Cost Of Shelter vs Housing


Calculations Updated According to OFFICE OF THE INDEPENDENT BUDGET ANALYST REPORT 7-15-2024

By Joanne Standlee and Ann E. Menasche

As homelessness continues to surge to unprecedented levels – this January’s point in time (PIT) count tallied 10,605 homeless people sleeping outdoors, in vehicles, or in shelters, (it is widely accepted that the PIT count is significantly lower than the actual number of unhoused people). For two full years, the number of people becoming homeless in San Diego County has outpaced the number of people moving into homes. Our elected officials seem incapable of doing anything effective to address this crisis.

Who are our unhoused residents?  They are seniors – the number of seniors sleeping outside increased 22% -they are now 30% of our unhoused population- 43% homeless for the first time; they are people with disabilities often on small, fixed incomes of $1200 or less; they are working families who can no longer afford this city’s skyrocketing rents.  

Our politicians utilize the same failed strategies over and over again – criminalization like the camping ban passed last year; or warehousing people in congregate shelters, that deny all privacy and spread disease; or in the new sanctioned overcrowded not-so-safe campsites on asphalt that fail to meet basic humanitarian health and safety standards.  None of this moves people into housing, and definitely doesn’t prevent the problem from getting worse.

Mayor Todd Gloria proposes more of the same – to spend a projected $33,004,805 average per year (calculated over a 30 year period) in taxpayer dollars ($30,00,000 to run + $13,000,000 to convert expensed over 30 years + $2,614,805 (average yearly lease fee calculated over 30 years) to put 1,000 unhoused people on a cot in another warehouse.  This kind of misuse of funds begs the question of why? Who is benefiting from this plan? It’s clearly not our unhoused neighbors or the community at large.

The mayor’s proposal is actually more expensive than housing 1,000 people in apartments at current market rates with intensive support services included.

In light of these facts, it’s hard to argue a case for the shelter. It feels like pursuing the shelter could even be construed as a Breach of Fiduciary Trust. There are plenty of rentals available in San Diego.  According to Zillow, in early June 6, 2024, there were 458 studio or one-bedroom rentals priced at $1,800 or less in San Diego County, 2219 two-bedroom rentals for $3,500 or less, and 1,437 two-bedrooms for $3,000 or less.  

At that rate, single occupancy scattered site housing for 1,000 people would cost $29,340,000 per year including intensive case management and administration costs. Procuring 1,000 units could take up to 6 months, which is far less time than it would take to convert a warehouse into a shelter. That’s not even taking into account the fact that it has been documented that two properties next to the shelter leaked chemicals into the groundwater and soil, which is likely to result in toxic gas exposure to shelter residents. How many Ash Street-like failures are we going to tolerate?

Shared housing, giving each person a private bedroom in a home, could cost up to 25% less, and the housing stock is readily available.

People claim that Housing First doesn’t work or it’s too expensive.  The truth is just the opposite.  Housing First has never been implemented in San Diego according to the model as designed by Sam Tsemberis in the 1990’s and is less expensive than the warehouse alternative proposed by the mayor. The assumption is that we build shelters in order to help people find a way off the streets. San Diego has a dismal record hovering around 18% of the people in shelters actually ending up being housed.

If you were homeless would you prefer to have a room to yourself in a house or a cot in a massive warehouse? Why not skip the costly shelter option, follow best practice, and implement Housing First!

Standlee is the executive director of Housing 4 the Homeless, and lives in Del Mar. Menasche is a civil rights attorney who lives and works in San Diego. She is co-coordinator of the San Diego Housing Emergency Alliance.