By Lisa Halverstadt, the Voice of San Diego
May 10, 2022
Days after the San Diego Housing Commissioners learned of a city plan to end three programs that help house homeless San Diegans, Mayor Todd Gloria’s office is promising the city won’t wind down those contracts.
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After learning from Housing Commission officials last week that the Gloria administration was directing the agency to wind down three programs dedicated to helping homeless San Diegans move into housing, commissioners for the city’s housing agency didn’t mince words.
That plan, they said during a Thursday hearing, was the exact opposite of what the city should be doing, given crushing housing costs in the region and the expected avalanche of need as pandemic aid and eviction protections end.
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“You’re winding down something at a time when the exact opposite should be happening,” said Commissioner Mitch Mitchell, who is also a Voice of San Diego board member.
Vice Chair Ryan Clumpner agreed.
“All of these things are pointing toward if the resources were available, this seems like one of the first programs that we’d want to expand if we could, rather than go the other direction,” Clumpner said.
“I am dismayed by the direction that this is indicating,” board chairwoman Stefanie Benvenuto said.
Jeff Davis, the Housing Commission’s interim CEO, and Executive Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Lisa Jones told commissioners they were also troubled by the decision.
“It is not our direct recommendation to wind down,” Jones told commissioners. “It was just some decisions the city’s Homelessness Strategies Department had to make, I think, on where they allocated funding.”
Now, ahead of a Tuesday morning budget briefing before the City Council, Gloria’s office said they have nothing to worry about. His team of him is not proposing a wind down of three Commission-managed rapid rehousing contracts that provide temporary rental assistance after all.
Last week’s hearing was a big misunderstanding, said Rachel Laing, a Gloria spokeswoman.
“The major has no intention of directing a wind down of the rapid rehousing program,” Gloria spokeswoman Rachel Laing said.
She said the city’s direction on a reduction in state homelessness funds backing the program “was not intended to reflect a decision about the future of the program, nor was it meant to represent a wind down.”
“There is still an opportunity to support (rapid rehousing) and consider future expansion,” Laing said.
The budgeting kerfuffle is the latest controversy for the city and its Housing Commission, which has recently weathered the departure of its chief executive. The City Council earlier this year created a temporary committee tasked with potentially reforming the San Diego Housing Commission. The committee is poised to consider, among other things, whether the agency should continue to oversee city homeless programs.
Meanwhile, the city is beefing up its still fledging Homelessness Strategies and Solutions Department, which now wants to start overseeing some contracts historically handled by the Housing Commission.
Those dynamics have already fueled tension and uncertainty at a time of an avalanche of demand for housing aid and homeless services.
Then came word from Housing Commission officials that the city’s homelessness department had told the agency in late March it would need to ramp down – rather than ramp up – three programs considered key tools for the city to combat homelessness, particularly among families.
At a meeting last Thursday, Housing Commission staff proposed directing $910,000 in state Homeless Housing, Assistance, and Prevention program funds to wind down the rapid rehousing initiative that has helped nearly 150 households move out of homelessness and into homes since 2019. That’s less than the nearly $2 million penciled into the agency’s current budget to provide rental assistance for up to 24 months before those who receive aid can make rent payments on their own. The program – operated by nonprofits PATH, Home Start and Salvation Army – provides the equivalent of just over a quarter of the Housing Commission’s rapid rehousing aid.
If those changes went forward, officials said the programs would stop taking on new clients but would continue to help 63 individuals and families that still need rental subsidies and about 40 households searching for housing with the promise of assistance when they do. They acknowledged that the wind down could make it difficult for the nonprofits to retain staff.
Housing commissioners weren’t pleased by the news.
They concluded the Thursday discussion with a plan to work with agency staff to send a letter to the city’s Homelessness Strategies and Solutions Department and City Councilmembers – who act as the Housing Authority overseeing the housing agency – urging them to reconsider the decision to wind down and to seek state resources to continue funding them for years to come. The letter had not been sent yet as of Monday afternoon.
Laing wrote in a statement that the city’s Homelessness Strategies Department has determined there are multiple funding streams the Housing Commission could use to support the rapid rehousing program while certain budget items, such as new non-congregate shelter models, face more limited funding options.
But when City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe asked city homeless czar Hafsa Kaka at a budget hearing last week why the city opted to cut rapid rehousing funding, Kaka did not say the city thought there were flexible funding options for the rapid rehousing programs. She focused on what the city was prioritizing instead. Kaka said the city had decided it needed to prioritize funding for homeless outreach, new shelter beds and a program that links homeless residents with family and friends elsewhere.
The Housing Commission has previously overseen homeless outreach and the so-called family reunification program, but the city is now proposing to oversee those programs instead. Kaka’s department also plans to manage expected new shelter contracts, another duty the Housing Commission has historically handled.
“We have had to look at a strategy of prioritization and as mentioned earlier, the coordinated outreach is really that first touch to help the unsheltered folks,” Kaka said. “So, part of that is inclusive of family reunification, where folks could get connected back, which essentially folks could also get connected to rapid rehousing. The two greatest prioritization(s) that we have right now is the coordinated outreach as well as the shelters so folks have an immediate place to go somewhere but we could certainly circle back and get you more information around that.”
Kaka said earlier that the city plans to in coming months add more than 400 shelter beds in response to the city’s 2019 homelessness plan calling for the city to add 300 to 500 new crisis response beds.
But the homelessness plan also called for the city to add more than 800 rapid rehousing slots to aid individuals and families. That assistance also helps people in shelters move into housing which allows more homeless residents to access shelter beds, a point Jones raised in the Housing Commission meeting last week.
“The less rapid rehousing programs we have the slower we move people out of shelter into housing, which then means the shelter is full so there’s less resources for people when they do fall into (homelessness),” Jones told commissioners last week.
Laing said Gloria, who has often talked about the need for more affordable housing and more shelter beds, has not changed his position.
“There’s been no shift in the prioritization of housing and the approach to homelessness,” Laing said. “The major remains focused on ensuring that people who can stay in their homes can be rapidly rehoused and that folks living on the street have the outreach and shelter available so they can get off the street and into safety.”
On Monday, Jones said she was optimistic that the housing agency and the mayor’s office would come up with a solution to continue the rapid rehousing programs.
“We are happy that the Housing Commission and the mayor’s office are going to come together and look at how we can continue to support these programs,” Jones said.
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