A homeless man sleeps below the entrance to the Ocean Beach Pier. Photo by Chris Stone
A homeless man sleeps below the entrance to the Ocean Beach Pier. Photo by Chris Stone

There are thousands of homes in San Diego that have empty bedrooms. Given the right financial incentives, many homeowners could be open to renting out a room to those who are experiencing homelessness.  

Housing First advocates believe that the most effective solution to homelessness is permanent housing and that housing for the homeless should be provided immediately, without any preconditions.

We can agree that those who are experiencing homelessness need a roof over their head, but not every homeless person is capable of living in the existing shelters. Shelters have rules, and some homeless choose to live on the streets rather than comply.

For a variety of reasons, the demand for housing in San Diego greatly exceeds the supply. We haven’t built enough homes for people who can afford them, and government appears unable to build enough subsidized low-income housing to compensate.

This makes housing the homeless in private properties a possible solution to getting people off the streets or out of living in their cars. Housing the homeless in private homes could immediately help hundreds and even thousands of people experiencing homelessness who just need a roof over their heads and some time to adjust their lives.

Of course, there would have to be a screening process, and wrap-around services such as job training and counseling. The mentally ill or drug-addicted homeless would have to be identified and provided with the services they need to help rebuild their lives, but for the “transitional homeless” this plan could work. 

An innovative program like this is underway in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nonprofits and government agencies have been recruiting private landlords to take in the homeless as tenants.

Some property owners are renting out entire units in exchange for agreement that the government or a nonprofit will cover the rent. Other property owners are being asked to offer up spare bedrooms in their homes.

Not surprisingly, it remains challenging to find homeowners willing to take a chance on renting to a homeless person. So it is imperative to make the financial incentives appealing to property owners.

For example, if homeowners were offered $3,000 a month to house someone experiencing homelessness there might be many who would be willing to offer up a room. This might be especially appealing to homeowners living on fixed incomes who themselves are having a hard time keeping up with skyrocketing gas and food prices. 

A private home housing program would not be a permanent solution to the crisis, but it could help to open space in homeless shelters so they can get the chronic homeless off the streets. It would give Gov. Gavin Newsom time to implement his proposed court program to force unhoused people with severe mental illnesses and addiction disorders into treatment.

The governor’s plan would create a “care court” requiring people with serious mental health challenges, such as schizophrenia, to accept treatment while also mandating that counties provide services. There has been some opposition from those who believe subjecting people to forced treatment is draconian, taking us back to the days of confinement and coercive treatment.

However, a compassionate society cannot allow the mentally ill to fend for themselves on public streets and set up makeshift encampments in residential neighborhoods where they openly use drugs, urinate in public and engage in other criminal activity.

Managing homelessness should become a core function of local government, and San Diego elected leaders must be creative is seeking solutions. Without a proactive, multi-pronged approach that includes private home housing, mandatory mental health treatment, and substance abuse rehabilitation, the homeless will remain living on our streets, alleys, and parks. 

Mark Powell is a former San Diego County Board of Education member and recently appeared on the Dr. Phil Show “Homelessness in America” looking at ways to address the crisis. Powell has a master’s degree in counseling.