John Brizzolara plays his guitar with case manager Molly Turner. Brizzolara lives in a permanent supportive housing unit in the Villa Harvey Mandel building, a part of Father Joe’s Villages. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

By definition, what makes someone homeless is their lack of a home. So it makes sense that city leaders and advocates want to produce more homes to put a dent in the problem.

But city leaders, advocates and developers who seek to deliver those homes often run into community pushback and confusion about what they are hoping to build.

Exhibit A: Residents and even news outlet KUSI recently wrongly declared that the city was proposing a homeless shelter in Mission Hills, when the project is actually something else entirely.

Confusion over the various types of housing for homeless and low-income residents is common, so let’s walk through the different types of housing for homeless San Diegans.

Let’s start with the one you’re probably most familiar with.

Homeless Shelters

Homeless shelters are typically facilities packed with beds in open, shared spaces that offer a temporary place for a homeless person to stay – usually for less than a few months. The goal is to give homeless San Diegans a safe haven while they search for a more permanent home and are linked with other services, including case managers and health care meant to help prepare them to move on.

The city funds several shelters including four in brick-and-mortar buildings downtown – one at the City Hall complex – and three tented facilities in Barrio Logan, East Village and Midway.

Amid a deadly hepatitis A outbreak two years ago, Faulconer and others rushed to open additional shelters despite common neighborhood concerns about crime and blight.

But another concern has gotten far more attention: The tent shelters, like others throughout the region, have struggled to move homeless San Diegans into permanent homes. Indeed, without efficient access to other forms of housing, homeless San Diegans can get stuck in shelters, preventing others from accessing their beds.

Transitional Housing

Transitional housing often comes with a larger individual or shared unit and a little more privacy than a shelter, as well as more time to connect with services such as job training, therapy or other help. Transitional housing providers typically allow a homeless person to stay in their programs for anywhere from a few months to as long as two years before moving onto their own apartment. The key is that they must access other services first.

For the past several years, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has pushed nonprofits to move away from this approach in favor of the so-called housing first model, which encourages agencies to quickly link homeless San Diegans with homes rather than force them to access other help first.

Permanent Housing

For homeless San Diegans who have lived on the streets for years and are particularly vulnerable, the feds and most experts recommend what’s known as permanent supportive housing.

These are permanent homes that typically come with onsite services and amenities such as a cafeteria, community activities and case managers who regularly check in with residents.

San Diego has fewer permanent supportive housing projects than other large metros. Though the San Diego region has for years had the nation’s fourth largest homeless population, an analysis by the San Francisco Controller’s Office found San Diego had the lowest number of supportive housing units per capita of the 18 large metros reviewed.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and City Council members want to change that.

Last fall, the City Council approved a resolution to build at least 140 permanent supportive housing units in each City Council district by January 2021 with the goal of moving some of the city’s most vulnerable homeless San Diegans off the street and into apartments. Faulconer has since offered up eight city-owned properties as potential supportive housing sites. The mayor and others are also pushing reforms to make it easier to build these projects.

Again, these are homes – not temporary shelters. Here’s what one of these complexes looks like on the outside:

Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

But not all homeless San Diegans need – or qualify – for permanent supportive housing.

Some simply need affordable housing, which is just that … housing that is more affordable.

Affordable Housing

At least some of the city’s older housing stock is considered naturally affordable – meaning it’s within reach for lower-income residents absent any subsidies.

Affordable housing developments, on the other hand, usually rely on tax credits and other government financing to cover building costs.

These projects – which Faulconer and the City Council also want to build more of – tend to look very similar to other apartment complexes.

But residents of affordable housing projects typically have rents capped at 30 percent of their income.

As with permanent supportive housing, most formerly homeless affordable housing residents stay in their units for years.

They live in homes, not shelters. They aren’t homeless anymore.

All graphics by Adriana Heldiz.

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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  1. I would like to say that I do live at the via Harvey Mandela apartments and I came here through a program known as Harper and instead of them allowing me to pay my 28.9 or 30% of my social security benefits income I have been paying over 50% of my income and now that management is under a new property management team suddenly I am supposed to be paying much lower however how do I get my money reimbursed for the two years that I have paid more than 30% of my income can anybody help me. I get a lot of mixed messages from property management and so I believe that I have been told one thing but on paper is another and now recently I am told that I am able to pay my 28.9% of my income and that someone messed up on my file back in 2021 and it is unfortunate that I have to deal with the financial losses and I don’t know what to do because via Harvey Mandela Apartments does not give me any type of information so that I can speak to the right entity to get my money back.

  2. my god – if someone as well-known and celebrated as John Brizzolara can become homeless, then for sure ANYONE can fall into that terrible situation.

  3. Let’s pretend housing is the problem (it’s not) .
    Should we buy vagrants free housing at $478,000 per room in San Diego or are we better off buying 5 times as many in Borrego or Yuma ?

  4. Personally, I get a hunch, or at least I have not seen data, that says that motels are a good housing model for homeless populations. Instead of wasting the money on something the city is not good at, like real estate purchases and building rehabs, the city could instead purchase some of the new, state of the art housing that is being build by proactive developers. Moving families and capable professionals into newer units could open up resources.

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