to provide $910,000 to keep them going beyond June 30 to help the 63 households avoid falling back into homelessness.
The three rapid rehousing programs are among 10 run in the city, including one run by the Housing Commission and six run by different service providers.
Throughout the county, more homeless people appear to be living outdoors, in tents and makeshift structures. Whether that perception is true may be confirmed next Thursday, when the San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness releases results of the count of homeless people taken in February.
As homelessness becomes a more visible issue, more cities throughout the county also are discussing how to respond. For the first time, Vista is discussing opening its own shelter, and Oceanside plans to open its shelter later this year. The San Diego Rescue Mission has created a new outreach team and bought a National City church it plans to convert into a shelter next year.
In El Cajon, the nonprofit Amikas is building small homes for homeless mothers and their children on church property, and Chula Vista is creating a shelter with prefab structures. The first resource center for homeless people in Pacific Beach is expected to open by the end of the month.
Law enforcement still is involved in homeless outreach, but a court decision that prohibits citing people for sleeping outdoors if they have no other place to be has caused some cities to shift their enforcement policies and begin offering hotel vouchers to get people temporarily off the street.
San Diego also has opened its first 50-bed shelter specifically for people with substance use and mental problems, and the city is expected to soon announce a safe haven program that will provide those clients longer-term assistance.
In another shift, county officials this past week offered to provide behavioral and general health services to any city that opens a shelter, and supervisors are expected to soon approve a $10 million grant program to help cities launch their own shelters. In what would be a first for the county, the money could be used for safe campgrounds, such as ones already in San Francisco, which are said to provide a safer environment for homeless people reluctant to go to shelters.
With so much focus on expanding services and programs for homeless people, Housing Commissioner board members expressed disbelief that the city was backing away from a program that has proven successful.
“I’m dismayed by the direction this is indicating,” board Chair Stefanie Benvenute said about news of the programs winding down.
Commissioner Ryan Clumpner said he was baffled by the action and saw it as costly in the long term.
“The longer people are experiencing homelessness, the harder it is to get them out of it, and the more expensive it becomes,” he said.
Jones agreed and said the sooner people are placed in housing, the less long-term trauma associated with homelessness occurs.
In a residual effect, Jones noted that fewer housing programs would mean fewer places for people in shelters to move to, resulting in shelters staying full and unavailable for people who are homeless and on the street.
Homeless advocate Michael McConnell, who often has criticized the city for pursuing shelters over housing, said the issue showed the city was more concerned with appearances than real solutions.
“Why would you cut the high-performing program and expand the low-performing programs?” McConnell said. “It makes no sense. You have to have shelters, don’t get me wrong, but they’ve just lost sight of real solutions. I don’t know how else to put it.”
Housing Commission staff calculated that the three rapid rehousing programs could continue for about $1.5 million a year, or $7.5 million over five years and serve about 300 households in that time. In comparison, a shelter operated by Father Joe’s Villages in Golden Hall costs $10 million annually and accommodates about 500 people daily.
Mitchell said the $7.5 million cost of continuing the programs was pennies compared to the state’s budget, and commissioners agreed to send a letter to Sacramento inquiring about additional funding.
At the same May 5 meeting, the Housing Commission agreed to a $4.8 million contract with the Alpha Project to operate a 150-bed tented shelter that soon will be constructed at the San Diego County Health Services Complex on Rosecrans Street.
The concerns raised by the commissioners were addressed within days.
“We’ve had some productive conversations with the mayor’s office,” Davis said at Tuesday’s Budget Review Committee hearing. " We expect, and we’re confident, that when we come back to you with our final budget in June we’ll see those city rapid rehousing programs funded.”
The San Diego Housing Commission’s dashboard contains data that shows the long-term effectiveness of programs such as rapid rehousing.
According to the dashboard, 68 percent of people in rapid rehousing exited to permanent housing, 17 percent exited to temporary or institutional housing, 8 percent returned to the streets and 7 percent died or had unknown outcomes.
In comparison, 16 percent of people in shelters exited to permanent housing, 10 percent went to temporary housing, 3 percent went to institutional housing, 20 percent returned to the streets and 50 percent were unknown.
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