Her face smudged with grime, eyes distant, unfocused not bitter, she’s homeless just staring out the window trying to get warm in the early morning.
To those who are homeless, there are a few simple assumptions we accept:
- Most would rather not be homeless.
- If homeless you still deserve respect.
- Some who are homeless feel they are in the midst of a ‘bad chapter’ of their life. There can still be new chapters.
Analysis of a broad assortment of data have worked to produce many proven tools to address homelessness. Happily, our local government is increasingly engaged in using these tools. They should since so many California cities have seen an exponential increase in homelessness.
I push this baby cart since the dam bus driver wouldn’t let me bring a shopping cart on the dam bus. Everything’s I got left’s in this cart.
According to the San Diego Union Tribune on October 25, 2018, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has accepted a County of San Diego Homeless count of 8,576. This number excluded those living in vehicles including in a number of designated parking lots for the homeless in the County.
Rousted off a golf course half a year ago. First some guy hit a lousy shot. Next people wanted to count me. Then the police took my stuff to a garbage truck and crushed it. In that truck was the only picture I had of my daughter.
San Diego, the 17th largest metro area in the U.S., is ranked 4th for homeless population in the U.S. It is behind only New York City, Los Angeles County and King County in Washington State for the size of its homeless population.
On November 20, 2018, Bloomberg reported that:
The Homeless Crisis is getting worse in America’s Richest Cities, a toxic combination of slow wage growth and skyrocketing rents has put housing out of reach for a greater number of people”. Los Angeles, for example, has seen a 47% increase since 2012 in homelessness (now 52,765).
Zillow Group Inc. estimated that a 5% increase in rents in Los Angeles translates into about 2,000 more homeless.
According to Fortune Builders, San Diego has a median home price of $605,000. Over the last three years, homes prices have increased 32.9%. Rent has increased in lockstep with a studio renting for $959, 3-bedroom units for $2,009.
I became homeless when my marriage broke up. A big mortgage, interest rate rose. Overstretched, lost my job. I had been falling behind. Then… the street.
Growth in homeless has an associated growth in government expenditures. On January 14, 2013, Kelly Bennett of the Voice of San Diego calculated, “The County of San Diego alone spent more than $205 million on “programs targeted specifically for homeless or at risk of being homeless” in the last budget year. I got that number from Barbara Jiminez, deputy director for south and central regions for the county’s Health and Human Services Agency. That includes $87 million from her agency, she said; the rest comes from the county’s housing agency.”
Assuming an unconfirmed amount for the associated annual costs for police and corrective services, the financial costs to our community can be estimated as follows:
I don’t blame the police. Want to… but don’t. Stuff’s going on.
Some Homeless Programs Working Today or Coming Soon
There is literally an army of charities rolling up their collective sleeves every single day in San Diego. With public funding and community donations, these people stand with the homeless throughout the year. A sampling these organizations include:
|1||St Vincent DePaul, ‘Father Joe’s’||On a daily basis feeds and provides a safe place to sleep for at least 3,000 homeless individuals. 1/3rd of all homeless.|
|2||Rachel’s Women’s Center||A Catholic Charities run drop-in day center providing shower, bathroom, and laundry facilities, food, replacement clothing, and health and social support services on site.|
|3||Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC)||Offers residential housing, work, and group & individual therapy. ARC’s helps rehabilitate those willing to commit.|
|4||San Diego Rescue Mission||Operates an emergency shelter for women and children, a men’s center for rehabilitation, Haven of Hope Women and Children’s Center and Preschool, a Recuperative Care Unit for homeless to heal after a hospital stay, therapeutic services, job training, a transitional housing offering, and a comprehensive food collection and distribution for hunger relief.|
|5||Uptown Faith Community Services Center||Provides food distribution, clothing and hygiene services, a computer, phone, and messaging service center as well as a comprehensive information and referral service.|
|6||211 San Diego||Connects those in need with emergency shelters, affordable and supportive housing options, rental assistance, utility assistance, transportation, and mediation services.|
|7||Townspeople||Helps the vulnerable and homeless gain access to safe, affordable housing that is linked to on-going supportive services. This group is focused on gaining affordable housing and linking this with a continuously helping hand.|
|8||The Alpha Project||Provides affordable housing, residential substance abuse treatment, supportive housing, basic and emergency services, transportation, preparation and placement, education, outreach and prevention, and community services.|
Usually in conjunction with these charities, there are several programs that have been operating or have recently been approved at various government levels regarding the homeless. These include:
|1||The San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC)||Housing First which provides funding to house 600 episodes of short term homelessness and within this:|
|-Rapid Re-Housing Plus Pilot Program – this provided 25 short-term transitional subsidized housing for$7.7 million.|
