Several cities have recently announced they’ve put an effective end to veteran homelessness in keeping with federal goals set by the Obama administration.
San Diego didn’t meet the challenge.
“Right now we’re leaving too much money on the table and too many veterans on the street to continue in the way that we have been,” said City Councilman Todd Gloria, who leads the regional group that coordinates efforts and funding for programs meant to fight homelessness.
Over the past four years, San Diego saw just a 16 percent decline in veteran homelessness according to regional data reported annually to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Metros such as Phoenix, Houston, New York City and Las Vegas reported drops of at least 40 percent each during the same period.
Leaders in three of those regions have hailed even more dramatic progress in recent months. San Diego officials, meanwhile, say they can’t be certain they’ve seen any further decline in the homeless veteran population until after an annual count that’ll take place later this month.
San Diego’s performance isn’t simply about a lack of local resources. Several homeless advocates told me the region already has many of the tools necessary to end veteran homelessness despite its status as the region with the third-highest population of homeless veterans in the nation. Indeed, other regions with similarly sized veteran populations have boasted that they’ve essentially ended the problem.
Gloria and others are adamant that San Diego’s making improvements that will get more homeless veterans off the streets in coming months.
But to do so, local leaders will have to overcome three big problems that have doomed their efforts before: a lack of leadership and coordination, steep housing costs and an inefficient deployment of resources.
San Diego hasn’t displayed the same coordination and leadership as other regions that’ve seen big success.
Collaboration has been a hallmark of successful efforts to reduce veteran homelessness.
Houston leaders held weekly coordination meetings with stakeholders. Las Vegas enlisted local groups to help identify all homeless veterans in the region and connect them with help. And New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu publicly called on volunteers and local agencies to bring their resources to the table.
Those success stories all included vocal champions and community-wide commitments.
Keith Harris, who oversees the federal Veterans Health Administration’s national efforts to fight veteran homelessness, said he hasn’t seen that same engagement in San Diego.
“All-hands-on-deck efforts seem to have characterized some of the cities that have made the formal claim (of ending veteran homelessness),” Harris said. “That strikes me as a difference with San Diego.”
San Diego’s approach to address veteran homelessness is telling. There hasn’t been an umbrella strategy or oversight group focused on ending veteran homelessness in San Diego.
“I think we have a lot of people in San Diego interested in doing something but you have lots of stakeholders rowing in different directions,” said Michael McConnell, a business owner and homeless advocate who serves as local team leader for the national 25 Cities initiative, which promote coordination systems to end veteran and chronic homelessness.
McConnell and others are pushing for change.
Gloria recently called a meeting to discuss how the regional Continuum of Care Council, the organization he leads, could oversee efforts to end veteran homelessness.
Advocates and agency leaders are also heartened by more recent work.
The council, once made up mostly of nonprofit heads, now also includes business and government leaders, which ensures a broader group discusses strategy and funding for homeless initiatives.
San Diego is one of many U.S. metros implementing a coordinated assessment tool that allows providers across the region to assess the needs of a homeless person they encounter and connect her with the agency or services best suited for her, whether it’s at the facility she walked into or not.
Nonprofit leaders say that’s already ensuring better monitoring of homeless people in that system.
Efforts are also under way to create a shared list of all of San Diego’s homeless veterans to ensure they’re being reached by nonprofits and government resources.
Yet concerns remain about a dearth of regional leadership.
“I have had various high-up people in national organizations tell me it will be difficult, if not impossible, to effectively address the homeless problem unless we have high-level civic leaders involved in and taking the lead in this project,” said Tom Theisen, board president of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. “I’ve been told that repeatedly at national conferences.”
In Houston, Phoenix and New Orleans, mayors were crucial players.
A spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer said he will redouble his efforts on veteran homelessness in 2016 and plans to announce plans to do so early this year.
San Diego’s got an expensive housing market.
Ending veteran homelessness will require scores of affordable apartments and San Diego’s got few vacant ones to offer.
