by Mathew Packard

Communities across the country continue to grapple with the growing crisis of homelessness, its impact on the community and on the lives of individuals, questioning the effectiveness of our current response and what, if anything, we should do differently. The San Diego region is no exception. The article below might serve as a cautionary tale of what has transpired in San Diego and how San Diego and other communities might correct the mistakes of the past and chart the course forward.

As the crisis of homelessness seems to worsen and cries for more accountability for the dollars invested grow louder, one thing it appears everyone can agree upon is that homelessness is complex, and those who are unhoused are as varied and complex as those who are housed. It should come as no surprise that another city is considering ditching the “Housing First” approach to solving or at least ameliorating the devastating impacts the crisis of homelessness is having on our community. But, before ditching anything, communities should be careful not to repeat the policy failures of the Housing First proponents.

The policy first adopted twenty years ago by the Bush administration would eventually become a federal mandate through the Hearth Act in 2009, then mandated by the state of California through the passage of Senate Bill 1380 in 2016. Locally, Continuum of Care Community Standards adopted by the Regional Task Force on Homelessness and updated in 2023 mandate adherence to “Housing First,” which prioritizes rapid placement and stabilization in permanent housing without service participation requirements or preconditions for entry (such as sobriety, minimum income requirements, criminal record, completion of treatment, participation in services, or other conditions that create barriers to entry). In short, it was and still is an all-or-nothing approach. You either change your program to meet these standards or you are at risk of losing existing funding and being excluded from future funding.

Locally, the shift created such a chasm that existing service providers, viewed as part of the problem, were deliberately excluded from local planning processes, as demonstrated by the initial membership of the city-funded Campaign to End Homelessness Downtown. Local communities including Escondido and Vista, who are now rethinking the success or lack thereof of this Housing First approach, should learn from the glaring mistakes of the past twenty years.

The first of which is, solutions will not come in a binary form. There is no silver bullet. It is not encampments vs. enforcement but rather a recognition that we must, as a community, address the human needs of those unhoused while not sacrificing the safety, quality of life, and economic vitality of our neighborhoods. It does not have to be harm reduction where programs do not mandate sobriety or adherence to program requirements vs. those that do have program requirements, 12-Step programming, and structured case management created in partnership with the individual to address long-term needs and quality of life. It is not and cannot be temporary housing vs. permanent.

The fact is local housing authorities have woefully failed in meeting the need for affordable housing, but even if there were sufficient units, there would never be enough rental vouchers or subsidies to meet the ongoing demand. The San Diego Housing Commission recently confirmed those applying for a housing voucher today could expect an 18-year wait before receiving the voucher. They explain part of the cause for the glacial pace is rising rents and the fact they have diverted vouchers from the waitlist to units targeted to the homeless. Until we can demonstrate the availability of a sufficient number of affordable units and subsidies, temporary housing must be a significant part of the solution.

So what can communities do as they chart their path forward?

Reach out to their federal, state, and local representatives and urge them to take a more holistic approach to funding requirements such that housing first programming can be part of the solution, but it is not the only solution that can meet the needs of every homeless person.

Because housing is at the core of the crisis, we should be maximizing the use of all housing opportunities in our communities and across the region. A regional database of every possible housing opportunity to include permanent supportive, in-patient recovery, clean and sober, crisis, board and care, low barrier, emergency, transitional, faith-based, etc. Based on individual client assessments, we should be incentivizing individuals to access the housing and services type that best meet their needs.

As the state is demanding after its recent audit of homeless spending, we must provide a better accounting of how we are spending our homeless dollars. Our local Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), mandated and funded for decades, should be able to provide the data we need to track outcomes over time and provide the information state and local leaders are demanding. If HMIS does not provide overtime unduplicated numbers, rates of recidivism, service access and duplication, service and housing costs, mapping, program outcomes, etc., we are not getting the return on investment we should be demanding. HMIS was intended to provide the data we need that will drive informed community planning, and we should expect nothing less.

Communities across the country are developing the technology and coordination that is transforming how health and human services are delivered, and San Diego is one of the leaders in that effort. A Community Information Exchange (CIE) enables a sharing of information across disparate information systems that opens the door to more holistic and coordinated care. Imagine a world where a family in crisis identified by a child’s teacher could reach out to County Health and Human Services or a local office of emergency assistance to link to services the family may need. Imagine a first responder who has been called to check on the health and welfare of an individual on the street can use CIE to see if that individual is being helped by any homeless service provider and the housing link could be made before that individual is discharged to the street, again. To its credit and with the help and guidance of 211 San Diego, this transformed system of holistic and coordinated care is not only possible but happening in our community. A CIE can and should play a crucial role in solving and preventing homelessness for families and individuals.

Despite the benefits, political or otherwise, there is no silver bullet for homelessness. It is a complex crisis requiring a comprehensive and coordinated approach. Communities must harness every available resource, providing housing and services in a truly integrated manner to mitigate the impact of homelessness on individuals and the community. By learning from past mistakes and embracing a holistic strategy, we can move towards a more effective solution to this persistent issue.


matthew-packardMathew Packard has been in the field of nonprofit human services for more than forty years. Mathew has worked in a leadership capacity in the areas of emergency services, food banking, workforce development/job training, and comprehensive homeless housing and services, fund development, affordable housing development and asset management. Throughout his career, Mathew has recognized developing and sustaining effective community collaborations are critical contributors to success.