Tradition Of Transitional Housing Runs Counter To Federal Efforts To End Homelessness
Angelette Tome is sitting in a small office in Father Joe’s Villages. She dressed to the nines after a job interview.
She’s nervous, twisting her hands into knots and speaking softly and slowly about what finally brought her to this transitional housing facility.
“My husband actually. We lost our apartment," she said. "I was moving from place to place with different family members.”
Her husband is a veteran; he got a bed at Father Joe’s faster than Tome. Even now, at Father Joe’s, they sleep in different dormitories. Tome says they sneak Friday night dates in their car, always having to make it back inside by curfew.
She said before coming here she slept out on the street, in front of the library, for two months. “It was scary,” she said, “scary and deeply draining.”
But the real reason Tome resisted coming to Father Joe’s? Eight years ago she worked here as a substance abuse counselor. Now, without a home or a job, she was ashamed.
“It made me feel like an outcast,” she said. "Like I had no worth, no self-value. I didn’t really exist.”
The help that Tome and her husband are receiving is called transitional housing, and it is the predominant type of housing used by homeless service providers in San Diego.
But transitional housing has fallen out of favor across the nation, being replaced by what the federal government says is the far more effective housing-first model. In transitional housing, clients go through a series of steps to graduate into their own home, housing-first reverses the order.
There are approximately 9,000 homeless individuals in San Diego and 3,500 temporary beds.
San Diego is struggling to move toward a housing-first model, in part because of ideology, in part because of established infrastructure that supports the older model.
Tome said she is grateful for the shelter. It is a place that allowed her to recover strength and regain hope. And she said, sharing a home with other women it is not that bad.
“It takes some getting used to, some compassion.” She added that it helps to set goals. “Do you want to live in a shelter forever, or do you want to move from shelter to shelter, or do you want to grow up and get your own place?”
But critics of transitional housing say that should be an obvious choice.
Housing-first advocate Jennifer LeSar said transitional housing can force someone to get training and classes they just do not need.
“I don’t need family unification, I don’t need anger management,” LaSar said, summing up the situation of many of homeless people.
Unnecessary but mandatory programs in transitional housing facilities not only waste money, LeSar said, they can also be demoralizing to people who really did nothing but fall on hard times.
“I don’t need to prove to you that I can be a stable and worthy individual,” LeSar said. “I lost my job and therefore I lost my housing, that person should be put right back into housing with some help finding a new job.”
LeSar has a clear stake in this debate, she brought a national housing-first program to San Diego.
But Ruth Bruland, the executive director of Father Joe’s Villages, said what they are doing there works. She admits that sometimes it doesn’t happen on the first go, but she said it is a necessary process.
“I was taught the average number of times it takes somebody to go through treatment was seven,” Bruland said. “So the seventh time, on average, somebody would become clean and sober.”
“And so for us with our population and some of the major changes that we are asking people to do, it’s not going happen the first time.”
Bruland said she supports housing-first, especially in the case of the chronically homeless. And she points out that St. Vincent’s is actively participating in implementing housing-first programs, including Project 25.
“Some people need that housing first,” she said. “But transitional housing? It’s not a dirty word.” And she said treating homelessness is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor.
Bruland tells the story of a man who had cycled through Father Joe’s for decades. “He had come and stayed with us 20 years ago,” she said, “and then he stayed with us 18 years ago, 15 years ago, 12 years ago.”
Finally, because of advances in science and in their assessment program, they were able to find the reason for his troubles.
“He couldn’t hold a job because he had undiagnosed autism. How many safety nets had he just crashed through in his lifetime?”
After 30 years on the street, He finally held his own door key in his hand. Bruland was there.
Telling his story, Bruland choked up. “So you can say ‘oh, they keep coming back’ or you can say, ‘thank God they keep coming back.’ Because we are going to figure it out and they can’t stay on the street.”
I asked Bruland if the man she described is the kind of person who housing first could help.
Bruland stumbled for a minute before settling on an answer. “No,” she said. “I want to support housing-first. But here’s how it works after we found out he had autism… it was an assessment process he had to go through — is he going to stay on the street while we do that assessment process?”
But housing-first advocates say staying on the street is exactly what their model would prevent.
With a permanent affordable housing crisis in San Diego, Bruland wonders where all these homes will come from.
Housing first advocates argue that their model is actually a less expensive way to end homelessness. But San Diego is substantially geared toward transitional housing, and it would take an investment to change course.
Housing-first advocate LeSar says with 3,500 transitional housing units in San Diego the question is now, “how do we turn this boat, this massive boat, to move to a new system?”
“We are struggling with that here,” LeSar said.
Matthew Doherty is with the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. He said that San Diego is actually fairly well-equipped. “There is a significant supply of permanent supportive housing here that has been created.”
But Doherty said that doesn’t mean the homes here being used for housing-first.
“Just because they have permanent supportive housing doesn’t mean they are moving you as quickly and with as few expectations into homes,” he said. Doherty said sometimes, even with permanent supportive housing, individuals still have to get sober and successfully complete training programs before being granted a room of their own. That runs counter to the housing-first philosophy.
McConnell said he is worried that some individuals and families are actually leaving transitional beds to go to permanent supportive housing. “If they needed permanent supportive housing, there was no reason for them to be in transitional housing anyways.”
He said in those cases transitional housing is an extra step that raises the cost of treating homelessness without altering the outcome.
McConnell worries about the future of housing solutions for the homeless in San Diego. “If we start sending people away it’s bad. If we keep insisting on a transitional housing model that has proven ineffective,” he said, “it’s also bad.”
Back at Father Joe’s Villages, Angelette Tome said after six months at Father Joe’s, she is starting to dream about her future again.
As for her dream? To get back into her own apartment, “maybe even save up and buy a house someday.”
Tome has one another dream. She wants to come back to Father Joe’s and work or volunteer.
“I like helping people,” she said.