San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond / File photo by Adriana Heldiz

This post originally published in the May 27 Politics Report.

San Diego Republicans this week landed on a clear, consistent message in defining their opposition to the region’s consensus approach to homelessness.

“Housing first” is the problem, they said.

Their opposition to the wonky policy term that has for years been debated among bureaucrats, service providers, advocates and elected officials felt notable, though, both because it was so consistent, and because the term itself became the public-facing message.

“California politicians continue to repeat the decade-long failures of housing first,” wrote Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, in a press release with the subject line “housing first,” opposing the acquisition of four hotels for $157 million for conversion into permanent homes. “Witnessing the repeated failures of the Housing First approach in San Diego and throughout California is disheartening.”

El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells issued his own press release opposing the joint acquisition by the city and county.

“If the County of San Diego and the State of California wanted to get serious about homelessness, they would admit Housing First has failed and address the root cause,” he wrote.

County Supervisor Jim Desmond voted against the expenditure, which nonetheless passed because his fellow Republican on the board, Supervisor Joel Anderson, supported it.

“For the past decade, the State of California has taken a ‘Housing First’ approach, not requiring substance treatment as a requirement for housing,” Desmond wrote on Twitter this week. “For the past decade, homelessness has exploded in California.”

What is Housing First: The debate over “housing first” is not new, as their statements suggest. Lisa Halverstadt has covered it at Voice for years. The federal government nearly 10 years ago demanded regions abandon funding so-called transitional housing, the dominant model before housing first, sending local governments scrambling. Our largest providers begrudgingly transitioned from transitional housing. Years later, at least one was flatly refusing to change. Father Joe’s in 2016 blamed a budget deficit, which resulted in the closure of a long-running service, on the forced shift.

Transitional housing is, in brief, required things like job training, therapy, addiction treatment or other help before offering permanent housing. Clients often received housing with more privacy than a shelter, but less autonomy than a true home.

Housing first, alternatively, calls for immediately providing permanent housing, to stabilize a homeless person’s life so they can begin to tackle addiction, mental health issues or pursue a job. They do not need to graduate through a series of programs to prove they deserve housing.

What’s new in the Republican messaging isn’t opposition to the principle of housing first. That’s played out for a while now, obviously. But that debate has mostly happened in wonky policy circles between advocates and service providers and bureaucrats.

It even came up often in the last mayoral election, when former Councilwoman Barbara Bry distinguished herself from Mayor Todd Gloria by saying our homeless response needed to target “root causes” – addiction, mental health – and not treat homelessness as a housing problem. Gloria, as many supporters have done often, responded that “housing first” necessarily implies that housing alone is not enough, and services must be part of the solution.

But the simultaneous similarities between Bailey, Wells and Desmond’s talking points stand out because they’re talking directly to the public, and using “housing first” – which despite years of debate remains a technical term that typical residents don’t really need to know – as a shorthand signifier for a misguided, naïve approach to solving the region’s most pressing problem.

  • The similarity seemed unlikely to be a coincidence. Ryan Clumpner, a San Diego Housing Commission board member and political consultant, said it isn’t.

“It is clearly being deployed by local Republicans as a political branding exercise,” he said. “It places blame first on the homeless themselves in order to alleviate a public audience of any sense of responsibility, and second on Democratic officeholders in order to gain an advantage in elections.”

The shift and the new order: Republicans, here and nationally, have not always been against the principle. Former Mayor Kevin Faulconer embraced the idea – and former President Donald Trump’s Department of Housing and Urban Development maintained it as a standard for providing funds to combat homelessness.

But Faulconer’s embrace, according to homeless advocates to his left, was never clean. Particular policies he pursued were derided as insufficiently committed to the principle, and too reminiscent of transitional housing. And his push to provide immediate relief by adding hundreds of new shelter beds to provide immediate relief was also attacked as a page out of the transitional housing playbook.

Since then, though, a Democrat has taken over the mayor’s office – yet the push to add dramatically more shelter beds and similar solutions to blunt the problem now, while working to provide housing long-term, remains the explicit policy of the mayor’s office.

Clumpner said it’s indicative of a shift on both sides.

“Republicans supported Housing First at the city and coordinated backlash towards it only began when they held no more seats,” he said. “Mayor Gloria and some other Democrats have landed much closer to Faulconer’s positions, which could be described as a ‘yes and’ approach to Housing First.”

The thing to watch – electorally speaking– is whether policy jargon like “Housing First” can catch on as broad political messaging ahead of the next election cycle.

The whole thing is vaguely reminiscent of the speed with which “critical race theory” went from an academic term to a nightly talking point on cable news. And as with that debate, the rebuttal to the attack has already started to take the form of debating the terminology than defending the spirit of the idea.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

Join the Conversation


  1. Smiechowski sided with the GOP 10 years ago when a Democrat. Gloria is not a politician; he is a king. Dan Smiechowski for San Diego Mayor. STOP ALL THIS NONSENSE!

  2. Homelessness is an industry in San Diego. NGO’s with executive directors making six figure salaries have no interest in solving the problem.

  3. The Republican unified message on homelessness is uninspiring, since it’s a negative attack. Hey, Republicans, how about putting your solution on the table for discussion?

  4. The only person you interviewed for an opinion about republican homeless warehousing priorities is a political consultant for democrats who works at a public housing agency. Enjoy whatever you do next Keatts, hopefully it isn’t journalism.

    1. Need to divide homeless into 3 groups: 1. folks that can’t because too old or sick 2. folks that are just down on luck and 3. folks that don’t want to be constrained. More Republicans and Democrats will agree on problem and solutions if we see homeless as 3 groups. Many more folks will agree that Housing First model is moral and just for type 1 and get tough policies are best for type 3. Housing First model for all homeless ignores basic human nature and incentives that you get more of what you reward.

    1. Seriously? That is your response to this article? Republicans didn’t create this problem and Dems are a supermajority in this state. Also one only has to look at how homelessness has exploded over the past ten years to know that housing first does not work.

  5. Well as long as super low in-lieu fees exist, all developers can shed their obligation to provide affordable housing. Guaranteeing that San Diego will remain a city with an affordable housing shortage. The only correction is through City Council legislation.

  6. We tried ‘housing first’ and it doesn’t work. In order for a solution to work it requires cooperation from both sides, those providing housing and those in need of housing. If this were my son or daughter I would require a commitment to sobriety and/or mental health or I would leave them on the street. Common sense, you can’t house those trying to obtain sobriety in housing with users – let’s save those who want to be saved and admit some are human waste and collateral damage of their own choosing.

  7. It is my understanding is that the “housing first” approach to homelessness originated in Finland. It is noteworthy that it is illegal to use, sell, or grow canniabus in Finland. There is no single cause of homeless in California but the excessive use of alcohol & pot is clearly a significant contributing factor.

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