Julie Tucker, 51, pushes her dog in a stroller in East Village. She has been waiting a year and half for housing. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

As the city works to supply more homeless shelter options, its existing shelters are getting worse at helping unhoused people secure permanent homes. 

From July through February, just 11 percent of the 2,385 people and families who departed city shelters overseen by the San Diego Housing Commission moved into permanent homes, according to agency data. Another 9 percent found other long-term housing in places such as a family member’s home or a transitional program. 

By comparison, a quarter of homeless residents and families who left city shelters in 2019 secured permanent homes and 8 percent moved onto other long-term housing. 

Shelter providers in San Diego have long grappled with a tight housing market but surging housing costs plus a drop in new supportive housing projects and resources that ramped up during the pandemic have made their task even more challenging. Staffing shortages and burnout during the pandemic added more complications. 

Lisa Jones, the Housing Commission’s executive vice president of strategic initiatives, said the city and its shelters are now in a “resource desert” following a previous influx of hundreds of new units and federal emergency housing vouchers. She said people who receive rental aid have also relied on that aid for a longer period due to spiking house costs, meaning there are fewer slots available for others in need. 

That’s meant there have been fewer options for unhoused people who qualify for subsidized housing. 

“We’re in a dip,” Jones said.  

RTFH CEO Tamera Kohler speaks to volunteers at the Civic Center early this morning before the Point in Time Count that surveys unhoused individuals on Jan. 26, 2023.
Regional Task Force on Homelessness CEO Tamera Kohler speaks to volunteers at the Civic Center early morning before the Point in Time Count that surveys unhoused individuals on Jan. 26, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Tamera Kohler, CEO of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, said homeless service providers elsewhere in the county are facing similar challenges securing housing for their clients. 

Last year, 17 percent of people exiting shelters countywide moved into permanent homes compared with 26 percent in 2019, according to Task Force data. Task Force data also showed a nearly 18 percent spike in the number of days unhoused people in shelters spent waiting for permanent homes. 

“It’s taking a housing navigator a month or two longer to find a unit even though we have more people sheltered,” Kohler said. 

Indeed, the city alone added more than 700 shelter beds – about a 70 percent increase – since homeless residents and providers left the Convention Center shelter in spring 2021. 

That’s meant more unhoused people are staying in shelters, hoping for a permanent home. 

Jones said the city is preparing to apply for state Homekey dollars to try to increase housing options for formerly homeless people. 

Dave Rolland, a spokesman for Mayor Todd Gloria, said the mayor has also pushed forward two housing reform packages aimed at making it easier to deliver affordable housing in the city, a new program to expedite permits for low-income projects and an initiative to provide direct city investment into such projects, including those serving formerly homeless people. 

Robert Dukes at Alpha Project shelter in the East Village on March 27, 2023.
Robert Dukes at Alpha Project shelter in the East Village on March 27, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Robert Dukes, 58, is among those now waiting for housing. He has been living at Alpha Project’s Barrio Logan shelter for about two years. He never imagined he’d still be there.  

“Temporary has turned into two years and it’s very disheartening,” said Dukes, who had a stroke last April. 

Dukes, now unable to work after years as a forklift operator, said his first two Alpha Project case managers made little progress helping him secure documents and other resources he’ll need to move into housing. 

For now, he makes $1,133 in disability income each month, which has led him to focus on securing a permanent supportive housing unit where he’d have a long-term subsidy. 

He’s yet to find something.  He’s been offered temporary rental assistance, but fears he won’t be equipped to cover the rent on his own once assistance runs out. 

Quarlo “Q” McSwain, case manager supervisor at Alpha Project, is trying to help Dukes gather documents to get permanent disability in hopes it will help him secure housing. 

“I really want something to happen for him,” McSwain said. “He ain’t won the lottery yet.” 

McSwain, Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy and Jones acknowledged that staffing challenges throughout the pandemic have only complicated matters. 

For example, McSwain said, Dukes’ previous case manager juggled multiple roles at the shelter. 

Bob McElroy, president and CEO of the Alpha Project, speaks at a press conference outside the San Diego Convention Center. / File photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

McElroy said the year after Alpha Project resumed shelter operations at its own shelters rather than the Convention Center was especially trying. 

“A lot of things happened, and unfortunately, guys like (Dukes) get caught up in the dysfunctionality systemwide,” McElroy said. 

The Housing Commission found last May that the vacancy rate for direct positions in city-backed shelters was as high as 29 percent, though Jones said vacancy rates have since fallen to 13 to 15 percent.  

Ann Oliva, the lead author of the city’s 2019 homelessness plan who is now CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said San Diego’s predicament isn’t unique. 

“We’re going to have to expand the tactics that we use in this in order to make progress in this housing environment that we’re currently in,” Oliva said. 

For example, Oliva said, communities should try pairing unhoused people with roommates where that’s workable or try master leasing units to make apartments more accessible.  

Both the city and Regional Task Force’s homelessness plans call for further exploration of roommate and master leasing models. Last year, two San Diego nonprofits also received a $200,000 grant to try to expand the shared housing model throughout the region. 

In the meantime, Housing Commission data shows 17 percent of unhoused people and families who left its shelters between July and February returned to the streets while another 58 percent left without sharing their next destination. 

