Although the original deadline was missed, San Diego’s Housing Our Heroes initiative has hit its goal of helping 1,000 homeless veterans secure rental housing.
“It’s fantastic news,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said. “We’re getting people housed and getting them off the street.”
San Diego Housing Commission President and CEO Rick Gentry said Friday that 1,007 veterans had found secure housing under the initiative announced by Faulconer in March 2016, and 200 other veterans are in the pipeline for housing.
The initiative was launched as one of several steps the city has taking recently to tackle the homeless population.
Three large industrial tent structures that will shelter about 250 homeless people each are planned to be installed by the end of the year, and on Monday a city-sanctioned homeless encampment will open to about 200 people in response to a hepatitis A outbreak that has left 17 people dead and afflicted more than 500.
While the goal for veterans has been reached and the original initiative completed, Faulconer and Gentry said the effort will continue and be expanded to include non-veterans.
Gentry said he expects an additional 1,000 homeless people to be housed within the next 15 months using the formula created by Housing Our Heroes.
Just how many homeless veterans are left in the city isn’t clear. The annual count of homeless people taken in January found 1,054 homeless veterans in the county. Of those, 600 were sheltered and 454 were unsheltered. In all, the county had 9,116 homeless people, with 5,619 in San Diego.
The Housing Our Heroes initiative focused on just the city of San Diego and one area of National City and was launched before the most recent count was taken.
Jonathan Herrera, Faulconer’s senior adviser on homelessness coordination, estimated there still are about 500 homeless veterans in San Diego.
“There’s still more work to do,” Faulconer said.
When funding for the two-year, $12.5 million initiative was announced in March 2016, Faulconer said 1,000 veterans would be housed in a year. That goal took about 19 months to reach.
“My goal was 1,000 people off the street,” Faulconer said Friday. “To hit it was incredibly rewarding, and it led to a program that can now be expanded.”
Gentry took some responsible for missing the initial goal.
“I got overly aggressive in how fast it would take,” he said.
After the program was launched, Gentry said people were spinning their wheels for a few months, but learning important lessons.
The first important lesson involved helping homeless people use vouchers to find homes, Gentry said.
Of the $12.5 million initiative, $2.7 million was for Federal Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers to house 300 chronically homeless veterans, one of the original goals of the initiative.
Another $3.4 million was for federal housing vouchers with supportive services, including mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment and independent learning skills.
Gentry said people who apply for federal housing vouchers from the Housing Commission usually face a waiting list of seven to 10 years. By the time their vouchers are available, he said, the recipients are prepared to put them to use and already have found landlords willing to accept them.
“The homeless are a different kind of customer,” Gentry said. “In many cases, they live a passive lifestyle. Giving them a voucher and expecting them to find a place to live in is not a good process.”
By the summer of 2016, Gentry said he realized the effort was just not working. Using money from the initiative, he hired about six people as housing navigators — or “real estate agents for the homeless,” as he called them — to assist the people in putting their vouchers to use.
“That was huge,” he said, adding that the program began taking off with the hires.
The second lesson was to work with landlords and encourage them to accept vouchers for homeless people at a time when the vacancy rate in the city is 3.4 percent, Gentry said.
The initiative included $4.4 million for landlord outreach and had partnerships with the Regional Chamber of Commerce, the California Apartment Association and the San Diego County Apartment Association to reach landlords.
For incentives, landlords received $500 for the first units they rented to a homeless veteran and $250 for each additional unit. They also received an average of $1,500 in security deposits and $100 in utility assistance per household.
Faulconer said the incentive program weighed heavily in the program’s success.
“The private sector will step up and be engaged if you ask them, if you provide the right financial guarantees,” Faulconer said.
“It really bodes well for what we’re doing longer-term,” he added about continuing the program. “I can’t say enough about the Apartment Association. This was a true public-private partnership, and it worked.”
Faulconer also noted that of 437 landlords who participated in the program, 45 percent were new to accepting vouchers from the Housing Commission.
Jimmie Robinson, a landlord who rents out several houses, took in seven homeless veterans in the Housing Our Heroes initiative.
Robinson said the incentives were “eye-catching,” but were not the greatest motive for taking in homeless veterans.
“When you get to meet them, the satisfaction of helping people turn their lives around was more important,” he said. “When you see somebody rebuilding their lives, that’s what it’s become for me, more than than the incentives.”
Robinson said the first veteran he took in was a recently divorced single mother of three who was living in her car after falling on hard times.
Veterans Community Services helped her return to school and find work, which led to her moving out after becoming self-sufficient, he said.
“Watching her go to school, get a promotion and become stabilized, that’s what got me more motivated about taking these people in,” Robinson said.
While the bulk of the veterans were housed in rentals, some were placed in Hotel Chuchill, Alpha Square or Veterans Village of San Diego.
A press release from the mayor’s office quoted a man named Daniel as one of the veterans who stayed in Veterans Village but later found his own permanent housing.
"I was in that program less than a month, and I got housed," said the 56-year-old Navy veteran. “This is a new start for me, so it feels really good to have my own place again.”
The initiative also included about $2 million in rental assistance through rapid-rehousing programs.
While that was less than the amount that went to vouchers and landlord outreach, rapid-rehousing funded housing for 55 percent of the veterans.
Rapid-rehousing provides rental assistance for an average of four to six months, but in some cases can cover rent for two years. Gentry said rapid-rehousing was used for veterans who needed the least assistance and were most likely to be able to be on their own faster than other people in the program who were considered more vulnerable.
“But if someone still needs help, we’re not going to walk away and withdraw the subsidy,” Gentry said, explaining that everybody in the program receives help to not fall back into homelessness.
Looking ahead, Gentry said the program will continue with lessons learned from the initiative, expanding things that worked and dropping things that did not.