Dec. 18 2013 09:24 AM

It's fallen out of favor, and one report says there's too much of it in San Diego

Victor Darilek hoped St. Vincent de Paul Village’s transitional-housing program would help him get his life together, but an altercation with another resident landed him back on the street.
Photo by Kelly Davis

    You'd never guess that Victor Darilek is homeless. His hair is short, kept in a military-style buzz cut and his clothes—a polo shirt, Padres jacket, jeans and white sneakers—could be any guy's casual outfit. He's been at San Diego's emergency homeless shelter for less than two days after spending three weeks on the street.

    Prior to that, Darilek had a bed at St. Vincent de Paul Village, in one of the social-services provider's transitional-housing programs. An alcoholic who's been sober since April, Darilek, 54, had lost almost everything to addiction. His goal is a full-time job, and he figured St. Vincent was the place.

    "I heard that they had good programming," he said. "I had three square meals and a place to sleep. I could get up early in the morning and look for work."

    But the week before Thanksgiving, Darilek said, another resident accused him of going through his stuff—the sleeping arrangements are dorm-style—and punched Darilek in the face. Darilek ended up in the hospital for four days with a concussion, broken nose and damage to his eye socket. He said that when he was released, he tried to re-enter the program but was told he was too emotionally unstable. Darilek agrees he's kind of a mess right now: He's in pain and shell-shocked—worse off than he was before.

    "I've had the sense knocked out of me," he said. 

    Keith Burke, director of supportive services for St. Vincent de Paul Village said privacy laws bar him from confirming whether Darilek had been a resident there, let alone whether he'd been denied re-entry.

    "I can tell you that St. Vincent de Paul Village does not deny anyone entry for mental-health issues," Burke said. "On the contrary, we are one of the few programs that essentially takes people as they are with whatever barriers they may present."

    Whether Darilek was denied readmission or opted not to return, the fact that he landed back on the street is considered an unsuccessful exit from transitional housing, a type of homeless-services program that offers temporary residence, anywhere from 30 days to a year or more. It's usually combined with other services and aimed at moving people into permanent housing. There are currently more than 2,000 transitional-housing beds in San Diego County, some of them for special populations, like domestic-violence victims, but most for families and single adults coming in off the street.

    In the '90s, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) saw these programs as an important step to getting people permanantly housed. Organizations like St. Vincent de Paul, the largest transitional-housing provider in Southern California with more than 800 beds at its East Village campus alone, built up programs in response to HUD's direction. People would move from the street into one transitional-housing program and then work their way up to the next level. Those who refused to engage were asked to leave so that their bed could go to someone more willing to participate.

    "The idea was kind of, get your feet on the ground, maybe take some preliminary classes and then move to the transitional-housing program that was going to be fully case-managed, have career counselors, etcetera," says Ruth Bruland, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Village.

    Now, that model—fix people first, then move them into permanent housing—has fallen out of favor, replaced by what's known as "housing first," which emphasizes getting people off the street as quickly as possible and into their own place. Once the person's housed, they can work on the issues that caused them to be homeless in the first place.

    "There's a magic of putting somebody in a unit… that they don't have fear of getting kicked out of. If we live in fear, we don't do as well," says Michael McConnell, who sits on the boards of various entities focused on homelessness, like the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, the Campaign to End Homelessness in Downtown San Diego and the Regional Continuum of Care Council.

    Statistics highlight transitional housing's shortcomings. HUD tracks the programs it funds and, last year, less than one-third of single adults who entered a transitional-housing program in San Diego County went on to permanent housing. Leaving one transitional program to enter another is considered by HUD to be an unsuccessful outcome, even if that second program's more tailored to a person's needs. This month, HUD announced that programs should aim to move 80 percent of their clients into permanent housing. Since HUD grants are competitive, programs that fall short of this goal risk not only having their funding cut, but also negatively impacting the amount of money HUD grants the region.

    "There's just not money nationally, and so the communities really need to make hard choices about how they rank projects," said Matthew Doherty, regional coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

    Indeed, HUD has asked all Continuums of Care—the regional planning groups that decide how federal homelessness grants are to be spent locally—to cut their 2014 funding requests by 5 percent. In San Diego County, the impact of that cut fell largely on two lower-performing transitional-housing programs; St. Vincent de Paul Village was one of them. Further putting pressure on transitionalhousing providers, a consultant hired earlier this year by San Diego County's Regional Continuum of Care Council to do a system-wide analysis found that the county has 800 more transitional beds than it needs and a shortage of more than 3,700 permanent units.

    McConnell emphasized that the analysis is meant to be a tool and not a mandate. But, he hopes the findings shake things up a bit— another consultant was brought in, for instance, to assist providers who might want to turn their transitional beds into permanent housing or spend the money they receive on what's known as "rapid rehousing": providing assistance to people before they become homeless. Two pieces of legislation that take effect on Jan. 1 provide funding to do both of these things.

    "There hasn't been a willingness up to this point to sit down and have a meaningful conversation about what our outcomes really look like and how they can be improved," McConnell said.

    The folks at St. Vincent have been making changes, Bruland said. On July 1, they stopped moving people from one program to another. They also reduced the length of stay to no more than one year.

    "Somebody comes in knowing that's the maximum amount," she said. "We really are going to put every effort into supporting them to get to their own place as soon as possible, so everything that we do now when a resident comes in… is about income and housing—to get that income so they can get the permanent housing and move out. It sounds so easy, but for the homeless population, there isn't a one-size-fits-all."

    Nor, as the countywide analysis showed, are there available units. Most people who exit transitional housing are on a fixed income—Social Security, disability or veteran's benefits.

    "We have staff that their fulltime job is to find market-rate housing that is as affordable as it can get in San Diego," Bruland said.

    Doherty agrees that San Diego's housing market poses a challenge.

    "But there definitely are other communities that are similarly expensive markets whose transitional-housing success rates are much higher than San Diego's," he said.

    McConnell points to Nashville as an example of an innovative approach to dealing with a shortage of deeply affordable housing. There, in June, large-property owners agreed to rent apartments to chronically homeless people for as little as $50 a month and, at most, one-third of the person's income—the same amount someone would pay under the federal Section 8 subsidizedhousing program. In five months, they were able to house 189 people, according to an Oct. 7 story on the public-radio show Marketplace.

    "It can be done, but it's not easy, I'll admit that," McConnell said.

    Email or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.


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