The emergency shelter for single adults in Barrio Logan. Courtesy San Diego Housing Commission

By Laura Van Denburgh

As an master of social work student working as an intern with San Diego’s homeless population, I’ve met too many individuals who managed to transition out of homelessness only to return to shelters a few months or years later. In order to truly end homelessness, housing has to become more sustainable. One way to accomplish this would be to increase access to a livable wage.

There’s been a lot of buzz about the minimum wage lately. The Fight for $15 protests have amplified the debate about what constitutes a fair wage, and who has the right to earn what. Californians saw the minimum wage rise to $9 last July as a result of state legislation that passed in 2013. State legislators are now considering another bill proposed by State Sen. Mark Leno that would raise the minimum wage to $11 in 2016, $13 in 2017 and tie it to inflation in 2019. The San Diego City Council, led by then-president Todd Gloria, voted last year to incrementally raise the city’s minimum wage, eventually reaching $11.50 in January 2017. Opponents successfully defeated this ordinance with a controversial petition drive. As it stands now, we will all have the opportunity to vote on this issue in June 2016.

Another hot topic for San Diegans is our homeless population. According to the 2014 point-in-time count, there are over 8,000 homeless individuals living in San Diego. Almost a quarter of them are families with children. San Diego has the fourth highest homeless population in the nation.

Homeless service provision is getting a makeover in our city. Progressive programs that promise quicker results are challenging more conventional transitional housing solutions. Much of this shift in programming is a response to federal legislation. President Obama’s 2010 Opening Doors plan to end homelessness created incentives to move people quickly out of homelessness. Funding is channeled to cost-effective programs that produce results. One such program is Rapid Rehousing, which moves people directly into housing and provides short-term financial assistance in the form of rent subsidies.

Transitional housing can be expensive. Participants can remain in temporary housing for up to two years while they complete programs designed to build self-sufficiency. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the average cost per person who exited to permanent housing from Rapid Rehousing was about $4,100, while transitional housing cost about $22,000. Due to its lower cost, Rapid Rehousing programs can help more people. The end result is impressive; data shows more people becoming housed more quickly — signaling the desired end to homelessness is actually attainable. But is it sustainable?

The assistance provided by Rapid Rehousing for up to 12 months may not be enough to create housing stability. Adults who have been homeless often have low educational attainment, disabilities, past substance abuse or incarceration, and other barriers that make them likely candidates for entry-level, minimum-wage jobs. The housing market in San Diego is not friendly to low-wage workers. A 2014 Forbes article ranked San Diego fifth on a list of the least affordable housing markets in the nation. In 2002, the City Council declared the lack of affordable housing in San Diego constituted a state of emergency. San Diego has a vacancy rate of only three percent, which keeps prices high.

The average rental unit is simply not accessible to someone earning $9 per hour. Even two people working full time at minimum wage would still be paying over 50% of their income towards rent at current market rates. The wait to obtain federal Section 8 rental assistance for low-income families is an average of 8 to 10 years. Therefore, when their Rapid Rehousing rental subsidies end, the recently housed will be at an enormous risk of returning to homelessness.

After years of seeing rising numbers, San Diego’s homeless population has started to decrease. I don’t claim that raising the minimum wage is a magic bullet that would end the often-cyclical nature of homelessness. I also don’t deny that raising the minimum wage has its own set of inherent problems (just ask any small business owner). However, there are a lot of arguments to support raising the minimum wage, and helping to sustain reductions in homelessness might just be one of them.

Laura Van Denburgh is a candidate for a Master of Social Work degree at the University of Southern California’s San Diego campus. As part of her program at USC, she was an intern at St. Vincent de Paul Village this year,

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