More than any other big city in the nation, San Diego’s homeless providers are relying on an outdated, less effective strategy to reduce the region’s homeless population.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