San Diego doesn’t have enough shelter beds for all the homeless residents in the city seeking them.
Just 37 percent of the 6,620 referrals by outreach workers and police officers ultimately resulted in a homeless resident shelter being placed in shelter during a nearly six-month period that ended in mid-September, a Voice of San Diego analysis of shelter referrals routed through the San Diego Housing Commission reveals
That means nearly two thirds of referrals in an average week didn’t lead to someone who wanted shelter moving into a bed, despite the push to add hundreds of city-funded shelter beds over the last year.
The leading cause of referrals going unfulfilled was simply that there weren’t enough of them, said Lisa Jones, the Housing Commission’s executive vice president of strategic initiatives. That includes when there wasn’t a bed that met specific needs, such as bottom bunks for seniors.
“The data indicate that the need for shelter currently exceeds the available inventory,” Jones wrote in an email.
The evidence of that need is clear on weekday mornings outside the city’s Homelessness Response Center in East Village, where homeless residents line up to see if they can get a bed. During the week of Sept. 12, records show the center made 90 referrals. Nineteen led to a shelter placement.
Service providers, police officers and workers at the Homelessness Response Center refer people to shelter through a coordinated process. Outreach workers and others share details on folks who want a shelter bed, and the program identifies an option that best meets the person’s needs.
A shortage of suitable beds isn’t the sole reason referrals can go unfulfilled, though it is the most common one.
Jones said other reasons include being unable to find the person who has requested a shelter bed, the person changing their mind after a referral, failure to show up at the shelter they are matched to and temporary suspension from a shelter program.
There’s a core math problem behind the prime reason for unfulfilled requests.
The city now has 1,742 shelter beds, including about 300 it’s added this year alone. Those 1,742 beds can’t fully accommodate the nearly 2,500 homeless residents documented living outdoors in the city during the region’s most recent point-in-time count, a total widely considered an undercount. Many people also remain in shelters for months as they seek a longer-term or permanent home, meaning their beds aren’t available for others.
Homeless residents, outreach workers, police officers and advocates have long bemoaned the lack of openings for people who want to move inside. Those concerns have grown louder during the pandemic and amid increasing homelessness among seniors and other medically vulnerable people.
City and Housing Commission officials are frank about the need for more shelter beds.
Hafsa Kaka, who leads the city’s Homelessness Strategies and Solutions Department, told the City Council last month that officials expect to add nearly 250 more beds this fall to reach a total of nearly 2,000 beds. Kaka said the new beds will include options that provide private spaces for seniors and families. Previous additions this year include non-congregate beds for seniors at a South Bay hotel, a 40-bed shelter for homeless women and two shelters with stepped-up services for people with behavioral health challenges.
Kaka noted that the city’s 2019 homelessness plan, which was written before the pandemic increased housing instability, projected the need for another 200 beds on top of what the city’s already on track to deliver.