|-Landlord Engagement & Assistance Program – assists 3000 individuals referred by SDHC. This has a budget of $6.6 million.|
|-Homelessness Prevention and Diversion – helps 1,450 individuals remain housed with various forms of assistance. This has a budget of $2.9 million.|
|-New Permanent Supportive Housing – this program aims to build 500 supportive housing units.|
|-SDHC Moving On Rental Assistance – this program provides rental assistance for 50 individuals. It has a budget of $1.2 million.|
|-Coordinated Outreach – this program funds a single individual to manage outreach efforts. It has a budget of $300,000.|
|2||Tent Shelters||The city operates three Tent Shelters housing 700 for about half the year at an approximate cost of $8.5M. This equates to a cost of roughly $70/night per homeless person.|
|3||Housing Navigation Shelter||On November 14, 2018, San Diego City Council voted to proceed with the Housing Navigation Center. This center includes the purchase of 1401 Imperial Ave for $7.3 million and annual funding of $1.5 million. The City Council was split on the building acquisition since it is not designated to actually provide shelter for the homeless.|
|4||One for All||Provides extensive wraparound mental, health services as well as coordinates a number of related County services such as Call211, The Behavioral Health Services Department and Housing Matters.org|
|5||Continuum of Care||Coordinates with and often funds nonprofits that provide services, coordinates state and city services to re-house individuals, and closely partners with charities including Solutions for Change, Kurdish Charities, Mental Health Systems, Inc., and the Alpha Project.|
|6||Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing||A collaborative program between HUD, the VA, and the County to provide rental assistance to homeless veterans. Offers VA case management and supportive services.|
|7||Emergency Solutions Grants||Provides HUD funds for emergency shelter operations, street outreach programs, rapid re-housing.|
|8||Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA)||Provides rental assistance and even housing to low-income people living with HIV/AIDS.|
|9||No Place Like Home||Also known as ‘Prop 2’, this program that just passed on election day, soon it will provide $2 Billion statewide, $130 million locally. The stated goal is to ‘prevent and fight homelessness in the state.’|
Clearly, there is a lot of good people here working on homelessness.
According to David Estrella, Director of County of San Diego Health and Human Services, San Diego County is focused on “permanent supportive housing” solutions. He stated, “We must stay with the individuals experiencing homelessness, help them maintain their housing”.
Estrella presented a few affordable housing projects the County is working on:
- 5255 Mt. Etna Drive, a 4-acre property in Claremont, the ‘Crime Lab.’
- The former San Diego Superior Court Family Court Building (“Family Court”) located at 1501 and 1555 Sixth Avenue in Downtown San Diego
Estrella added that a significant new revenue source will be coming as a result of the passing of Proposition 2 a few weeks ago, “of the $2 Billion provided by Prop 2, approximately $130 Million will be allocated to the San Diego Region. Funding is expected to begin to flow in 2019. Those involved in this program are already looking at the acquisition of buildings that can be rehabilitated and later the development of new buildings”.
There’s only One Problem
Aside from providing funds to non-profits, our local government is approaching this well-placed focus in solving homelessness with the only perspective it understands: hiring ‘for profit’ contractors.
When local government provides funds to the many charities and non-profits, the funds are very efficiently spent. Those who work hand-in-hand with individuals use these funds. Yet when government goes out to bid, they receive:
- Plans for buildings not homes
- Demolition contracts, environmental and building permit process not homes
- New Building proposals slated for delivery well into the future with associated cost overruns.
- And a price/unit that is an affront to the urgency felt by the homeless needing homes.
Never imagined I’d be homeless. With my family, life on the streets isn’t some balancing act, it’s a minefield. The kids are cold. Did you see that rain last night? We are shivering. My wife? Most days she is in shock, tries to be strong but…
Taking a few programs as examples, the chart below depicts local governments approach to Housing First:
|Program||Costs||Total||Units of Housing||Cost Per Homeless Person||Notes|
|SDHC New Permanent Supportive Housing||From- SDHC.org: $61.1M||$61,100,000||500||$122,200|
|Housing Navigation Center||7.3M + 1.8M first year + 1.5 annual operating cost or 10.6M||$10,600,000||None||$10,600,000||Provides no housing.|
|Tent Shelters||$8,500,000||700||$12,143||Funding shown only applies to months the tents are open.|
|Mt Etna Crime Lab||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown||Demolition of building could occur as early as 2 years from now. County has gone to Request for Proposals with developers, environmentals next steps.|
|Former Superior Court||Unknown||Unknown||120||Unknown||Demolition of building could occur next year. Request for proposals with developers, next step.|
As planning is underway, various steps in permitting have begun. New ideas are headed to the drawing board. Meanwhile, roughly 9,000 await a safe, reliable place to call home.
The Mt Etna Crime Lab, for example, is an excellent location, a good choice. However from concept to housing, providing a single safe bed for a homeless individual could take 5 more years and cost 10 times more than many far quicker alternatives.
