March 4 2015 11:21 AM

How the San Diego Housing Commission has used a limited resource to tackle homelessness

Rick Echols struggled with homelessness, depression and poor health before he was hooked up with stable housing.
Photo by Kelly Davis

San Diego’s effort to end homelessness can be compared to one of those old-time locomotives. In the early 2000s, it started off at a slow chug, then began to pick up momentum at the beginning of this decade. Late last year, when the San Diego Housing Commission—the public-housing authority for the city of San Diego—announced an ambitious three-year plan to move 1,500 people off the street and into stable, long-term housing, it moved closer to full speed.

But, it’s an effort that’s relying largely on an already strained resource: federal Section 8 housing vouchers. Since 2010, the Housing Commission has diverted more than 800 vouchers from its pool of roughly 15,000 to address homelessness, and the latest plan calls for the diversion of around 1,300 more. Right now, there’s a waiting list of around 55,000 people who qualify for Section 8 housing, and attrition frees up only about 550 vouchers each year, says Housing Commission CEO Rick Gentry. Each voucher that goes to a homeless person means someone on that waiting list has to wait a little longer.

It boils down to a question of priorities, Gentry says.

“I think it’s safe to say that if you look at affordable-housing issues for poor people in San Diego, homelessness is a striking need,” Gentry says.

Using vouchers in this way isn’t unusual—in fact, it’s encouraged by HUD, which, during the last couple of years, has made it easier for local housing authorities to use their vouchers to address homelessness. But this hasn’t meant additional any vouchers.

In early 2002, the George W. Bush administration launched a nationwide effort to end homelessness that asked regional and state governments to create plans that spelled out the best use of local resources to achieve this goal. Federal housing vouchers were the backbone of many plans, with the assumption being that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would make more vouchers available. But, aside from vouchers funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs—specifically for homeless vets—those hoped-for resources have never materialized. Instead, housing authorities are struggling to recover from sequestration cuts.

President Obama’s proposed 2016 budget includes funding for additional vouchers for homeless vets and would bring the Section 8 program back to where it was before sequestration. But, Gentry says, he’ll “be surprised” if Congress approves funding for the latter.

“I hope they do,” he says, “but I’ll be surprised.”

Only about one-third of folks who qualify for federal housing assistance receive it, says Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and, not surprisingly, there’s been debate: Do you let the guy who’s been on the street for three years get a voucher ahead of an elderly woman who’s been on the waiting list for five?

“What HUD has specifically said is that for the group of homeless people who are considered chronically homeless, those are people who are probably not going to get out of homelessness unless they have a long-term, permanent rent subsidy like Section 8,” he says. “The way I’ve seen this come down in a lot of a communities, there’s theoretically an argument to be made: What’s the fairest thing? A waiting list? It gets into really esoteric questions of moral theory. In communities where I’ve heard about this coming up, when we’re just talking about a group with severe disabilities who’ve been living on the streets for a long time, it doesn’t take a huge chunk out of the local Section 8 program, and it’s just sort of hard to argue that those people shouldn’t get some help ahead of other people.”

Since 2010, the Housing Commission has redirected roughly 830 of its Section 8 vouchers to address homelessness, kicking things off in September 2010 when it allocated vouchers to house 25 people deemed, via survey, most at risk of dying on the streets of Downtown.

Some of those vouchers, referred to as project-based vouchers, are tied to specific housing projects, a designation that makes them more valuable than a traditional voucher, says Colin Parent, the Housing Commission’s former policy director, who’s currently policy counsel at Circulate San Diego.

“Section 8 vouchers only subsidize rentals of existing market-rate units,” he says. “They don’t add to housing supply. However, project-based vouchers… are designed to provide sustained income to make new affordable-housing developments pencil out.”

Of the 1,500 vouchers the Housing Commission’s making available through 2018, so far 275 are tied to one of four affordable-housing projects, all of them slated to open Downtown before the end of next year. The first, a 248-unit high-rise called Celadon @ Ninth and Broadway, will open next month. Seventy-six units in Celadon will be set aside, via voucher, for youth aging out of the foster-care system and formerly homeless adults.

