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With No Long-Term Homelessness Plan Set, the City Again Moves to Fund Temporary Solutions

The city plans to again dip into funds for permanent housing in order to cover temporary shelter costs. The fund-shuffling drives home the absence of a broader strategy to house more homeless San Diegans.

Before the city opened large industrial tents for homeless residents, it sanctioned a lot for the homeless to park and camp in Golden Hill. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The city plans to again dip into funds for permanent housing in order to cover temporary shelter costs. The fund-shuffling, first reported by KPBS, drives home the absence of a broader strategy to house more homeless San Diegans.

The San Diego Housing Commission’s proposed $388 million budget for next year includes a plan to tap reserves typically used for property maintenance and upgrades to instead cover $12 million in shelter and new storage facility costs.

It’s the second time in six months the commission is poised to redirect cash that could help address the massive affordable housing shortage at the heart of the city’s homelessness crisis – and a missing piece for many homeless San Diegans sleeping in temporary tents the city opened late last year. City officials have pledged in both instances to find replacement cash to support more permanent homelessness solutions.

Just 10 percent of homeless clients who have exited the city’s three shelter tents between December and March have moved into permanent homes, according to city data.

City officials defend their investment in hundreds of new shelter beds to provide temporary homes for homeless San Diegans, plus a new Logan Heights storage center set to open this summer.

“The fact of the matter is that we can’t build ourselves out of this crisis fast enough to resolve this issue, and we’ve had a crisis here in San Diego on the homelessness front,” Frank Urtasan, a Sempra executive who chairs the Housing Commission board, said before he voted to recommend approval of the budget last week.

Yet San Diego doesn’t have an overarching plan to stem the housing crunch driving the region’s homelessness crisis.

At a Monday City Council budget hearing, the focus was on budgetary next steps.

City officials said they plan to direct $10 million in federal community development block grants and another $2 million in redevelopment funds back to the Housing Commission to fund a veterans housing project after next year’s budget is approved.

A couple City Council members expressed skepticism about the cash-shifting.

City Council members Barbara Bry and David Alvarez said they’d like to see the city and the Housing Commission avoid moving housing money around.

“We’re really not meeting all the demands that we have today to build more supportive housing and more affordable housing, which is really our only way out of this,” said Bry, who chairs the budget committee.

Bry said she’d prefer the city invest both the shifted Housing Commission money and the $10 million in federal grants in permanent housing.

“I view it as we’ve really stolen $10 million that we’re not getting back because we really had an opportunity to have $20 million,” Bry said.

Alvarez zeroed in on a similar promise last year that has yet to be fully kept.

Last November, city officials pledged to swiftly backfill $6.5 million the San Diego Housing Commission pulled from a much-publicized permanent housing initiative to pay for contracts for the three temporary shelter.

Nearly six months later, the city and Civic San Diego, the downtown redevelopment agency, have agreed to provide $6.5 million in gap funding for a San Ysidro supportive housing project but the City Council still needs to sign off. It’s set to vote on the aid next month.

Alvarez noted the city could have used the $6.5 million in redevelopment funds it’s now likely to sink into a single 50-unit project on more housing units rather than backfill Housing Commission dollars.

“I would not want to double count that money,” Alvarez said.

He also expressed concern about the Housing Commission’s recent pattern of pulling from other funds to support homelessness initiatives.

Jeff Davis, the agency’s executive vice president, couldn’t promise it won’t happen again.

The city has yet to establish a broad strategy to combat homelessness or to fund the storage center or shelters in years to come. Supporters are advocating for two prospective ballot measures that could increase funding for homelessness and housing initiatives – if they can make it to the ballot and garner support from two-thirds of voters.

For now, city and Commission leaders say they’re working with what they’ve got.

The Housing Commission, which oversees much of the city’s response to homelessness, proposes next year spending nearly triple what it spent on the cause in 2016 and more than four times what it budgeted for capital projects that same year – absent a major influx of new cash.

“I know you guys are being asked to do more than what’s funded and somehow it seems like you have a magic wand somewhere,” Councilwoman Georgette Gómez said of the Housing Commission.

Gómez also called on city officials to come up with a comprehensive game plan in the aftermath of a deadly hepatitis A outbreak that battered San Diego’s homeless population and forced conversations about temporary solutions.

“A lot of the programs that have been coming forward is reactionary and I’ve not really seen a holistic approach in where we’re going,” Gómez said. “We’re just reacting, having a piecemeal type of a program moving forward.”

A spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer said his office is working with the Housing Commission and Civic San Diego to find more funding sources for affordable housing. The mayor’s also backing state legislation that could bring more homelessness funding to the city.

City leaders and political candidates have also suggested the county should step up its homelessness spending.

But new resources aren’t coming immediately or even certain – and officials say they can’t ignore the suffering on San Diego streets while they wait.

“The short-term needs of San Diegans experiencing homelessness on city streets today must be kept in mind and addressed while remaining focused on essential long-term solutions,” Davis, of the Housing Commission, said in an email. “The San Diego Housing Commission is balancing these dual needs within its limited funding.”

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