A budget shortfall at the region’s largest homeless-serving nonprofit forced the decision to shutter a longtime refuge for homeless and runaway teens.

The downtown Toussaint Academy has offered hundreds of high schoolers support and a place to live since it opened in 1992. Many have gone onto college, jobs and permanent homes.

The 13 teens now enrolled in the program learned last month they’ll need to move out by the end of the year. Father Joe’s Village, which operates Toussaint, announced plans to fold the academy and convert it into an apartment complex for homeless young adults.

Deacon Jim Vargas, CEO of Father Joe’s Villages, said a lack of funding and decreased demand for the Toussaint program led the nonprofit to make the difficult decision. The closure will be part of a larger shift Father Joe’s has said will provide dozens more permanent housing opportunities for homeless San Diegans.

It’s the latest change the agency’s made to focus more on permanent housing programs over so-called transitional housing programs that prioritize services and treatment before offering permanent housing – and it’s evocative of other painful transitions happening countywide.

Vargas said the Toussaint Academy has long been the agency’s most expensive program.

“It’s not financially tenable,” Vargas said. “We need to position ourselves to be strong financially so we can continue to deliver the services that the community needs.”

Vargas acknowledged the decision wasn’t easy. On Sept. 12, Father Joe’s staff gathered Toussaint employees and later students to share the news. There were many tears.

Father Joe’s case managers have since been seeking new homes for the teens. Some could be reunited with their families or move elsewhere for other programs or family connections.

But some Toussaint Academy supporters and even employees have raised alarms. They’ve contacted Vargas, set up Facebook and petition pages and tried to rally others.

They aren’t convinced Father Joe’s can find safe homes the 13 who now live at Toussaint.

“Father Joe’s Villages made a commitment to take in, house, provide for and develop these young people who have fallen into homeless not by any reason (or) their own fault,” Toussaint staffer Kaitlyn Boyd wrote in a recent petition. “Now they want to send them back into situations where they may face devastation once again.”

Some supporters have lobbied Father Joe’s to continue to house the teens until they turn 18 and would be eligible for other programs.

Vargas told Voice of San Diego that won’t be possible but that Father Joe’s staffers are already making progress finding homes for the some of the students. He encouraged Toussaint supporters to help the agency find new homes for the teens rather than focus on trying to keep the program running.

“We want to serve the underserved population of 18- to 24-year-olds, where there is a need and we see it constantly,” Vargas said.

Father Joe Carroll, the retired president emeritus of Father Joe’s Villages, said he sympathizes with both the teens and the leaders at the nonprofit he founded. He said Father Joe’s has long struggled to keep the program afloat.

Carroll admits he’s devastated by the recent news.

He was recently invited to a Toussaint farewell party. He had to decline the invitation.

“It hurts too much to see it close,” Carroll said.

The circumstances facing Father Joe’s aren’t entirely unique. Nonprofits countywide have been starting new homeless-serving programs and phasing out others as federal officials push them to move away from transitional housing models.

It can take agencies months to ramp up new programs that focus on permanent housing and there are sometimes scant resources to support those enrolled in their older programs.

Dolores Diaz, executive director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, acknowledged changes happening across the region can be difficult.

“What gets lost in this – and it does get lost – is that while we’re trying to help the homeless some homeless might get caught in the crossfire of change,” Diaz said.

Those changes can affect other parts of the homeless-serving system, too.

San Diego Youth Services operates an emergency shelter for 12- to 17-year-olds and has long referred clients to Toussaint Academy. The Hillcrest shelter can rarely keep teens for more than 30 days.

San Diego Youth Services CEO Walter Philips said Toussaint Academy has been a particularly valuable resource for homeless teens who haven’t been arrested or in foster care. There are few resources to help those teens.

“There’s going to be another gap in the system in terms of how we deal with that,” Philips said.

Philips and others say that gap extends far beyond the loss of Toussaint Academy.

State funding for homeless teens has been historically meager.

Federal focuses on ending veteran and chronic homelessness also haven’t given San Diego agencies much incentive to throw more resources at programs for teens. While the feds have called for an end to youth homelessness by 2020, new housing first programs have largely focused on homeless adults.

The dearth of accurate data on youth homelessness hasn’t helped.

Volunteers counted 145 homeless teens during this year’s homeless census, a number that advocates say is likely far below the real total. Homeless youth often couch surf or try to avoid drawing attention to themselves out of fear they’ll end up jailed or in foster care.

That’s why local youth-serving agencies partnered with a Chicago group in August to conduct a youth homeless census meant to better gauge the size of that population.

That data will likely help San Diego’s Regional Continuum of Care Council, the countywide group that oversees local efforts to reduce homelessness, as it seeks to be one of 10 communities nationwide to receive a burst of HUD funding for new youth-serving programs.

But cash isn’t available right now.

“At the end of the day, we can only do the work that we have with the resources that we have,” Vargas said. “At the heart of all this is that there is not enough money out there being allocated to this issue.”

That doesn’t comfort Toussaint supporters.

Toussaint graduate Abraham Gonzalez Torres, who now lives in San Francisco, is especially concerned. His three younger siblings now live at Toussaint Academy and the 23-year-old expects them to soon move to the Bay Area to enter programs closer to him.

Gonzalez Torres said his sister Mary Cruz, a senior at San Diego High, is struggling most with the news.

Mary Cruz is a student athlete who has a job and gets good grades, her older brother said. “She wasn’t very excited about coming here to San Francisco because she’s gonna be leaving everything in San Diego.”

Yet Gonzalez Torres said his siblings will be among the lucky ones. They’ve got an older brother who wants to help them.

He fears others won’t have that support or a safe place to go – and that they might make rash decisions out of fear, especially those who ran away from their families.

“Now they’re starting at zero. They don’t just have to worry about school but they have to worry about their living situation,” Gonzalez Torres said.  “Yes, Toussaint will unite them (with family) but is that really going to help them with their progress in school? That’s just kicking you back where you were before.”

Vargas said he understands those concerns. He said his agency’s working with limited cash to address growing street homelessness, including among young adults the Toussaint building will serve with permanent housing.

“We struggle on a daily basis to bring in the funds that we need to provide the services that are so desperately needed in the community,” Vargas said. “The community needs to step up to this because it’s a community issue.”

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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