San Diego has the third-highest homeless population among major American cities. But it ranks 18th when it comes to a key source of federal funding to combat homelessness.
And thanks to an archaic rule that governs how the money is distributed, there’s very little San Diego can do to move itself up in the receiving line.
Volunteers who braved the early morning rain in January to help scour streets, alleys and canyons in search of San Diego’s homeless cited a common reason for taking part in the annual effort: The census is crucial to San Diego’s eligibility for federal funding for homeless services, they said.
But no matter the results of the count, the share of federal cash San Diego is eligible to compete for is almost entirely fixed. It’s not dependent on how many homeless people there are in San Diego compared with other big cities. Instead, much of the money is allocated based on decades-old formulas that experts say have little bearing on the gravity of a city’s homelessness problem.
That’s why San Diego, despite having the third-highest homeless population among major American cities last year, gets less money from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department than many other metropolitan areas with fewer homeless people.
That federal funding is vital. Washington’s main push against homelessness comes from HUD, but last year the department’s antiquated formulas for distributing money favored several cities with less than half as many homeless people as San Diego, including Miami, Oakland and Cleveland.
In total, 17 large metropolitan areas were eligible for more money than San Diego last year. Of those, only Los Angeles and New York had larger homeless populations.
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The disconnect between need and funding upset U.S. Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard and Henry Waxman, who represent Los Angeles and who mobilized a group of 19 of their House of Representatives colleagues to sign a pointed letter to the agency last November.
Local Reps. Juan Vargas, Scott Peters and Susan Davis didn’t sign the letter (Vargas and Peters were not yet in Congress when it was sent) but told Voice of San Diego last week they will ask HUD to explain San Diego’s allocation.
“[T]he programs are not distributed across the country based on need or predictors of homelessness,” the House members wrote.. “The mismatch between resources and need is preventing this nation from more efficiently ending homelessness.”
‘Shouldn’t We Base it More on Need?’
San Diego counted several thousand more homeless people than Philadelphia, Chicago or Miami last year. But it was eligible to apply for about half or less of the funding as those cities.
San Diego has a similarly sized homeless population to Seattle, but the Pacific Northwest city was eligible for $23 million from HUD last year, versus nearly $16 million for San Diego.
Cities that want to be eligible for HUD homelessness funding must send in one combined application from a network of service providers. In each geographic region, the effort is coordinated by that network, called the “Continuum of Care,” which defines the programs for which the region wants to seek federal funding. San Diego’s Continuum of Care, like those in several other regions, encompasses the whole county.
When choosing how much money to allocate to each Continuum of Care region — which could cover one major city or county, like San Diego and others, or a collection of smaller cities and towns — HUD rates each according to two formulas that include geographic and demographic information.
Those formulas, which take into account factors like the number of housing units built before 1940 and the area’s population growth, are also used to calculate other federal allocations for combating urban blight.
But there’s growing concern that the formulas, which haven’t changed since the 1970s, aren’t the best way to quantify a city’s homelessness problem.
San Diego starts with a smaller amount of funding than other cities, because of how the city ranks in those formulas.
HUD does give bonus funding to well-done applications — money that can be renewed each year — and San Diego’s now eligible to apply for 24 percent more than its baseline allocation because of those bonuses. But San Diego’s available funding still ranks behind other places, though its homeless population has grown.
“Shouldn’t we base it more on need? That’s a good question,” said Ann Oliva, HUD’s director of Special Needs Assistance Programs, who oversees homelessness funding. “It’s something we are considering right now.”
‘Distributing Our Precious Resources’
In 2009, a group of Los Angeles service providers and business owners banded together in a campaign to combat homelessness.
They assumed that griping over federal funding was a common refrain across the country.
“I thought, ‘OK, well, there’s just not enough funding to go around. Certainly no one’s getting enough funding,’” said Christine Marge, director of housing stability at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, who helped spearhead the campaign.
But the United Way researchers found that HUD’s decades-old formulas disadvantaged younger cities, and cities in the South and West.
Cities like Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland fare far better in HUD’s funding competition than cities with far larger homelessness populations like Los Angeles and San Diego.
Changing HUD’s formulas became a centerpiece of the Los Angeles-based campaign.
“This is not distributing our precious resources in a way that aligns with the need,” Marge said.
