The county’s housing voucher program for the homeless is under intense scrutiny. How it works?

A row between the county and El Cajon over a hotel voucher program underscores, once again, the complexity of the fight against homelessness.

The Regional Homeless Assistance Program had been operating and growing for about two years with little controversy until the East County City recently blamed it for an increase in homelessness, crime and poverty. drug use. Since its inception in 2020, it has provided temporary shelter to over 1,000 people and helped hundreds of people take their first step into permanent housing.

But the negative attention overshadowed what county officials hailed as a successful effort to help the homeless. The county-run program is credited with helping more than 300 people find some kind of permanent housing since its launch two years ago.

Officials acknowledge that the program does not work for everyone. While 30% of participants leave for housing, just over half are considered unsuccessful exits, with some leaving due to criminal activity, violence or drug use, as El Cajon claims.

The hotel arrests raised questions from El Cajon officials about whether the county had a verification process before issuing vouchers.

It does, and people can be denied vouchers for ongoing terms and a variety of other reasons, said Barbara Jiménez, community operations manager for the county Health and Human Services Agency, which oversees the Department of Homeless Solutions and Equitable Communities and the Voucher Program.

Origins of the program

The idea of ​​using vouchers to provide temporary, safe housing for the homeless is not new, and for years has been a way for the county to provide shelter during inclement weather. But in January 2020, the Oversight Board asked the Health and Human Services Agency to take more action against homelessness in unincorporated areas, leading to the creation of the Regional Aid Program to the homeless.

Although the program focuses on helping the homeless in the unincorporated, Jiménez said there are few hotels there, so most of the program hotels are in incorporated towns.

Twenty-two hotels are on the program and the county has the capacity to provide rooms for 250 households, Jiménez said. Eight hotels are in El Cajon, five in San Diego, three in Escondido, two in Chula Vista, and Oceanside, Ramona, Santee, and Vista each have one. As of October 14, approximately 1,400 people have been served by the program since January 1, 2020.

Of those served in the program since its launch, El Cajon had the most clients with 527. Chula Vista had 306, Escondido 295, San Diego 83, National City 69, Santee 48, Vista 51, Oceanside 15 and Ramona 4.

In September, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells and City Manager Graham Mitchell said a city investigation found that most rooms in some of the hotels in the program were occupied by homeless people. with vouchers, and they accused the county of bringing in homeless people from other areas. .

Information provided by the county, however, shows that many of the people in the rooms may have come from an El Cajon encampment that had recently been closed.

According to the county, 78 encampment households received vouchers for the hotel program and 62 were placed in El Cajon hotels.

Concerns about the voucher program have also arisen at Santee.

At a town hall meeting last month, City Manager Marlene Best said the owner of Santee’s Rodeway Inn had agreed to “significantly” reduce the number of county vouchers accepted.

“We don’t have some of the similar issues that you may have heard about in the media, that the city of El Cajon has,” Best told the city council.

While the 54-room hotel hosted large numbers of homeless people at the height of the pandemic, it now only accepts half a dozen vouchers, officials said.

Homeless advocate Michael McConnell sees irony in towns complaining about homelessness in their area while also wanting to reduce the number of vouchers accepted at their local hotels.

“If cities don’t want people on sidewalks, in canyons and riverbeds, they should be advocating for more good ones, not less,” he said. “But with the voucher scheme comes an obligation to provide adequate services to ensure that hotels do not become problematic and that as many people as possible can move into permanent accommodation.”

The five participating hotels in the City of San Diego are in Districts 3, 8 and 9. District 3 is represented by Stephen Whitburn and includes Downtown San Diego, District 8 is represented by Vivian Moreno and includes neighborhoods south of Downtown and South County, and District 9 is represented by Sean Elo-Rivera and includes the SDSU, Kensington and City Heights area. The county did not disclose the names or locations of the hotels, citing guest privacy laws.

Representatives from two of the offices said they had heard no complaints about the program. A representative from the Whitburn office did not answer the question.

David Rolland, communications director for San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, said his office hasn’t received any complaints about the program.

Escondido is also looking into the matter.

“We went out and tried to take the pulse of what was going on,” Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara said of city staff members visiting hotels. “We didn’t direct them, but we asked the managers to be reasonable. You don’t want the hotel to be full of vouchers.

The Econo Lodge in south Escondido is one of the hotels in town that accepts vouchers, and neighbors have complained to the city about criminal activity and homelessness in the area, said McNamara.

Deputy City Manager Christopher McKinney said the city found no link between the program and illegal activity.

“Our police department contacts hotels across the city to find out how many vouchers they are accepting at any given time,” he said. “We are not doing this in order to limit them. At this time, we don’t have any limits that we think or want to impose. We really just want to collect the data because there’s a lot of speculation and discussion, especially because of what happened in El Cajon where almost all the rooms were taken by people using vouchers.

Verification Voucher Holders

Jiménez said multiple teams are involved in identifying people for the program, verifying their eligibility and finding them a room as part of a longer-term goal of connecting them to permanent housing.

The first step is with the County Office of Homelessness Solutions Direct Services Team, in conjunction with the Homeless Assistance Resource Team (HART), to conduct outreach to find eligible clients, who are then referred to the county’s contract partner, Equus Workforce Solutions, who screen candidates to ensure they are suitable for the program, Jiménez said.

“We are low barrier so we try to keep that in mind and really try to place people who want to live there and have as few barriers as possible while helping them access the different services that are available, she said.

Sheriff’s deputies then conduct a records check for active outstanding warrants for serious crimes such as murder, sexual assault, or domestic violence. Equus verifies lifetime registered sex offenders, who are not eligible to participate in the program, and the county team also verifies a person’s eligibility through county programs and other systems, including the Homeless Management Information System, which collects data on homeless clients.

Jiménez said misdemeanor warrants might not make someone ineligible for the program, but people will be banned if they’ve already been kicked out of the program for destroying hotel property or other inappropriate behavior, including including illegal drug use, hate speech, or harassment or violence against other customers. .

Clients who exited a program may be allowed to re-enter in some cases, according to information provided by the county.

Equus contacts hotels and books rooms, and the county provides transportation for clients. Once registered, the client meets within 48 hours with a housing navigator who arranges weekly meetings to work out a plan that could lead to permanent housing. Jiménez said 321 people, or 30% of clients, obtained housing through vouchers, subsidies and sometimes through family reunification.

There was also a high number of people who left the program unsuccessfully. Of 1,046 households served by the program between January 1, 2020 and September 30, 2022, approximately 52% left for violations or other reasons. The most common reason was lack of follow-up or contact with the person helping them, resulting in 143 dropouts from the program. Another 92 left for failing to achieve specific goals, 34 caused property damage, 14 committed acts of violence, 29 used drugs and 17 engaged in illegal activities. A total of 620 individuals or 542 households left the program unsuccessfully.

Housing navigators and housing locators help program clients repair their credit, find employment and training, connect them with benefits for income, food and medical needs, help them apply for housing allowances and life skills training. Equus also connects participants to treatment for behavioral health issues.

There is no limit to how long people can stay in the program, although people can only stay in one hotel for 28 days before moving to another due to residency laws.

Ryan H. Bowman