San Diego's Unique (And Wildly Effective) Approach To Housing Homeless Veterans

"I think it has great potential for being just as successful in other cities."

There are an estimated 40,000 homeless veterans in the United States on any given night, and San Diego may have just drawn a roadmap for how to help them. 

Through a new initiative called Housing Our Heroes, the city of San Diego managed to find homes for 1,007 homeless veterans over the course of 17 months. In San Diego, taking care of homeless veterans has become a top priority for the mayor and the public, according to San Diego Housing Commission President and CEO Rick Gentry.

"San Diego has been for a long time and continues to be a city heavily focused on the military," Gentry told A Plus. "We've got what I've been told is the largest concentration of military in the world now with Cold War over... a negative byproduct of that is we've also got a significant homeless veterans problem."

To address help place the homeless veterans, Gentry helped formulate a housing-first program to get veterans off the street and into apartments to begin a new life. But the program took the unusual step of funneling its federal funding into the private sector to get the job done, rather than simply putting the homeless veterans into government-funded shelters. 

Gentry credits the success of the program largely on three things: the support of Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the private sector allowing them to use apartment buildings, and the cutting edge techniques the Housing Commission used to get veterans off the street. 

"As a matter of patriotism, as a matter of practicality, we decided to focus our efforts on housing homeless vets in early 2016," Gentry said. "I would say the private sector is typically more efficient [than the government], even though I'm a government employee."  



Housing Our Heroes landlord Noble Robinson, a U.S. Army Veteran (white shirt) and James, a formerly homeless U.S. Navy Veteran who rents an apartment from Noble Robinson
Housing Our Heroes landlord Noble Robinson, a U.S. Army Veteran (white shirt) and James, a formerly homeless U.S. Navy Veteran who rents an apartment from Noble Robinson San Diego Housing Commission 

Perhaps the most unique technique Gentry and his team employed was how they leveraged the private sector to incentivize landlords. The San Diego Housing Commission paid landlords $500 for the first homeless veteran they housed and $250  for every one after that. They also covered security deposits, utility deposits, and other household items like pots, pans, dishes and sheets. 

"We don't expect the private sector to lose money on a social program, nor should they," Gentry said. "They're supposed to make money. It's their job... so what we have to do is use the power of the government to reduce the risk of the private sector to deal with a customer base that might be off-putting because of some economic risk." 

But he didn't stop there. Another innovative decision involved the $2.7 million spent on a Federal Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher program. Gentry explained that normal citizens usually wait seven to 10 years to receive a federal housing voucher, so when they do they immediately use it to move into their new home or apartment. 

Homeless people, though, live more "passive" lifestyles. He realized after the first few months that a lot of the homeless veterans weren't using the vouchers they received. So to help faclitate the process, the housing commission started spending money on what Gentry calls "real estate agents for the homeless." More precisely, the employees were housing navigators that helped build relationships with landlords so they could facilitate the use of the voucher the moment it became available. 

Mr. Gentry speaking at the July 5, 2017, announcement of the next phase of HOUSING FIRST – SAN DIEGO, SDHC’s homelessness action plan. Mayor Kevin L. Faulconer is to Mr. Gentry’s right. To Mr. Gentry’s left are County Supervisor Ron Roberts and City Council members Chris Ward and Georgette Gomez.
Mr. Gentry speaking at the July 5, 2017, announcement of the next phase of HOUSING FIRST – SAN DIEGO, SDHC's homelessness action plan. Mayor Kevin L. Faulconer is to Mr. Gentry's right. To Mr. Gentry's left are County Supervisor Ron Roberts and City Council members Chris Ward and Georgette Gomez. San Diego Housing Commission 

"I don't know too many people that buy their own homes without a real estate agent," Gentry said. "Here we're looking at the most vulnerable part of our population and expecting them to navigate the situation on their own."

As a result, Gentry said landlords responded both out of a sense of duty and patriotism but also because they saw an opportunity to take a safe bet. On the surface, it may sound wasteful to spend so much money incentivizing landlords, throwing money at real estate agents and so on — but Gentry insists it would cost taxpayers far more to do nothing. A person is much more likely to use up taxpayer money on the street, where they are more often in need of police, registered medical services, and the emergency room.

Gentry hopes that another 1,000 homeless people will be housed in the next 15 months by using the Housing Our Heroes model.

"We think that this is unique," Gentry said. "We publicized it within the industry. Other people have taken notice, and I think it has great potential for being just as successful in other cities."

Cover photo: San Diego Housing Commission.

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