In Seattle, the Low Income Housing Institute (LHI) has been building ‘tiny home’ villages. “Each tiny house has electricity, overhead light and a heater. Each tiny house village has kitchen and restroom facilities, onsite showers and laundry, a counseling office, and a welcome/security hut where donations of food, clothing, and hygiene items can be dropped off.”
At the time of this article, nine (9) Tiny Home villages have already been built and are in use across King County Washington.
According to the site, 24hplans .com, “There are prefabricated shipping container houses sold for as little as $15,000.”
Novo Deko, Inc. sells a 1Bedroom, 1 Bathroom container modular for $24,000.
HiveCubePR is placing completed installations of 2 bedroom container homes in communities ravaged by Hurricane Maria for $39,000.
A California licensed contractor interviewed for this article, Matthew McConnell, offered “ballpark price of $45,000 per container, 40 foot HC. These can be stacked in multi-story configurations. This would include the price for mini-splits HVAC, bathroom and kitchen, but not for connecting plumbing or electricity.”
And a company based in Bangalore, India, Square Plums, advertises that it sells completely fitted standard containers for delivery at less than $10,000 (plus $2,500 shipping cost and local setup). A Polish company delivers a ‘complete stackable dorm-style’ container for installation at ‘your site’ for “around 30,000 Euros” ($35,000 plus $2,500 shipping cost).
Looked at another way, if local government were to take a hybrid of Seattle’s approach (tiny homes) also using transportable container units, allocation of existing money to rapidly re-house the homeless might price out as follows:
|1||HiveCubePR published pricing||100||$39,000||$3,900,000|
|2||SquarePlums published pricing||100||$12,500||$1,250,000|
|3||NovoDeko published pricing||100||$26,500||$2,650,000|
|4||SDHC Published Numbers||100||$122,000||$12,200,000|
|5||SD County has no numbers to compare||0||$-||$-|
Further, were the money recently allocated by the City of San Diego to locate staff within the proposed Housing Navigation Center (approximately $9.1 million), would pay for 728 Square Plums housing units for the homeless.
Looking at a planned San Diego County project, replacing the San Diego Crime Lab on Mt Etna Dr. in Claremont, the County must utilize the normal Request For Proposal (RFP) with accredited contractors. As a result, significantly more time (many years) is needed to get people housed. Worse, this is many times more expensive than other available methods.
Considering the urgency of a single night being homeless, we need to push local government away from its standard practice. Chances are, they are listening.
Rapid Re-Housing, Doing this NOW
Let’s call on local government to immediately develop a plan to provide a measure of rapid re-housing through modular, movable housing. This Housing must include:
- Easy access to Mass Transportation
- If retrofit-able buildings are not available, new housing must be easily, quickly placed. Avoid out to bid, teardown, prostration to contractors.
- Avoid potential negative impacts on neighborhoods.
- Operating Expenses (OPEX) and Capital Expenses (CAPEX) must be clearly defined and systematically controlled. No multi-year, cost overrun efforts. They are not needed.
In the County, there are literally hundreds of locations, such as this empty lot of Aero Drive, in which housing can be placed with minimized impact on neighborhoods or aesthetics. A carefully selected handful of locations can be designated for placement of a small ‘villages.’ These villages can be designed and deployed in months not years.
Transportable tiny homes, container homes and streamlined re-purposing of vacant properties can be done right away. In some cases the future tenants of these Tiny Home villages can be hired to help build and place homes in prim clusters.
By way of example, an 8’ by 40’ container can be fitted for two individual studios (8’ x 20’, 8’ x 20’) or a family unit (8’ x 40’).
Access to Tiny or Container Homes would be given and controlled through the use of an inexpensive card entry system on each front door. The same card would also enable use of water and electricity. And the cards would be distributed and controlled centrally by a Residents Manager (RM). If the card is lost, or if there is a problem with the home, the RM steps in.
Provision of housing requires a lease and landlord contract in which the landlord (the RM from an existing Charity) could control the lease. Presumably, those given housing would be provided homes for a specified period. Later, potentially some rent could be charged according to practical means testing.
If even 40% of San Diego’s 9,000 homeless are provided with a Tiny Home right away, as many as half the people on the street could no longer be counted as homeless. More, a significant measure of the ongoing expense in providing the housing would be saved over current expenditures.
Providing Housing First, the established goal of our local governments, is the most effective way to attack the issue of homelessness. It is not a simple task; and certainly, providing housing is not an end unto itself. Those who are homeless more often require guided help. As David Estrella from San Diego County stated, “we must stay with the individuals experiencing homelessness”.
Housing First means getting individuals into safe housing as fast as possible. We must give individuals and families a respectful, organized and proactive helping hand.
Were we to put these concepts into action now, our community immediately gains.
Getting aggressively on with this, people who are homeless will have a chance to more quickly return to normalcy or put some kind of a foundation under their lives. For some souls, this is a precious chance to put an end to a very bad chapter in their lives. We must not delay.
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All photos and chart by author