Photo by Duncan Moore
A homeless encampment on downtown’s 17th Street
There are tents constructed by our homeless neighbors going up everywhere in downtown San Diego. Residents, business owners, police officers and elected officials are all frustrated and pulled in different directions trying to "solve" the issue. Multiple options have been proposed to address our homelessness problem, but will these approaches ultimately solve the issue in the long term, or just prolong it, while wasting time and money?
Alpha Project—the homeless service organization that ran the temporary winter shelter downtown before it was closed by the city in 2015 with clients moved to Father Joe's Village year-round shelter—has proposed the construction of a mega-shelter. The proposal calls for a facility that would be big enough to take most of the people off the street downtown (assuming they would go). While this idea may sound appealing to the folks most impacted by people living on the street, it has yet to solve the issue in any city that I know of—including our own.
San Diego has already tried this approach with Connections Housing and St. Vincent de Paul, to name a few organizations, with lackluster results. Supporters of St. Vincent de Paul (the decades-old, granddaddy of all mega homeless serving facilities) and Connections Housing (which largely provides emergency shelter, among other services) argue the facilities have everything someone would need to permanently get people off the streets. But, as evidenced by the most recent Point-in-Time count where we saw a nearly 19-percent increase of unsheltered homeless in the county, it's clear this model that focuses funding on the front-end, clogging our system with temporary shelters, has failed to resolve homelessness in our city.
And additional data shows this. San Diego shelters only help approximately 20 percent of their clients out of homelessness, with transitional housing (a service intensive shelter-type model) achieving a success rate of approximately 40 percent.
So, what does work?
What does work and what will ultimately solve homelessness is getting people into housing—whether it be subsidized with housing vouchers, affordable or just within a person's financial ability—and then providing the needed supportive services to help people stay housed.
San Diego's regional data backs up this claim. Specifically, permanent supportive housing—an evidence-based housing intervention that combines non-time-limited affordable housing assistance with wrap-around supportive services—is effective, and has been shown to keep more than 90 percent of residents stably housed. And rapid rehousing—which places a priority on moving a family or individual experiencing homelessness into permanent housing as quickly as possible—hits the mark about 75 percent of the time and at lower cost. The reason for the success of this model is that it helps people access permanent housing quickly—which is what homeless people really need, as research has shown—by providing short-term rental assistance and supportive services, often times completely bypassing the traditional system of shelters and transitional housing.
With these proven facts and data before us, why do we keep investing resources in shelters and transitional housing, aspects of the system that have been shown to be the least effective?
I believe it's because we're letting our frustrations take over, instead of our business sense. Business and common sense would tell us to invest in outcomes—outcomes that will set us on a path to resolving homelessness in our city. This does not require another plan, just action on what we know will work and the courage to stay the course.
Fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Since I started working on the issue of homelessness six years ago, I have seen significant changes to our system—mostly in the last two years. Recently, there have been substantial investments in and funds allocated to rapid rehousing, with most of the new projects slated to kick off later this year.
The problem? Change isn't always easy, and we have operated under ineffective methods for decades. Many agencies are still holding to their inefficient shelter and transitional housing models by cobbling together private funding to replace the federal funding they have lost due to poor performance. And while these donors' intentions are good, their aim is off.
I ask that funders and agencies take a hard look at the data, and move their investments and efforts to what works. A wise man once said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results." And in this case, I couldn't agree more.
Change is hard. But people's lives depend on it.
Michael McConnell is a philanthropist and advocate who serves on multiple local and regional homelessness advisory committees. He can be found on Facebook at Homelessness News San Diego and Twitter at @HomelessnessSD.