Other vouchers, called sponsor-based vouchers, are allocated to social-services agencies in order to pair housing and services. Under what’s known as the “housing first” model, the best way to help a person off the street and into housing is to provide support services, like medical care, mental-health counseling, even help with basic life skills if an individual’s been homeless for a long time.

“For many people exiting homelessness, especially people who’ve been chronically homeless, the housing subsidy in and of itself won’t be enough,” says Matthew Doherty, director of national initiatives with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. “Housing subsidies need to be partnered with the kinds of services and resources that can provide the support necessary to make sure that housing is safe and successful and stable.”

San Diego’s Project 25, an initiative launched by the local United Way in 2011 that sought to house 25 of the county’s costliest “frequent users”—homeless folks whose addiction problems or physical- or mental-health issues repeatedly land them in the hospital, emergency room or jail— relied on sponsor-based vouchers.

Though HUD championed the housingfirst model, it was only recently that the it amended its rules to allow for sponsor-based vouchers. But that was never an issue for the Housing Commission, which, in 2009, applied for and was granted more flexibility in how it uses its housing vouchers.

“If you go back to 2010, the feds on the one hand were saying, ‘You need to get more involved in homelessness,’ but their own rules inhibited it,” Gentry says. “They’ve since changed that. But we were ahead of them.”

However, with sponsor-based vouchers comes a challenge: finding an agency to provide the services envisioned under the housing-first model.

“Everybody’s short of money, and if you’ve got some mental-health organization short of money—,” Gentry says, then pauses. “The old way of looking at and solving the affordable-housing problem is that everybody was in their own silos, doing their own thing. Sponsor-basing is more of a collaborative effort, and sometimes it takes people time to learn how to cooperate…. So, we put resources on the street and said, ‘This is here for you if you can figure out how to use it and make it make a difference.’” 

St. Vincent de Paul is the sponsor that agreed to administer Project 25 and oversee the case management of those clients, a group that eventually grew to 35. But, Project 25 was funded only as a three-year pilot program, and, as CityBeat reported last year, that funding ended in April 2014. While those 35 clients wouldn’t lose their housing vouchers, growing the program, let alone maintaining robust case-management services, depended on finding a new funding source.

And that’s where Rick Echols comes in.

In 2011, Echols’ wife Michelle died. He was already struggling with health problems, some stemming from a serious accident while he was working construction. After Michelle’s death—from a heart attack in the couple’s home on the Campo Indian Reservation, with Echols performing CPR for the entire 35 minutes it took paramedics to respond—he fell into a deep depression that pulled his health down with it. At one point, he was on 26 different medications, he says, and repeatedly in the hospital, three times transported by helicopter. When he was out of the hospital, he was homeless, sometimes crashing with friends in Campo, sometimes finding a place to sleep in Ocean Beach.

“Wherever I could go that I could find any kind of shelter or sanctuary,” he says.

St. Vincent de Paul had started reaching out to insurance companies serving homeless clients, in hopes they’d recognize Project 25 as a potentially money-saving program to invest in. Echols’ insurance provider, Community Health Group, agreed and signed a contract with St. Vincent de Paul to hook Echols up with housing and case management.

Echols now lives in a small, one-bedroom apartment on 16th and Market streets in East Village, in a building owned by St. Vincent de Paul. He has a goodsized kitchen, and the apartment’s main room has space for a sofa, recliner, TV and a glass-enclosed hutch that he’s turned into a shrine of sorts to Michelle.

He’s down to five or six medications a day, he says. He’s only been to the hospital three times since he moved in, a decrease from upwards of 30 times a year prior to him joining Project 25. Two months ago, he got a dog from the San Diego Humane Society, a blue-nose Staffordshire terrier that he named Buddy, who’s become his constant companion.

“I ended up where I’m getting better, I really am,” Echols says.

Email or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.