City leaders shuttered two temporary winter tents for the final time last year in favor of a permanent, year-round shelter with a goal of getting more people off the streets.

When local leaders announced plans to make the shift nearly 18 months ago, they hailed it as a move that would better connect the homeless with services and housing.

“The permanent shelter will provide supportive services to help them stabilize their lives and most importantly, transition to permanent housing, which is, of course, the ultimate goal,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said at a December 2014 press conference announcing a request for proposals for the year-round shelter.

But in the months since the 350-bed shelter opened downtown, the new program at Father Joe’s Village’s downtown campus hasn’t transitioned the bulk of its clients into permanent housing.

Data provided by Father Joe’s reveals only 17 percent of the more than 1,500 who left the shelter through the end of April moved into permanent housing.  Nearly a quarter moved to transitional programs, which connect homeless people with services and supports before housing. Transitional programs are being discouraged by federal officials who believe housing should come first.

At a November press conference, Faulconer and others praised Father Joe’s for moving more than half of the homeless who’d exited the program into longer-term housing – a broad term that includes both permanent housing, the city’s ultimate goal, and transitional housing, which federal officials and others discourage. It can also include treatment facilities, which can house people for weeks or months but not indefinitely.

Father Joe’s officials acknowledge their current permanent housing placement rate isn’t ideal. They blame San Diego’s low vacancy rates, resistant landlords and a dearth of immediate permanent supportive housing resources for the homeless. Meanwhile, transitional beds are available.

The program at the nonprofit’s St. Vincent de Paul campus is also operating without all of the infrastructure meant to back it up. A countywide coordinated entry system that pairs the homeless with the best housing and service providers for their needs is still a work in progress. The city invested in Father Joe’s program with the idea it’d be a major intake hub for that system.

“We’re building the boat while we’re sailing it,” said Paul DeLessio, who oversees Father Joe’s interim shelter and its coordinated entry efforts.

So far, Father Joe’s has fallen short on goals spelled out in its contract with the Housing Commission. Those were to move at least 65 percent of clients into permanent or longer-term housing and to limit stays at the shelter to 45 days.

Instead, agency data revealed Father Joe’s helped connect 53 percent of clients with longer-term housing through April and that average stays are 56 days.

Melissa Peterman, the Housing Commission’s director of homeless housing innovations, said the commission expects future improvement.

“I think what we’re attempting to do is figure out what’s feasible given the current homeless assistance system,” Peterman said.

Still, Peterman and City Councilman Todd Gloria and a spokesman for Faulconer, who both championed the move to a year-round shelter, were optimistic about the early results from Father Joe’s interim shelter.

Gloria and the Faulconer spokesman noted the Father Joe’s program is an improvement over the two winter tents that were open for fewer months and historically moved fewer clients into other housing programs.

The mayor’s office has cited Housing Commission data that shows 26 percent of clients at the Alpha Project and Veterans Villages of San Diego moved into longer-term housing during their five months of operation last year.

About 14 percent moved into permanent housing, worse than what Father Joe’s achieved in the last year, according to Housing Commission data.

Alpha Project reported the same rate for 2014.

Gloria and others caution the tent programs differ from the operation Father Joe’s is implementing so it’s not a perfect comparison.

“We’re doing better than we were doing and we still have room to stay engaged and do more than we’re doing,” Gloria said.

A Canadian consultant who helped create the basic survey San Diego providers use to pair the homeless with services was less impressed.

Iain De Jong, who reviewed Father Joe’s exit data at Voice of San Diego’s request, said the program should be moving far fewer people into transitional housing programs. He also criticized the city and the Housing Commission. He said they should focus only on moving the homeless into permanent housing.

Permanent housing placements end a person’s homelessness while transitional housing programs aren’t as good at that, he said. “You’re shuffling the seats on the Titanic but you’re not actually stopping it from sinking.”

Leaders at Father Joe’s Villages say they’re doing their best with what they’ve got.

San Diego County lacks sufficient permanent housing units for the homeless but it has more than 3,000 transitional housing beds. More of those beds are available now.

When a client nears a 45-day stay at Father Joe’s interim shelter and has struggled to find housing despite significant efforts, the agency says it looks to transitional housing rather than forcing the person to return to the street.

“Transitional housing is not Plan A,” said Ruth Bruland, Father Joe’s chief program officer.

Michael McConnell, who’s among the foremost local advocates pushing San Diego to move away from its longtime transitional housing focus, sympathized with Father Joe’s predicament.

“There’s only so much Father Joe’s can do without all the inventory that they need to get people into,” McConnell said.

Bruland said she expects her agency’s transitional housing placements will decrease with the advent of more permanent housing projects and temporary rental assistance.

San Diego has scarce vacancies for affordable apartments, which means landlords are powerful gatekeepers in the effort to permanently house the homeless. Often they’re reluctant to rent to homeless people who might have evictions or arrests on their records.

That’s why the city’s also throwing more resources at landlord incentives and subsidies to help homeless veterans, who are guaranteed up to 40 percent of beds at the interim shelter. It’s also why Father Joe’s Villages and other providers are pushing for more permanent supportive housing projects, which house the homeless and provide services for them. San Diego is also set to receive an influx of new rental assistance dollars from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department over the next year.

And the Housing Commission, which monitors the interim shelter program, is building projects that will supply more than 120 permanent housing units in the next year and has committed dozens of vouchers to other projects. Father Joe’s and other providers are in talks about new projects, too.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget calls for a $2 billion bond to pay for housing for the homeless.

Local leaders and national experts caution it can take years to transform a region’s homeless-serving operations to a model that emphasizes permanent housing.

Steve Berg of the National Alliance to End Homelessness is one of them. He said cities like Houston, which is getting accolades for major drops in homelessness, have spent years overhauling their systems.

San Diego is following in those footsteps.

“I think the real question is: Is progress going to continue toward something better?” Berg said after reviewing the interim shelter data.

Leaders at Father Joe’s Villages say they’re optimistic their numbers will improve.

More staffers have come aboard in recent months to help clients find permanent housing. More resources and a more comprehensive coordinated assessment system are coming soon.

Bill Bolstad, Father Joe’s chief development officer, said the nonprofit sees its shelter program as a work in progress.

“We really feel like this is an investment in the future,” Bolstad said.

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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