More than any other big city in the nation, San Diego’s homeless providers are relying on an outdated, less effective strategy to reduce the region’s homeless population.

National homelessness advocates are pushing cities to dial back on transitional housing and ramp up so-called housing-first programs, which focus on quickly housing people rather than months- or years-long interventions first. Transitional housing programs are focused on helping homeless people stabilize before they access permanent housing; housing-first programs are like the name suggests — they first provide the housing and then follow up with services based on a person’s needs.

Federal officials have said the housing-first method works best and are urging cities to shift to that model or risk losing federal cash.

This presents a challenge for San Diego, which rose in national homeless population rankings this year. The region has a larger share of transitional housing stock than any other top-20 metro area in the nation.

A Voice of San Diego analysis of regional data reported to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development reveals about 46 percent of beds available for San Diego’s homeless are tied to transitional programs. The average among other the nation’s other top 20 metros is 19 percent.

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Many other major cities have significantly reduced their transitional bed offerings in recent years. Experts caution cutting San Diego’s massive transitional housing stock alone wouldn’t instantly reduce San Diego’s homeless population. A move away from the transitional model takes years and other factors such as coordination between homeless providers and the availability of affordable housing would also be pivotal. And federal officials have said transitional programs remain viable for a few key groups such as youth or domestic violence victims.

But at least one region that’s made significant headway against homelessness has also made a big move away from transitional housing beds.

Houston, which has won accolades for its success, reduced its transitional bed count by more than a third from 2012 to 2015, according to federal data.

Federal statistics show the region’s homeless population fell by about 36 percent during that same period.

Matthew Doherty, executive director of the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness, said Houston’s de-emphasis on transitional programs contributed to its success. It’s embracing the housing-first model.

“There’s just been a wealth of data that has demonstrated both the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of housing first and have demonstrated transitional housing is more expensive than other models for achieving permanent housing outcomes,” he said.

Doherty, who once worked in San Diego, said the movement hasn’t been as swift here.

“There’s a lot of great work going on right now in San Diego,” Doherty said. “It just does seem like other communities started to engage in that work earlier.”

Dolores Diaz, who leads San Diego’s Regional Task Force on the Homeless, agrees.

County data shows San Diego County’s transitional housing bed offerings dropped for the first time this year, from about 3,950 in 2014 to roughly 3,770 this year.

“We’re behind,” Diaz said. “There’s no question about that.”

The message is getting louder.

HUD’s decision to prioritize housing-first programs led the San Diego County Regional Continuum of Care Council to reallocate more than $2 million from nonprofit-run transitional housing projects across the county to new programs that follow the housing-first model.

And the San Diego Housing Commission, which doles out millions of dollars to projects and through voucher programs meant to help reduce homelessness, released an action plan last year that pledged major support for permanent housing solutions.

That wasn’t an accident, Housing Commission CEO Rick Gentry said.

“We need to refocus our efforts toward a greater focus on the housing-first model and permanent supportive housing rather than transitional,” Gentry said.

    This article relates to: Government, Homelessness, Must Reads, Nonprofits/Community

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about San Diego city and county governments. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

    Fred Schnaubelt
    Fred Schnaubelt subscriber

    First off the politicians have to intentionally, deliberately, and with malice create a housing shortage.  Then with token and incredibly expensive housing programs they pretend to solve the very  problem they created.  In the meantime good paying jobs are created for people wanting to do good.  You can see it on a macroeconomic scale.  Since President Johnson commenced the War on Poverty in 1964 about $22 trillion has been spent to alleviate it.  In 1964 the Poverty rate was about 15%, and  in 2012 it was about 15%. Where did all the money go? Mostly to Democrats studying, analyzing, and advising the poor.

    Ed Price
    Ed Price

    Playing with words! So you take ALL the transitional housing programs and re-label the beds as "housing." There you go, you have 100% eliminated the transitional housing issue and your "world class" city can now bask in the glow of being a "top" city. BTW, I love this crap about "solving the homeless" problem; when you have a climate where people can live year-round in the freeway bushes, and no border guards at the county line, how do you expect to ever "solve" the homeless issue?

    bgetzel subscriber

    Housing First is a viable approach to housing the homeless. However, there is a shortage of resources to extensively implement it. The strategy requires the provision of comprehensive services, as well as the housing itself. The cost per client is very expensive (perhaps up to $100,000 per person annually, at the start). Agencies like the San Diego Housing Commission may have some money to build new units, but little or no funds for services. The County Health Dept. has some funding for mental health services, but near enough to meet the need. Other sources are limited. The other problem is the allocation of affordable housing money to build new units. San Diego County builds perhaps 200 to 300 new, affordable housing units per year, using all sources of affordable housing money. Those units are provided for all underprivileged people, homeless, vets, the working poor, etc. Local, state and Federal governments need to increase the resources to housing the poor.

    Richard Gardiol
    Richard Gardiol

    Thanks to the feckless leadership of Councilpersons Todd Gloria and David Alverez; we find the homeless abandoned on the doorstep of our city. The dos amigos are busy kissing up to special interests and cannot find the time to address the problems of those in need  in their districts.

    Ed Price
    Ed Price

    @Richard Gardiol  Awww, what nasty custodians "abandoned" those hapless homeless on your doorstep? From what I see, those homeless made a choice to show up on the city's doorstep. Why do you always blame the politicians for not fixing what somebody else chose to create? And remember, when a politician "fixes" something, that always involves spending somebody else's money, so let's put the homeless burden where it really belongs; raise the taxes on electricians and plumbers and bus drivers and waitresses so we can provide free services to the homeless.

    Richard Gardiol
    Richard Gardiol

    @Ed Price @Richard Gardiol  The homeless are American citizens many of whom are down on their luck veterans who have gone to war to protect you and your family. Now you sit in your cozy home and thumb your nose at them. That is what I call nasty.