Marge and the House members who signed the letter don’t want HUD to tether the funding to the annual homeless counts conducted in the last days of January across the country, for fear it would create an incentive for people to report inflated numbers.
They think there should instead be one formula based on more accurate indicators of homelessness — poverty, how much a region’s inhabitants spend on rent and housing overcrowding.
HUD recently asked for comments on its formulas and allocation process, a move that prompted the November letter from congressional representatives. But while the agency mulls change, San Diego’s homelessness problem remains a significant concern.
The approximately 10,000 people living on the county’s streets and in its canyons pose immense challenges to service providers who are stretched well beyond their capacities to squeeze dozens more people under their roofs over this winter’s many cold nights, and to then try to transition them to permanent housing.
More than half of the homeless people counted in San Diego County in last year’s tally were unsheltered.
San Diego Police Department Sergeant Rick Schnell recently emphasized one of the biggest obstacles his Homeless Outreach Team faced when interacting with homeless people: There’s nowhere to send them when shelters are full.
“Zero,” he said. “That’s the number of available (shelter) beds each night.”
Local homelessness service provides say a lack of funding is a big reason why they can’t meet all the city’s needs.
“I wish I had what every agency wishes they had — more money to do more things,” said Kelly Knight, who does outreach for the Downtown San Diego Partnership’s Clean and Safe Program. “The more money that we have, the more we can do, the more creative we can get, the more leeway we can open up.”
Vargas, whose district runs eastward along the U.S.-Mexico border and includes Chula Vista and National City, wasn’t in office yet when the letter was sent to HUD. But his spokeswoman, Dianna Zamora, said the congressman already has plans to meet in the coming weeks with HUD officials to understand how the department impacts San Diego. She said that after being presented with VOSD’s inquiry, Vargas’ office will also be asking for a special review of the funding disparity. Vargas has participated in the early morning homeless count, Zamora said.
“If the number of homeless people is so much greater than the funding that we’re getting, we’re not able to adequately meet the need of those people,” Zamora said. “Why it is that there’s such a great disparity within that?”
Davis also said she planned to look into the funding difference after being contacted by VOSD.
“There is a significant discrepancy between the needs of San Diego’s homeless population and the assistance provided by the federal government,” said Davis, whose district stretches from I-5 and Balboa Park on the west, through Mission Valley to East County. “The Department of Housing and Urban Development needs to take a hard look at the funding formula to make sure that cities with large homeless populations are having their needs met.”
And Peters, whose district includes downtown, said homelessness is a top issue for his constituents in the city core.
“As a representative of San Diego, it’s my job to fight for my fair share of funding,” he said. “Having heard this, I think I’ll at least look into what the formula is and what we might be able to do about it.”
‘There Are Necessarily Winners and Losers’
Changing the way HUD funds its major homelessness program could prove especially difficult: The federal government is facing severe cuts to existing funding, currently about $2 billion nationwide.
Federal funding is only one slice of the whole pie of money that goes to combat homelessness — a pie that’s difficult to size up.
But advocates know it would be politically challenging for HUD to shake up the formulas without any new money on the table. The prospect of taking money from one place and sending it to another is never popular, said Oliva, from HUD.
“Anytime anybody tries to do formula reform, it’s controversial,” Oliva said. “There are necessarily winners and losers in that conversation.”
San Diego’s comparably low rank on the HUD funding scale is thrown into starker relief considering the federal government does recognize San Diego’s immense need in other ways.
The Department of Veterans Affairs recently chose San Diego and Camp Pendleton as one of five sites for a homelessness prevention program. And the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and HUD are targeting San Diego for 10 months of special technical assistance help to streamline its homelessness data collection.
Pat Leslie, a social work professor at Point Loma Nazarene University who coordinates the local Continuum of Care application, considers those programs a silver lining to San Diego’s disadvantage in the HUD funding food chain.
“Those are huge opportunities for us,” she said. “They don’t come with extra dollars. But they do bring attention.”
Davis wasn’t content with that silver lining.
“I will contact HUD about this problem and ask them to explain why San Diego is being left behind,” she said. “As the city with the nation’s third largest homeless population, San Diego needs answers about why we are funded at a level so far below cities with much smaller homeless populations.”
I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0531.