VISTA — A North County nonprofit that serves homeless families says it will close its emergency shelter Monday rather than comply with federal funding regulations that forbid it from drug testing residents.
Solutions for Change President and CEO Chris Megison said the agency can’t afford to keep operating the 5,000-square-foot temporary emergency shelter on East Vista Way, after forgoing about $90,000 in federal money that helped fund the site.
He said Solutions has stopped accepting new clients at the site and is working to find alternative housing for the 14 families now living there.
“There are 20 kids in that shelter right now,” Megison said. “We are not going to turn them out back into homelessness.”
The Vista-based agency manages several residential housing centers throughout North County for families taking part in its so-called Solutions University, a 1,000-day program that seeks to permanently end homelessness by teaching parents to be self-reliant. The program also insists on sobriety.
The closure would only affect the temporary shelter, which serves as an intake to the Solutions University program. There are more than 200 families on the waiting list, Megison said.
This is the second time this year the agency has decided against taking federal money linked to a policy called Housing First, which focuses on getting people into homes without strings attached — in other words, they don’t have to be sober.
The idea behind the policy is that it’s cheaper and more effective to first get people off the streets and then address root problems such as drug use, rather than make cleaning up a prerequisite for obtaining housing.
The policy has been embraced by many communities, including San Diego, as the best hope for making a dent in homelessness.
“When you look at the practices and lessons learned, you understand why this change is necessary,” San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria told the Union-Tribune in February. “You understand it better when you see communities across the country declaring an end to homelessness because it is so effective.”
Megison and his board members say the Housing First approach might work for single adults, but not for homeless families.
“Its incongruent,” Solutions board chairman David Crean said. “The thought of putting families with children next to an addict? That’s not OK.”
Crean said the board “cannot accept that money. It completely goes against the mission of Solutions for Change.”
Megison estimates Solutions will lose up to $600,000 in federal funding over the next two years because of its stance on Housing First.
“The big problem is our entire federally funded portfolio is in jeopardy — incrementally, but at a rapid clip,” Megison said. “That is the real threat.”
Solutions’ annual budget dropped from $3.7 million last year to about $3.1 million this year, and the group went through a round of layoffs several months ago, Megison said.
The agency hopes to be entirely funded by private sources by 2018. Last year, 12 percent of the organization’s funding came from the government, a number now down to 9 percent.
Some of the future funding will come from the organization itself, including its Solutions Farms, which sells fresh produce to local school districts. When the entire farm is up and running — it recently tripled in size — it could bring in $250,000 a year, Megison said.
Also, Solutions has stepped into the development arena, building three small low-income apartment projects that will house Solutions University participants and possibly other qualified renters. Megison expects the apartments will generate rental income.
The first, a 33-unit complex in Escondido, is slated to open in 2017. A 32-unit site in Oceanside should come online by early 2018, followed later in the year by a 16-unit site in Carlsbad.
“We are not victims,” Megison said, about the group’s move to wean itself off federal funding. “We saw this coming and made design changes. But now it is happening so fast, we are getting squeezed hard.”