Homeless: Housing First vs. Services & Housing

Created: 11 September, 2020
Updated: 14 August, 2022
5 min read

Housing First is a program developed by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness that requires that homeless individuals receive stable and permanent housing before they can benefit from other services.

In San Diego, the Housing Commission launched its program in 2014. Since that time the Housing Commission has created nearly 8,500 permanent housing opportunities and approved 761 new housing units. 

The effectiveness of the housing first program has been questioned by some local leaders, who believe drug and mental health issues need to be addressed simultaneously. San Diego had made incremental progress on reducing homeless populations until 2014 when the trend began to reverse. While this reversal coincides with the city of San Diego’s implementation of Housing First programs, there is no definitive study establishing a correlation between the policy change and the growth in the homeless population.

Many other changes in the vulnerable populations may have contributed to the reversal of fortunes. But one factor in San Diego is undeniable. The revitalization of San Diego’s downtown led to a loss of more than 5,000 Single Occupancy Units (SROs).

The city lost thousands of affordable housings which gave way to large apartment and condo developments targeted mostly to upper middle and upper income buyers. While this was good for downtown as a matter of development and revenue to the city, SROs were the principal source of housing for those on the lowest end of the income scale.

Supporters of Housing First point to Salt Lake City early on seemed to prove to be successful. Here’s another take from Houston. But as it has become clear that promises in 2014 to “end homelessness in four years” has not come true,  San Diego has moved away from the Housing First model. The County and City now work together to identify and treat health, addiction and employability challenges as part of a more comprehensive intake process.

Father Joe Carroll, who operated San Diego’s most successful homeless programs for years (Father Joe’s Villages), is one of Housing First’s harshest critics. He blames the city’s 2014 decision for the demise of the successful downtown school for homeless kids and for cannibalizing food, treatment and counseling programs to fund overly expensive housing projects that provide no services. 

"When I started, homelessness was a service, an agency issue, it was myself, Catholic Charities, Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, now it's become 'Easternized.' The government runs everything. The city of San Diego turned everything over to the Housing Commission who is taking the Housing First approach. It's a totally different philosophy."

Councilmember Barbara Bry was one of the first elected officials to abandon the Housing First model. Bry arrived on the City Council as a Housing First supporter, but changed her position after seeing the program implemented firsthand. Father Joe praises Bry’s change of heart and credits her with successfully pushing the city into a more comprehensive partnership with county agencies and nonprofit groups to address the underlying issues that lead to homelessness from the beginning.

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Former San Diego journalist Dan McSwain (now an editorial advisor for INV.us) wrote a compelling first-hand story on the challenges faced by the homeless in 2016 that brought him national media attention that Bry has said influenced her decision to buck the Housing First advocates.

Bry’s public opposition became controversial later, in part, because of her announcement that she would run for mayor against Todd Gloria. Gloria had championed Housing First in 2014 when he pledged to “end homelessness in four years.” 

San Diego’s experience since then is difficult to measure because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the change in approach is anchored by more funding for mental health services, drug intervention, and job counseling that is part of an assessment process that takes place at a “Housing Navigation Center” located downtown near Petco Park. 

The COVID-19 crisis has created the temporary availability of the Convention Center for interim housing. But less visible is the Navigation Center a few blocks away in which, for the first time, all homeless-related agencies and service providers assess the needs of clients and attempt to approach each case holistically.

The acquisition of the Navigation Center was not without controversy. The building had been originally built as an indoor skydiving center. When the business failed over engineering issues the city purchased it using federal CDBG funds. A mayoral candidate who lost in the March primary made allegations that the building had been purchased at a price above its actual value. These claims led to a federal audit and appraisal of the building. The federal appraisal was completed in August and verified that the buildings’ value at the time of sale to be $200,000 higher than the city paid.

That controversy has overshadowed the success of the Navigation Center with program operators telling IVN that the successful transition of homeless out of the interim convention center space into permanent housing could not have been accomplished without the comprehensive coordination of service providers located at the Navigation Center.

In his mayoral campaign, Assemblmember Gloria has continued to promote his support for Housing First and criticized the acquisition of the Homeless Navigation Center which he refers to as “the failed iFLY Center” (iFLY was the name of the private company that abandoned the building after its technology failed).

Gloria argues that critics of Housing First, like Bry, oversimplify the Housing First mandate and points to the fact that federal funding has been tied to Housing First regulations through both the Obama and Trump administrations. Housing First advocates have been more aggressive of late in emphasizing that “Housing First” does not mean “Housing Only.”

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In December 2019, Gloria wrote in an opinion piece for Medium.com, “It’s common sense that the fastest way to end the condition of homelessness is to give someone a home. When supportive services are added to ensure the individuals remain stable and do not return to the streets.”

The Trump Administration continues to condition federal homelessness funding on Housing First compliance. This forces state and local governments to rely upon non-Federal sources for many of the programs they now operate to shift homeless populations permanently into homes and into self sustainability.

Here Are Some Articles Worth Reading:

What We Mean When We Talk About Housing the Homeless

An Open Letter to California Officials: Housing First

Housing First and Homelessness: The Rhetoric and the Reality

What Would It Take to End Homelessness?

The best way to help our homeless neighbors is to find them shelter ASAP

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