Nov. 19 2014 10:50 AM

If supportive services follow close behind shelter, it could transform the landscape

The Churchill Hotel is being rehabbed to house formerly homeless folks.
Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith

Last week, the San Diego Housing Commission announced a three-year plan to move as many as 1,500 people off the street and into housing. With San Diego's unsheltered homeless population currently at around 2,500, that plan, called Housing First San Diego, has the potential to make a significant impact in a city where ending homelessness has been a stated goal for the last decade.

The five-point plan includes: 

• A full renovation of The Churchill, a former residential hotel located along the C Street trolley line, that will include 72 studio apartments, 56 of which will be set aside for homeless vets. The other 16 units will house youth aging out of the foster-care system and homeless adults; 

• $10 million annually for affordable-housing developers who guarantee that at least one-quarter of the units in their projects will be permanent-supportive housing (housing that's coupled with services) for folks who've been homeless; 

• Several hundred federal rental-assistance vouchers, to be made available for use by homeless individuals and families; 

• $15 million to help Housing Development Partners, the Housing Commission's nonprofit affiliate, acquire a property that will include at least 20 units of permanent-supportive housing; 

• And 25 Housing Commission-owned rental units that will be set aside to house homeless individuals and families for up to 18 months.

CityBeat spoke with a number of folks for this story, nearly all of whom preferred to talk on background. The almost-unanimous sentiment was that the Housing Commission's plan is a bold move—one that continues the momentum started by initiatives like the Campaign to End Homelessness in Downtown San Diego, which kicked off in July 2010.

But, as a few folks noted, the housing-first model this plan seeks to implement—which says the best way to address the issues that led to someone becoming homeless is to first put that person into no-strings-attached, permanent housing—only works when that housing's combined with supportive services. Finding funding for services can be tricky—providers use the word "cobble" to describe the effort it takes to tap into limited resources. An example of the challenges of funding supportive services is Project 25, a successful pilot program launched by the United Way of San Diego County and run by St. Vincent de Paul that hooked up 35 homeless people who'd been identified as the costliest users of emergency-medical and law-enforcement resources with housing and intensive services. Despite being able to demonstrate significant taxpayer savings after its three-year pilot, Project 25 struggled to find sustainable funding.

People CityBeat spoke to also brought up the fact that no representatives from county government, which administers state and federal funding for social services, were at last week's Housing Commission press conference, a glaring absence given the county's prominent role in getting Project 25 up and running—though, something that shouldn't be interpreted as the county's unwillingness to contribute to the effort, folks said.

"This is a first huge step," says Michael McConnell, board vice president of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless who's also part of Funders Together to End Homelessness, a group that contributed $240,000 to the Housing Commission's plan to help developers with operational expenses.

McConnell agrees that there will be "significant work" on the part of providers and the Housing Commission to make sure that housing's coupled with services, but, he added, having that housing is a critical first step.

"Housing is a big nut to crack," he says. "The Housing Commission has opened a huge door for us to walk through and try to find service dollars wherever they may be."

"Catalyst" is how one person CityBeat spoke with described the Housing Commission's plan.

Matthew Doherty, director of National Initiatives with the U.S Interagency Council on Homelessness, agrees.

"This is often the way change efforts happen," he says. "One part of the system steps forward to commit its resources, and then other parts of the system respond to match resources to that commitment. So I don't think it's necessarily a bad sign if not everything is figured out, as that is the way that systems change often seems to happens."

McConnell pointed to two new potential sources for services: As part of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, providers can be reimbursed for things like behavioral-health services that help keep someone who was chronically homeless in housing. And, among the projects eligible to compete for the Housing Commission's $10 million in annual funding are those that propose to convert transitional housing into permanent-supportive housing. Transitional housing, an approach that seeks to solves people's problems first, then move them into permanent housing, is no longer considered an effective model. Converting transitional units to permanent units can potentially free up services dollars, McConnell says.

The competitive application process for the $10 million opened on Nov. 12 and will remain open until the end of next June. As the applications come in, the Housing Commission will get a better idea of the ease or difficulty folks are having tapping into services dollars, says commission spokesperson Maria Velasquez.

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