Nearly 15 years ago, a tour of St. Vincent de Paul Village and a look at its transitional housing programs convinced the Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary at the time that there was a path to end chronic homelessness.

“Until today, I didn’t know if we could make our goal,” then-HUD Secretary Mel Martinez said after the 2002 visit. “But if I could energize the rest of the country with Father Joe’s enthusiasm and success then it probably can be done.”

But transitional housing programs didn’t end chronic homelessness. That fight continues and Father Joe’s Villages, the nonprofit that runs St. Vincent de Paul Village, is in the midst of a substantial move away from models that once brought it national accolades.

By next year, Father Joe’s executives project their transitional programs – which focus on providing the homeless with months of support to prepare them for permanent housing – could make up less than a quarter of their offerings. More than 85 percent of Father Joe’s beds were tied to transitional housing programs when Martinez visited in 2002.

The overhaul reflects changes in how experts believe homelessness should be addressed. Now they say agencies should generally start by housing the homeless first and then worry about providing services.

Research showing those programs are more effective and the federal funding changes that have resulted helped inspire San Diego’s largest homeless services agency to begin a rapid shift.

In the past two years, Father Joe’s has increased investments in now-favored models, including programs that focus on getting chronically homeless people quickly housed and then provide continuous support, and rapid rehousing projects that help clients find housing, assist with moving costs and provide other services as needed.

The agency has phased out 350 transitional housing beds, begun taking in housing vouchers for rapid rehousing programs, re-upped its commitment to a permanent housing program for the chronically homeless and become the city’s year-round shelter provider.

“For us, it’s about providing the right service to the right person every time and that means we have to diversify what we’re doing,” said Bill Bolstad, chief development officer for Father Joe’s Villages.

This chart shows just how much Father Joe’s has diversified and expects to next year.

Father Joe’s isn’t a newcomer to housing projects. It operates five apartment buildings with a mix of both affordable and supportive housing, which follow the housing-first approach.

But transitional housing programs have long been Father Joe’s primary focus and the shift away from those hasn’t come without tensions.

Ruth Bruland, Father Joe’s chief program officer, acknowledges the agency wasn’t instantly sold on the new rapid rehousing model, in particular.

She compared Father Joe’s perspective to the way someone who’s only used a typewriter might approach a computer. They need to see benefits and evidence first before they become advocates, Bruland said.

The organizational change has been fairly recent despite years-long campaigns elsewhere to de-emphasize transitional housing programs. San Diego has remained more reliant on transitional housing programs than other metros nationwide and Father Joe’s, the region’s largest transitional housing provider, has been a big reason why.

Bruland said Father Joe’s began its shift away from transitional housing as soon as the federal HUD funding formula allowed agencies to propose longtime subsidies for transitional housing programs go instead to housing first programs instead. That happened for the first time last year.

“To have done this earlier would have meant giving up the funding,” Bruland said. “You couldn’t reallocate the money. You would’ve had to walk away from it.”

It may have been more complicated than that.

Tom Theisen, an attorney who serves as president of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, said Father Joe’s was among the foremost local advocates of transitional housing as recently as two years ago.

The messaging and organizational focus has since shifted, Theisen said.

“They were vigorous defenders of the concept of transitional housing and did not believe we should reduce the amount of transitional housing in this community,” Theisen said.

Now Father Joe’s is doing just that.

Bolstad said the agency’s position has been more nuanced. At the time, Father Joe’s feared a push to phase out all transitional housing.

Now he said it’s focused on maintaining some transitional housing for those who might still be best served by it but mostly trying other approaches.

The agency recently stepped away from two low-performing transitional housing consortiums once among the region’s top recipients of HUD grants, effectively opening up dozens of beds at its East Village campus for shorter-term stays in keeping with the housing-first model.

Bolstad said Father Joe’s wasn’t satisfied with the permanent housing results it saw with those programs and opted to shift funds away from them.

That made it possible for Father Joe’s to house the city-funded year-round shelter program at its Paul Mirabile Center. The new program is most focused on quickly connecting those who stay there with housing rather than first providing the wrap-around services that would’ve come with transitional housing. Under the new federal model, interim shelters like the one at Father Joe’s are considered key hubs to connect the homeless with housing and other services.

Father Joe’s has also gotten and applied for more HUD-funded rapid-rehousing vouchers for families and singles and added workers to track down housing countywide for its clients.

Bolstad admits the latter comes with challenges. He said homeless working with Father Joe’s sometimes fill out applications for as many as 10 apartments before they find a landlord willing to rent to them – even with a voucher.

Father Joe’s is looking to increase its own permanent supportive housing stock, too.

Bolstad said the nonprofit is working with developers who could help it add nearly 130 permanent housing units downtown and in mid-city neighborhoods within the next few years. It’s asked HUD to provide funding to help add 75 more units for single adults at sites scattered across the region in 2016.

And Father Joe’s is also doubling down on Project 25, its most public permanent supportive housing success story. The initiative, previously helmed by United Way, has already housed more than 50 homeless San Diegans since the pilot program began in 2011. A Point Loma Nazarene University study found significant taxpayer savings associated with housing the first round of participants whose medical ailments, hospital visits and arrests once drained about $3.5 million in taxpayer expenses in a single year.

Father Joe’s says it’s committed to expanding that program, which is now supported by private donors and federal health care funds.

That program and others have come with road bumps. For example, Bolstad said, a federal grant to support a new rapid rehousing program for families came in months later than Father Joe’s expected, pushing back the start date for the program. And the agency has had to learn to adjust over the years to a model that’s spread its clients across the region.

In all cases, private donations have been crucial in aiding Father Joe’s transition, he said.

Now Father Joe’s awaits the results.

Bruland hesitant to commit to what the agency’s mix of programs might look like after next year. There’s much to learn and she wants to see how successful the new programs are first.

“Excellence is you watch the numbers and watch what they teach you. I’m not going to sit here and commit to something in the next five to 10 years,” Bruland said. “I need to be taught.”

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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