Last month, the San Diego County Apartment Association reported a 2.6 percent vacancy rate for the county. Rents are also on the rise – and already among the steepest in the nation.
San Diego and other cities across the state lost their top source of affordable housing funding with the death of redevelopment in 2011, which advocates say has complicated efforts to build apartments for the low-income or formerly homeless.
At the same time, more nonprofits are shifting to models that focus on moving the homeless into apartments rather than providing supportive services first.
That means landlords and developers increasingly hold the keys to help end San Diego’s homelessness problem.
“More and more there’s a need for landlords to work in partnership with us,” said Greg Anglea, who leads North County-based Interfaith Community Services.
Anglea and others say that hasn’t always gone smoothly.
Landlords can be reluctant to lease to homeless veterans who often have evictions, poor credit or past jail stays on their records. Property owners also fear damage to apartments or troubles that might crop up when temporary rental assistance ends.
The vouchers veterans receive don’t always match the rents San Diego landlords seek. Housing agencies also must inspect properties before voucher-holders move in, a process that can mean an apartment temporarily sits vacant and doesn’t generate income for the property owner.
Those factors mean it can take weeks or even months to secure an apartment for a homeless veteran.
San Diego Veterans Affairs officials said last year it took local case workers about two weeks longer than the national average to find housing for homeless San Diego veterans.
Nonprofits and local officials are increasingly focused on pushing landlords to help. The Apartment Association recently got on board, too.
The organization is encouraging members to rent at least 200 apartments to homeless veterans and their families in 2016.
The San Diego Housing Commission has received $366,000 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to create a landlord engagement program.
The Housing Commission and other local groups want to sweeten the deal for San Diego landlords who rent to homeless veterans. Funds that cover security deposits upfront or potential apartment damages beyond those initial deposits are among the ideas. They’re also working to reassure landlords that most homeless veterans will end up being stable renters.
Agencies are looking to provide the units themselves, too.
The San Diego Housing Commission is renovating the historic Hotel Churchill, a facility that will primarily house homeless veterans, and Alpha Project’s new downtown space, Alpha Square, recently welcomed more than two dozen veterans.
Alpha and Interfaith Community Services both say they’d like to build or purchase more permanent housing for veterans.
San Diego has struggled to deploy resources.
The Department of Veterans Affairs considers its supportive housing vouchers one of its most powerful tools in the fight against veteran homelessness.
But last year the San Diego Veterans Affairs Office struggled to use those vouchers. Just 78 percent of the Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers the region has received were used last year, according to the national Veterans Affairs office.
Harris, the national Veterans Health Administration official, said both the local and national veteran agencies were frustrated with that result.
“This is problematic,” he said. “They know it. We know it.”
Local leaders including Gloria raised concerns after learning of the local success rate.
“As we’ve been pushing for more resources, I don’t know that I can credibly go out and say that we’re using all the resources as efficiently and effectively as possible,” Gloria said.
Harris said months-long staffing shortages at the San Diego Veterans Affairs office were behind last year’s challenges.
The San Diego Veterans Affairs office says it’s since added 19 new case workers and filled four vacancies to connect more homeless veterans with housing.
The national Veterans Affairs office acknowledged San Diego administrators were reluctant to hire unlicensed case workers some other Veteran Affairs offices brought on to help swiftly respond to a rush of new vouchers.
Harris said the San Diego Veteran Affairs office decided it was important to hire case managers best qualified to serve the region’s most vulnerable homeless veterans. The agency is now more confident about its performance in San Diego and a county housing official said her agency has seen an uptick in voucher referrals from Veterans Affairs in recent months. But statistics provided to Voice of San Diego show it’s too early to tell if there’s been dramatic improvement yet.
Dozens of homeless San Diego veterans are awaiting vouchers from public housing agencies. More than 150, though, now have vouchers and are looking for new homes.
Harris said those numbers show the focus should now be incentivizing landlords to rent to veterans.