Supply and demand may be basic economics, but in real life, in real time, it can be cruel. Ask the homeless.
Many are eligible for a relatively new approach to ease their plight. It’s called Housing First. The local government pays for them to live in private apartments and provides accompanying services, such as mental health care.
Supporters say it is a more reasonable approach than prior efforts, which focused on transitional housing. The homeless face tough odds, but they have a better chance of improving their lives if they have a roof over their heads.
However, the Housing First effort has run into challenges, including a growing homeless population, a tight housing market, reluctant landlords and nonprofits that disagree with the approach.
“We know [the Housing First approach] works,” said Dolores Diaz, executive director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. “There are challenges fully implementing the model, though.”
The need to find help for the homeless is now greater than ever.
San Diego has the fourth largest homeless population in the U.S., with the situation particularly critical in the downtown area. More than 1,100 homeless were tallied downtown in August — an increase of more than 40 percent in one year.
Downtown is where many of the services are, which makes the area attractive to them, Diaz said. At the same time, available housing is scarce. The vacancy rate for apartments was at 2.6 percent in the fall, down from 4.1 percent last spring.
It’s a disheartening scene to take in. Sagging tents dot the sidewalks downtown. The homeless move about, pushing their shopping carts. And all of this less than two years after the city opened its much-lauded Alpha Square project.
The six-story affordable housing project opened in 2015 in East Village. A number of agencies helped make the $46 million project a reality, bringing 203 studio apartments online. For those getting shelter, it’s a dream come true. But Alpha Square accommodates only a small part of downtown’s homeless population.
The federal government is helping the effort by providing vouchers to help pay rent at private apartment complexes.
The San Diego Housing Commission, as part of its Housing First plan, set aside 1,500 such vouchers for the homeless. That started two years ago, and the Housing Commission has already allocated 950 of them, said Rick Gentry, the president and CEO.
Yes, finding housing is more difficult in San Diego, he said.
“But are we helping people? Yes we are.”
Gentry said the Housing First model is needed in San Diego, noting that the city relied too much on emergency shelters and transitional housing in the past.
If a homeless person completes transitional housing, but there’s no permanent supportive housing available, what are his or her options?
“Housing First gives people a stable place to live while they deal with their issues,” Gentry said.
So, will it work in San Diego? He’s optimistic. There’s been much more awareness of the plight of the homeless and the need for a regional solution, he said.
Indeed, recently Father Joe's Villages, the well-known homeless advocacy organization, has proposed converting motels into affordable housing units, as well as building new units on empty lots. It believes it can create up to 2,000 units at a cost of $531 million.
"With over 1,000 people sleeping on the streets of downtown on any given night, now is the time to forge bold solutions,” said Father Joe’s Villages President and CEO Deacon Jim Vargas in a statement.
“San Diego currently has the lowest rental vacancy rate in the country, and the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is over $1,700. Our homelessness crisis will not be resolved until we create more housing that people can afford. We see how transforming underused lots and disregarded motels into thousands of housing units across the county can be that foundation for change."
But some nonprofit organizations have declined to participate in the Housing First concept, arguing that the Housing First model creates dependency.
“It’s not just the wrong design; it’s one of the worst designs I’ve seen,” said Chris Megison, founder and executive director of Solutions for Change, a Vista-based organization that helps homeless families.
Most organizations require the homeless to follow strict rules, including learning life skills, moving toward employment self-sufficiency and avoiding drugs and alcohol. The Housing First approach places no such requirements on the homeless.
“We’ve partnered with HUD for 20 years,” Megison said. “We’re standing on principle.”
Yet, given the choice, many homeless prefer the streets.
Diaz said the Housing First approach saves money. If the homeless remain on the streets, they are more apt to require public services. Police have to respond. The homeless are more likely to get ill from living outside and need hospital care.
Of course, alcoholics and drug users don’t always make great tenants, and that has hurt the effort to find apartment owners willing to accept the vouchers.
When there’s competition for available housing, other tenants will likely get chosen over the homeless, even if the government is paying the rent.
“It’s difficult, no question,” said Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “And it’s going to be harder in places like San Diego.”
That’s not to say it can’t be done, he said. Landlords need to be educated and given incentives to embrace this approach. For one thing, they need to understand that Housing First clients come with key support, so the landlord is not facing potential problems alone.
Housing affordability is complicating matters. As housing costs rise, it puts more pressure on the poor, because the gap between housing costs and government subsidies increases.
In regions of the country where housing costs aren’t skyrocketing, that chasm isn’t as wide, and more homeless can be housed, Gentry said.
Additionally, there’s always a backlash toward higher density — which would increase the housing stock — because homeowners don’t want to see the character of their neighborhoods change, Gentry said.
Other cities, where housing costs are not as high, have had more success with the Housing First model.
A national initiative spearheaded by President Obama in 2010 set a goal of having all homeless veterans housed by 2015. About half are now off the streets, a reduction many applaud given the challenges involved.
The city of San Diego and the Housing Commission took part in the effort and have seen similar success. The local goal was to house 1,000 veterans and, thus far, nearly 500 are housed.
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, in his recent State of the City Address, announced the city will be pumping more money into helping house the homeless. He also wants to speed up the permit process, so more market-rate houses can be built.
The challenge has been supply. "We’re doing our part,” said Molly Kirkland, director of public affairs and operational advice for the San Diego Apartment Association. “But it’s very challenging.”
Her organization joined in the effort to house veterans by lobbying its members to participate. It also took part in discussions with the city on how best to encourage landlords to get involved.
Financial assistance was offered, as well as assurances that landlords would get help if their property was damaged or if they needed to evict tenants, Kirkland said.
“It’s a very robust package,” she said.
However, the problem is supply. Landlords are not seeing the kind of turnover they once did.
“If you don’t have a vacancy,” Kirkland said, “you can’t do anything.”