Jones said she suspects at least some who left without reporting their next move found housing on their own. Countywide Task Force data shows most San Diegans who exited homelessness over the past year ultimately rented their own unsubsidized homes. She also noted that shelter providers work to help unhoused people get jobs or other income so they are better equipped to rent and hold onto an apartment.  

Robert Fausto, 62, spent months last year at Father Joe’s Villages Paul Mirabile Center shelter. He said his case manager suggested unsubsidized apartments ranging from $1,200 to $1,500 despite his monthly income of just over $1,000. 

“They found me places to live that I couldn’t possibly afford and that was the end of it,” said Fausto, who now sleeps in a tent on the outskirts of downtown. 

Casement said case managers work with clients to identify housing options even if they don’t qualify for subsidies. 

“Attempts are made to locate housing within established budgets, but that can be difficult due to the local rental market,” Casement wrote in a statement.  

Richard O’Malley, 52, recently became one of the lucky ones. 

Last month, he moved out of the Alpha Project shelter where he spent almost a year and half and into a Grantville supportive housing complex where he now has a studio with a kitchen, bathroom, heat and air conditioning. 

O’Malley, who has heart failure and diabetes and no monthly income, is grateful to the Alpha Project and county workers who helped him along the way. 

“I was shocked I got housing,” O’Malley said. 

Julie Tucker, 51, is still holding out hope. 

HOLD FOR LISA'S STORY - Julie Tucker, 51 years old with her dog in the East Village on Jan. 9, 2023.
Julie Tucker, 51, with her dog in the East Village on Jan. 9, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

She’s been waiting a year and half for housing at the shelter O’Malley recently left. She was matched to a San Ysidro permanent supportive housing project last July and her move-in date has repeatedly been delayed. 

Tucker also emphasized the support she’s received at the shelter but said she’s eager to have her own space to host her out-of-state grandchildren. Her patience has been waning recently.  

“That apartment will change my whole life,” Tucker 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...

Join the Conversation


  1. This tracks what we are hearing on the street, the shelters are a Merry-Go-Round, with people going into to them and then back on the street. This of course makes the street population worse, we are dealing with folks who are on the street because they can’t find homes in the shelters. This means there are fewer resources to help the newly homeless because those resources are being used by people who are returning to the street from the shelters.

    It does no good for the city to brag that they are building low income housing if the minimum rent is above what the homeless can afford. I will say it again and again, we need housing for the homeless. Having 89% of the people who leave a shelter not have permanent housing is a crime. The city program for the shelters is failing in its primary responsibility.

    1. Housing Restitution for San Diego Victims of 3 strike law for marijuana possession. Take it from my sales tax!!! Yes, should be a lot by now! Yes, I prefer it go to a discriminated homeless than a pension for a boomer.

      1. Sales tax has nothing to do with pensions. The only people who get pensions are government employees and the pensions are not funded by sales tax. Most “boomers” that get a retirement check get the check from Social Security. Social Security has been collecting employment tax from the “boomers” for their entire lives. They are only getting back what they paid in.
        You’ll have to find a different reason to hate the “boomers”. Sorry.

        1. You get back many times more than what you put in. Go thank a young professional next time you see one. That being said, the guy you’re responding to still has bad ideas.

      2. @BobM. “Hate” is your word. I write about government. I refer to local Cannabis sales tax specifically.

  2. Before worrying about what to do with all the homeless people, we need to figure out why San Diego has more homeless people living on its streets than ever before. First define the problem, then examine possible solutions.

    Remember: Homeless people don’t cause homelessness, politicians do.

    When city hall politicians upzoned property throughout most of the city, enriching landowners and potentially increasing property taxes, they encouraged developers to buy up the property, evict tenants from existing affordable older housing, bulldoze it, then build new “market rate” high-end apartments and condos. In the meantime, many of the evicted tenants end up living on our streets, or in our parks, canyons and riverbeds.

    Then the politicians wring their hands and ask “Where did all these homeless people come from?” They just need to look in the mirror. Until this mayor and city council slow down or stop their efforts to upzone the whole city, more and more people will keep ending up homeless. We can’t stop that until we more accurately define the problem and its causes.

    1. Loss of low-income housing and increases in monthly rental rates have been blamed for the increase in the unhoused on city streets. What percentage of the unhoused here actually lost their housing here (due to issues you presented or rental increases)? The profiles of local unhoused folks in the media suggest that most actually experienced homelessness elsewhere and then chose San Diego as their destination. Given the limited resources (shelter beds, case managers, housing vouchers, subsidies, etc.), what is San Diego’s obligation to those who chose this city to be their unhoused destination?

  3. The city can drum up 162 Million for a corrupt developer, but can’t pay to expand shelters and Rapid Rehousing. Like Biden once said, “Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you your priorities.”

  4. With rent control there is going to be less interest in rental housing investment. Government needs to get out of the way with excess costly building regulations. Fire sprinklers are now required in all new homes. I don’t see the need for sprinklers in single story construction and this can add 5 percent to costs. Solar requirements can add another 5%. Interest costs on land while waiting a year, or sometimes far longer, can add another 5%. With rising interest rates that can kill a project.

    1. At risk of being homeless. But still blazing, still blazing, thats why we need fire sprinklers. In case the fire truck can’t get through traffic.

Leave a comment
We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.