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5 Things San Diego Could Try to Help the Homeless

Other cities are making headway with programs and policies that could conceivably be tried in San Diego.

San Diego’s far from the only region struggling to fight homelessness.

Other cities are trying and making significant headway against the seemingly intractable problem.

I decided to look outside San Diego for solutions that might be possible to try here. Here are five examples.

Roommate Matchmaking for the Homeless

It’s an obvious solution for many living on limited cash: Get a roommate so you can afford an apartment.

Two nonprofits in the Washington D.C. metro area have tried helping that process along. Like San Diego, the D.C. region’s saddled with increasing rents and low apartment vacancy rates.

“We needed to find ways to house people,” said Meghann Cotter of Fredericksburg, Va.-based Micah Ministries, which serves homeless folks who’ve been on the streets for years.

And clients weren’t opposed to the idea. She said most of the 81 clients the nonprofit housed last year were paired with roommates.

Jean-Michel Giraud, CEO at D.C.-based Friendship Place, said his group has been giving homeless clients the option of moving in with a roommate for more than two years. During that time, about 80 percent decided to get a roommate.

After all, there are perks for the clients, especially those who aren’t eligible for full housing subsidies. If they pair up, they can share the rent burden and have more cash to spend on food or other needs. It’s also often easier to track down an apartment, Giraud said.

“We find that people are paying only 30 to 50 percent of what they would pay for a one bedroom so it’s quite a cost savings,” he said. “We find that people can get in fast, one to three days versus weeks or more.”

Surprisingly, Cotter and Giraud said, landlords in the D.C. area are largely embracing the roommate system.

San Diego-based Alpha Project is interested.

Chief Operating Officer Amy Gonyeau said her agency recently received a county contract to aid as many as 200 homeless folks who are mentally ill and seeking county services. Alpha’s building a questionnaire similar to one you’d find on a dating site to match clients up.

“Logically it makes sense,” Gonyeau said. “Now it’s a matter of testing it.”

Shelter for Folks Who Don’t Like Shelters

San Francisco’s long had a large unsheltered population that’s rejected traditional shelters.

Leaders and outreach workers at San Diego homeless-serving nonprofits say they’re increasingly encountering the same thing, which they attribute to an increased population of homeless people who seem to be coping with addiction or mental illness.

San Francisco officials responded with a plan to open six so-called navigation centers throughout the city over the next two years to target homeless people who’ve typically avoided shelters.

The two navigation centers that have opened have fewer rules than traditional shelters and are focused on rapidly housing clients elsewhere. Homeless clients can bring in their pets and don’t have to split up from their partners. They don’t have a curfew, as they’d have at most shelters. There’s also a focus on ensuring future navigation centers serve a variety of clients in a variety of neighborhoods – and to have them serve no more than 100 clients each.

Sam Dodge, deputy director of San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said the decision to go with smaller facilities throughout the city is strategic.

Smaller facilities allow for more flexibility on rules and a more relaxed environment for clients, plus a greater ability to focus on rapidly moving the clients into housing and on more specific homeless populations.

They’ll also likely be more acceptable to neighbors than much larger shelters.

Outreach workers have targeted folks they think could most benefit from the navigation center approach, rather than asking clients to sign up.

“We’re approaching people who the system hasn’t worked for before,” Dodge said.

Once they’re in, clients get intensive health services and are placed on a fast track to get housing.

Dodge said the pilot project that started with a temporary location in San Francisco’s Mission District last year seems to be working.

Data shows 29 percent of clients who exited the program through early August moved into permanent housing and another 51 percent have reconnected with friends or family, usually outside San Francisco.

The latter can be controversial in the homeless-serving world. Busing a person elsewhere doesn’t necessarily end her homelessness. Sometimes, it just moves her elsewhere.

Dodge and others are enthusiastic about the program’s track record.

That’s not to say expanding that work will be easy. The first navigation center was bankrolled by an anonymous $3 million donation and Dodge acknowledges it’ll be difficult to get community buy-in for sites in other parts of the city.

But local leaders are committed.

“It’s been a great success,” Dodge said. “So much so it’s hard to imagine our system without this tool now.”

Housing Where Drinking’s Allowed

The prospect of giving up drinking can be enough to keep an alcoholic who lives on the street from ending his homelessness.

After all, most homeless-serving programs in San Diego and elsewhere require them to quit, a prospect experts say can be overwhelming.

Seattle made national headlines a decade ago when it welcomed a city-backed housing facility that didn’t force residents to stop drinking. Laudatory studies and news stories about the facility, known as 1811 Eastlake, followed an initial avalanche of opposition.

