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A Vista Homeless Nonprofit Rejected Federal Funds – and Its Reasoning Could Test San Diego's New System

A conservative news website and Rep. Darrell Issa have taken up the cause of Solutions for Change, a Vista homeless-serving nonprofit that says it turned down federal grants because it won’t stop requiring its clients to stay sober. But there’s more to the story, and it’s a good window into a battle brewing across San Diego County.

A North County homeless-serving nonprofit’s loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding due to its commitment to sobriety sounds like a classic case of government overreach.

Or at least, Solutions for Change’s plight is painted that way by The Daily Signal, a news website funded by the conservative Heritage Foundation. A Daily Signal story making the rounds on social media describes the nonprofit’s decision to forgo money from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department, apparently due to its refusal to stop forcing its homeless clients to promise sobriety.

There’s more to the story – and it’s a good window into a battle brewing across San Diego County. Nonprofits like Solutions for Change are being pushed to get on board with a countywide system that would give them less control over who they serve. Regional leaders see the fledgling system as a crucial tool in reducing San Diego’s growing homelessness crisis. Solutions for Change, on the other hand, sees it as a threat.

Solutions for Change decided not to get on board with the regional system last year. It’s been far more outspoken, though, about federal requirements that it not set sobriety requirements for clients seeking services. It’s recently found an ally in Rep. Darrell Issa, who’s urged HUD officials to change their stance on sobriety rules.

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Self-described social entrepreneurs Chris and Tammy Megison founded Solutions for Change nearly 20 years ago, when so-called transitional housing was held up as the best approach to solving homelessness. Solutions for Change focused its efforts on aiding homeless families. It built a campus called the Solutions Family Center and later, an intake center. Then it bought permanent homes and opened an aquaponics farm – an organic, soil-less system for growing produce without pesticides – to support the nonprofit’s efforts.

Families who sign up are enrolled in what the group dubs Solutions University, a multi-pronged 1,000-day program where they get intensive support and job training.

“It’s not a shelter, transitional housing or permanent affordable housing,” the nonprofit says on its website. “It takes the best of all of those things and wraps it together into one solutions-driven package.”

Basically, Solutions for Change created its own system to end homelessness. And it found success. The nonprofit has helped hundreds of families, and for years received federal HUD grants to do it.

Winds have shifted in recent years. HUD and many advocates nationwide have come to embrace a new tack known as housing first, which encourages groups to focus on finding clients permanent homes a instead of temporary housing where they receive services for things like illness or addiction. The idea is that clients should be served as they are, and that drug or mental health issues that might have helped cause their homelessness are best solved once they’re housed. That’s not the approach Solutions for Change uses.

HUD policies also discourage nonprofits from setting barriers such as sobriety that might keep clients out of their programs. Supporters pointed to cost savings and improved outcomes among homeless clients as the reasons for all the changes.

Around the same time HUD ratcheted up its housing first message, it also doubled down on the need for greater collaboration between homeless-serving agencies. In 2012, HUD issued a requirement that regions build coordinated entry to facilitate that.

Historically, homeless people had visited individual nonprofits and been served by those nonprofits if there was room. The new approach mandates that folks be assessed based on their needs and then be matched to the service best for them. This shift has followed a recognition that communities that have made the greatest progress in reducing homelessness have worked to simplify the processes for people who need help and to get agencies who serve them on the same page.

San Diego’s been trying to build a coordinated system.

Now all nonprofits that receive HUD money must agree to take clients through the coordinated entry system. Many are still working to do that. There’s lots of fear about it.

Nonprofits are increasingly having to buy into a strategy and a regional system that in many cases differs from how they’ve operated for years.

Unlike most other nonprofits making changes, Solutions for Change has taken on this challenge publicly.

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Solutions for Change CEO Chris Megison has become a vocal opponent of housing-first policies. Through a spokesman, he declined to speak with VOSD.

Solutions for Change announced last February it would give up about $95,000 in HUD money rather than take clients who didn’t meet the nonprofit’s long-standing sobriety requirements. It later said it would be forced to shut down its family shelter despite having more than 240 families on its waiting list.

Megison and board members repeatedly emphasized the importance of their nonprofit’s sobriety requirement to the Union-Tribune and other news outlets. They said two-thirds of their clients come in battling drug and alcohol issues, and that the drug-free mandate helped them overcome those challenges and pursue a better life.

Then-board member Randy Reznicek told the U-T that allowing clients who weren’t sober to enter the program would “poison the rest of the people who are trying to get better.”

Solutions for Change stood by that call again last August when it decided to step away from a separate $123,000 grant despite appeals from both the regional group that doles out federal homelessness money and the Los Angeles HUD office.

Many homeless advocates across the nation, including those at HUD, argue that’s the wrong call. They say barriers like sobriety requirements can keep homeless folks from ending their homelessness. HUD officials point to a study that showed families were less likely to sign up for transitional housing programs that come up with higher barriers versus permanent housing subsidies or temporary housing assistance.

Solutions for Change maintains its program works best for the families it serves.

“For our people, who work and participate in the Solutions for Change mission, solving family homelessness means seeing homelessness as a symptom of a primary underlying condition,” the agency wrote in a statement to Voice of San Diego. “We believe that the prescribed course of treatment must address those root issues if we are to be successful.”

Issa, whose congressional district includes Vista, said he recently met with HUD officials to encourage them not to cast aside nonprofits doing good work that doesn’t fit the low-barrier, housing-first paradigm. Issa said he was not advocating specifically for Solutions for Change.

“Well-meaning people on both sides have created a situation in which we can’t protect people who are trying to get sober or who have managed to get sober with their families who are homeless to not be exposed to an adverse environment,” Issa told me.

But HUD and officials who work on San Diego’s annual federal funding application to HUD said Solutions for Change’s argument is actually a symptom of a larger dispute.

“The issue is not about sobriety by itself,” said Ann Oliva, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for special needs. “The real issue is this organization’s reluctance to participate in San Diego’s coordinated entry system for serving families experiencing homelessness.”

In other words, Solutions for Change wants to continue to pick and choose its own clients. It doesn’t want homeless service workers elsewhere in San Diego to assign clients it doesn’t believe are ideal for its program.

Megison has said he fears drug use in the nonprofit’s housing despite the fact that the region’s coordinated entry system has baked various agencies’ eligibility criteria into its placements – and that nonprofits have an option to reject clients if there’s an issue.

Dolores Diaz of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, whose organization runs the coordinated entry system, is one of many local advocates who say regional cooperation with organizations like Solutions for Change is crucial to the region’s effort to address homelessness.

For years, the region’s had a patchwork of conflicting strategies and approaches that have crippled its attempts to tackle homelessness.

“Our resources are so limited, and if we’re not coordinating them to the fullest extent possible then the most vulnerable are going to remain on the street,” Diaz said. “Sometimes that means that we have to align our differences of opinion and philosophies, etc. That is the heart and soul of this.”

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