'Housing-First' Debate May Cost San Diego Homeless Programs Federal Funding
At about 6 p.m. on a sunny evening near the shadows of San Diego’s downtown skyscrapers, Matthew McCarthy holds court on a street corner. He is talking with friends, his hands wrapped around a brown paper bag barely concealing an open can of beer.
McCarthy said he just finished up his week of part-time work at a service job. “I bought some Fosters 'cause it helps me relax.”
He also has a pint of whiskey hidden among his meager possessions, but he will not be drinking that tonight. “That’s for other people,” he said. “That’s for them to leave me alone.”
Like a lot of homeless people, McCarthy needs a network of things to get his life together. Even though he has a part-time job, he still needs a way out of sleeping on the streets night after night. What he needs, he said, is a place to call home.
But should he be made to take a journey before getting that home, a journey that would ask him to get sober and undergo counseling? Should he do job training and even remedial education while staying in a dormitory, or should he first just get that roof over his head?
Does he have to show he is ready for a house, or would the house make him ready for recovery?
These questions cut to the heart of a national debate over how to eradicate homelessness in America, a debate being waged right now in San Diego.
McCarthy slept on a park bench the night I caught up with him. It is where he sleeps almost every night. That doesn’t stop him from getting to work. It also doesn’t impede his drinking. “I binge,” he admits. “It can get really bad.”
McCarthy lays his head down just a few blocks from Southern California’s largest homeless service provider, the iconic Father Joe’s Villages, San Diego’s prime example of the transitional housing model. He said he has stayed at Father Joe’s and in other transitional housing before, but he can never get through the program and stick to all the rules.
“I knew I would fail. Not only cause I knew I wasn’t ready to quit drinking,” he paused, shaking his head. “I do want to quit drinking. I’m just not ready.”
The other problem for McCarthy is that Father Joe’s Villages takes a percentage of his paycheck. That is not uncommon among homeless service providers.
McCarthy says he does not mind the idea of paying in and he realizes Father Joe’s Villages is just trying to help him save up money. What bothers him is that the money comes back to him only if he follows the program and graduates to permanent housing.
To get clients into permanent homes, transitional housing requires completion of their programs.
“I’m 45 years old and I’m not OK,” McCarthy said. “You go to prove for six months you’re OK…95 percent fail rate. You just do the math, it’s not going to happen.”
McCarthy’s numbers are purely anecdotal, but he said he bases them on knowing a lot of people who are like him, cycling in and out of transitional housing and ending up back on the street.
And that is where the newer model for ending homeless comes into play.
Some critics say that is due in part to local resistance to a new model of addressing homelessness: housing-first.
Homeless service providers, activists, and nonprofits are engaged in a tense debate that pits housing first against the established paradigm of transitional housing in San Diego. The debate pits two very different approaches to tackling homelessness against each other.
Father Joe’s Villages executive director Ruth Bruland said transitional housing works, even if it takes time for some clients.
“Housing-first is wildly popular at this point, for a lot of reasons,” Bruland said. Some of it makes sense to her, but she called parts of the new trend “wildly frustrating.”
“For us, we are looking at our transitional housing where 91 percent of people that move into permanent housing do so on their own dime,” Bruland said. “It’s not any federal support beyond what they received while they were with us.”
But Michael McConnell with the Regional Task Force on the Homeless said that figure is meaningless.
“When you are quoted that 91 percent of people graduated a program, you have to ask how many people actually graduated, and how many didn’t?”
By day, McConnell sells rare coins at his store in La Jolla. In his spare time, he collects data on the homeless programs, nationally and locally.
McConnell’s brother was mentally ill, inspiring him to obsessively work to help those who live on the streets. McConnell said the problem with transitional housing is that in holding fast to requirements like quitting drinking and taking classes, it winnows down the number of people who make it to the promised land of permanent housing.
“So every time you take a step, you only take a certain percentage of your population with you,” he said. “By the time you get to permanently housing the 100 people who started over here, you may only end up with 10 or so who actually exited to permanent housing.”
People, McConnell said, slip through the cracks.
That is why McConnell is an avid supporter of housing-first.
“Whether you are newly homeless or you’ve been homeless for 30 years,” LeSar said, “the right solution is to rehouse you in your own home, with your front door key and to restore your human dignity.”
The debate about how to best fix the homeless problem in San Diego boils down to whether you believe placing homeless people first can be a magic bullet to help fix homelessness.
The federal government is standing behind the housing-first model. They say the results are superior to those provided by transitional housing. Federal studies also claim it is a far cheaper way to tackle homelessness, because you don’t spend precious resources on those who cycle right back out onto the streets.
Housing-first supporters also say covering rent for the chronically homeless is far cheaper than the public services those same people would accrue on the street.
While the debate between the two models plays out in San Diego, housing-first advocates have already prevailed in many cities across the country. Both Phoenix and Salt Lake City have already declared an end to veteran homelessness on their streets by using the housing-first model.
“That was the model that was thought to be successful,” Doherty said. “But increasingly across the country we are seeing that we are not finding strong outcomes coming out of transitional housing programs.”
Now, the federal government is tying Housing and Urban Development —or HUD — grants directly to housing-first programs.
Housing-first advocate Jennifer LeSar said prior to this year, the government was urging a change. But she says the gentle suggestion of housing-first is giving way to a mandate.
“So far it’s been a carrot, but it's now about to be a stick.”
Back on the street Matthew McCarthy finished his beer.
If he could get a home without quitting drinking, would he do it?
“A billion yesses, an infinite number of yesses, how many yesses can I say?”
For tonight, McCarthy slinks off to sit in front of a chain link fence and sip his beer, preparing for another night of sleeping on the street.