Last year, San Diego transitional housing programs that receive federal funding moved 43 percent of their tenants into permanent housing. The bar set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is 65 percent.

“We haven’t had it be that low before,” said Pat Leslie, a social work professor at Point Loma Nazarene University who coordinates the countywide Continuum of Care, the network of homelessness service providers that organizes the region’s application for federal funds each year.

More than half of the beds dedicated for homeless people in San Diego County are part of a transitional housing program, a model that offers a temporary place for homeless people to stay while they complete programs lasting up to two years — with accompanying services like job training, substance abuse treatment, health care and childcare. The goal is to move them to permanent, stable housing.

But as San Diego’s lackluster performance shows, that can be a tall order — especially in a high-cost housing market and a difficult-to-break-into workforce. And San Diego missed the federal standard for that goal by a wide margin in 2012.

Earlier this week, we explained the types of programs in San Diego that receive about $15 million in federal funding to combat homelessness. Here’s a closer look at one of them, transitional housing.

The county’s low showing in terms of moving people into permanent housing came up at the continuum’s meeting a couple of weeks ago. Consultants hired by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and HUD to help San Diego improve its homelessness services flagged the number and said they will look at it closely as they work with the continuum for the next 10 months. They’ll also be working on how the continuum is organized and how it evaluates its programs’ successes and weaknesses.

Leslie said the low number leaves out some nuance. For example, if someone enters a transitional housing program and transfers to a mental health or drug or alcohol treatment program, that transfer doesn’t count toward the goal even if the move represents the best option for that person.

But Leslie admitted the continuum should continue examining the programs.

“Forty-three percent on a page is a horrible number. It’s not a number that we are proud of. It’s not a number that we expected. There’s a whole series of things that we are investigating,” Leslie said.

Meanwhile, transitional housing is becoming a less popular tool — federal guidelines are being rewritten in favor of moving homeless people into permanent housing and providing services for them there.

That “housing first” model wasn’t always en vogue. The federal government encouraged cities to develop transitional housing in the 1980s with the passage of federal homelessness funding. San Diego responded.

“Transitional housing 20 years ago was the key phrase,” said Bob McElroy, CEO of the Alpha Project, which runs a residential substance abuse program that receives some transitional housing grant funding, called Casa Raphael. “That was the HUD mandate. Now it’s turned into ‘permanent supportive housing.’”

While they were in San Diego last month, the federal officials emphasized that the government isn’t necessarily trying to phase out the transitional model. But they said the continuum should closely look at the data from all of its programs to evaluate the impact of the funding San Diego does get, and decide whether it could have greater effectiveness elsewhere.

McElroy, whose nonprofit also manages the downtown winter tent shelter and the short-term beds at the new Connections Housing facility, said the bottleneck in the system is dramatic. There remains only a fraction of rent-assistance vouchers and affordable housing units available to accommodate the people agencies bring in to transitional housing programs. And it’s often difficult to place people in market-rate apartments if they don’t have solid work histories and incomes.

“There’s no place to transition them to,” he said. “There’s no inventory — that’s the problem. Nowhere for these people to go.”

Some vouchers have been designated directly to homeless people on the streets in recent years — programs like Blitz Week, which skips the transitional model altogether but also takes away some tools from transitional housing caseworkers.

While the federal officials were in town, they visited St. Vincent de Paul Village, one of the region’s largest providers of transitional housing with 892 beds. Keith Burke, director of supportive services for the nonprofit, said the agency has been grappling with the new federal guidelines for a couple of years.

Burke said the “housing first” model inspires a philosophy change for providers. He said the agency is trying to shift toward connecting people with income and housing as soon as possible, and then work on their other problems later.

But, he said, “We need to make sure we don’t make snap decisions. As providers, we’ve been around a long time and seen trends come and go. Our goal is to get people who are homeless into housing.”

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit that depends on you, our readers. Please donate to keep the service strong. Click here to find out more about our supporters and how we operate independently.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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