Daniel Malone, executive director of facility operator DESC of Seattle said the nonprofit quickly filled its 75 supportive housing units. And four homeless alcoholics who initially resisted later moved in when there were openings.

“Many people had this perception that these folks were just never going to accept help and really the help that they had been rejecting was way too rigid,” Malone said.

What happened once they got in drew more accolades. Researchers found formerly homeless alcoholics who lived at 1811 Eastlake reduced their drinking by 40 percent. Another study found the average client living at 1811 Eastlake cost the city about $3,000 less per month than when he or she lived on the street.

Malone said ending homelessness often requires meeting people where they’re at and not forcing someone who’s struggling to earn housing through abstinence.

“There’s a price we pay if that is the stance we want to take with people, and that price is then we’re going to see these people passed out on the street, bleeding, making passersby uncomfortable, getting scooped up by the cops and ambulance workers,” Malone said. “There is a consequence to us having this attitude of derision or allowing our actions to be based on our derision for the population.”

San Diego’s successfully dabbled in this approach – known in the field as harm reduction – with Project 25, a program led by Father Joe’s Villages that focused on homeless folks who were frequent users of emergency services. But many shelter and housing programs in San Diego require sobriety or at the very least, bar drinking on their campuses.

Moving on Up (and Out)

There have been plenty of tensions as San Diego moves toward a homeless-serving system that emphasizes permanent housing.

One of them: The transitional housing and shelter beds the region long emphasized turned over more often, meaning they were available to help more people.

The new units being pushed by the feds and others are called permanent supportive housing units, and are meant to be permanent homes with permanent services and supports.

Those units – which are already hard to come by – can’t be used to serve as many clients. The goal has generally been to house the person who gets one of them for the rest of their life.

But this approach is still evolving, too.

The Corporation for Supportive Housing, a nonprofit advocacy and consulting group, has worked with providers in a handful of other cities to identify permanent housing residents willing to move out and into the market with rental subsidies. When they move out, they make room for others who are homeless and need more help – and gain more independence in the process.

Ann English, a CSH program manager based in Los Angeles, has worked with nonprofits there on a test project that’s moved 120 people out of supportive housing over the last three years. English said most clients who successfully moved on had spent three to five years in supportive housing first.

They benefited from support services early on but required less aid a few years in. Some wanted more freedom or to move closer to family members.

A CSH spokesman said the group is now advising nonprofits it works with to aim to move 5 to 10 percent of clients out of permanent supportive housing a year.

More than 2,900 clients live in permanent supportive housing in San Diego County, according to regional data reported by the countywide group that oversees local homelessness initiatives.

If the “moving on” approach worked in San Diego, it might free up hundreds of the units for those who now live on the streets within a few years.

Done right, English said the moves can be positive for both the formerly homeless clients who move out and a homeless-serving system that wants to help more folks get off the street.

“It’s about maximizing resources as much as it is about supporting people to do the best that they can themselves, to fulfill whatever capacity they’re capable of, as opposed to placing them in boxes and saying this is where you should be,” she said.

Another Approach on Outreach

San Diego made headlines this year for a homeless-deterring rock garden and increased encampment sweeps ahead of the MLB All-Star Game.

Those helped fuel the sentiment among homeless people and those who advocate for them that San Diego leaders wanted to hide growing street homelessness ahead of the big game.

The city of Philadelphia took a different tack before the Democratic National Convention last month.

The city worked with nonprofits to add 110 shelter beds the week before and during the convention and temporarily upped its outreach to homeless folks in the area to get the word out.

“Our philosophy was housing not hidden,” said Liz Hersh, the city’s homeless services director.

The idea, she said, was to give homeless folks a way to escape the chaos and large crowds surrounding the convention.

Hersh said about 75 additional people entered Philadelphia shelters as part of the effort and nearly half were later matched with other service plans, including permanent supportive house and short-term rental subsidies.

The outreach effort wasn’t unprecedented for Philadelphia.

The city took a similar approach before the pope’s visit last year and connected about 200 people with shelter and services.

Hersh said the city’s also commits resources to around-the-clock outreach, something that’s less prevalent in San Diego.

I’ve had several folks – including one who wrote an op-ed for us – tell me they’ve repeatedly called hotlines or the Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team when they’ve encountered a homeless person who needs help only to be forced to leave a message – or told the person who could help has left for the day.

Hersh said Philly’s homeless outreach hotline is open 24 hours a day.

“We never want somebody to be ready to come in and we’re not there,” she said.

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