Understanding Interim Supportive Housing: A New Solution to Unsheltered Homelessness

A glimpse inside

Interim Supportive Housing (ISH) is a new tool that has recently emerged as a vital tool in addressing the unsheltered homelessness crisis in our cities. Interim Supportive Housing is different from traditional “shelters” in important ways and is also different from “permanent housing” because it is intended to be a temporary transitional program.  Why is this new approach so necessary?

The Shortcomings of Traditional Shelters

Traditionally, shelters have provided temporary places for people experiencing homelessness to stay, often consisting of bunk beds in large, open rooms—known as “congregate” shelters. These environments are often stressful, especially for those who have experienced trauma. People worry about their belongings getting stolen or getting assaulted.  Without the opportunity to have privacy and their own safe space, people are not in the mindset necessary to actually work toward solutions for complex life problems.  Shelters are effective for getting people out of the rain, but they don’t “work” in the sense of helping people rebuild their lives and find lasting solutions.  Yet even if a person was willing to accept a shelter bed, there aren’t enough of them. California has one shelter bed available for every three people who need one. 

The High Cost and Slow Progress of Permanent Supportive Housing

Over the past decade, most cities have dramatically reduced their investment in shelter, instead directing the preponderance of their homeless solutions resources to invest in what is known as “Permanent Supportive Housing” (“PSH”), subsidized housing that provides wraparound supportive services for people experiencing chronic homelessness, often for the rest of their lives.  However, the average cost to build PSH in California is over $750,000 per unit, and it can take many years to complete a project. In big cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, the cost can exceed $1 million per unit. The average wait time for a PSH unit in San Francisco is a horrifying 14 years. The lengthy approval processes and neighborhood resistance further complicate the situation, resulting in people languishing on the streets for years while they wait for housing.

A New Approach

“We’re gonna need things that again are faster to build, more cost-effective, more scalable, given the magnitude of this crisis,” San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan said. “We have to treat it like a crisis, like a true emergency.”

“We need a comprehensive and compassionate response to homelessness in California that can deliver results. Interim supportive housing is a key part of that response that gets people living outdoors and in makeshift and dangerous encampments into safe and secure conditions expeditiously,” said Michael Lane, State Policy Director for SPUR.

Interim Supportive Housing offers a middle ground between shelters and permanent housing. Unlike shelters, ISH, by definition, provides separate sleeping quarters, which meets the definition of “housing” according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”).  Interim Supportive Housing can take many different forms, including hotels or shared housing.  One popular and cost-effective model is what DignityMoves specializes in, using prefabricated cabins on temporarily available land.  Typically, these cabins provide community bathrooms and dining/kitchens to foster a sense of community—a crucial element for mental health and stability. However, in some instances, DignityMoves’ interim housing model provides private bathrooms in the rooms, such as for people who are medically fragile or for families with young children.

ISH is not intended for long-term stays but serves as a transitional stage where individuals can work with trained staff to assess their situations and determine the best path forward. Supportive services at this stage may include resume writing, skills training, housing navigation, and employment services. By providing these services early, ISH aims to prevent the development of chronic homelessness—a condition that arises when someone spends over a year homeless and suffers from debilitating conditions.

Legislative Momentum

Despite its potential, funding for interim housing is scarce. While there is limited funding for shelters and HUD funds permanent supportive housing through Section 8 vouchers, interim housing often relies on borrowed funds from the underfunded shelter system. Additionally, current metrics do not favor interim housing, as cities are hesitant to provide indefinite support without assurance of sufficient permanent housing.

Nonetheless, cities that have adopted this model are seeing promising results. In San Jose, where nearly 1,000 ISH beds are available, unsheltered homelessness declined by 10.7% in just one year—a remarkable outcome compared to the statewide increase in the rate of unsheltered homelessness of 10.3% in the same period. That impressive 21% swing is directly attributed to the city’s ISH program. Moreover, over 70% of program participants have remained stably housed, demonstrating the effectiveness of the ISH model.

The Future of Homelessness Solutions: The Interim Housing Act

The Interim Housing Act (SB 1395), authored by Senator Josh Becker (D-San Mateo) and co-sponsored by DignityMoves, San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, the Bay Area Council, and SPUR, is a promising legislative development that has recently passed the State Senate and will be going to the State Assembly in the fall.  By confirming that interim housing is a valid state program, the Interim Housing Act sends a strong signal that the state encourages cities to adopt and embrace the ISH model. The law would extend existing laws that ISH relies on and streamline processes to overcome neighborhood resistance. It sends a strong message: California is serious about ending the humanitarian crisis on our streets by embracing innovative, effective solutions.

“Interim housing is the missing rung on the ladder to permanent housing. The Interim Housing Act takes a proven local housing strategy and makes it available statewide, giving local governments a new tool to address the homelessness and housing crises,” said Senator Becker. “It will lead to more housing options and significantly increase the inventory, which will put a roof over the heads of our unhoused neighbors faster so that they can get back on their feet and on track towards permanent housing.”

The State Legislature’s recent approval of the Interim Housing Act by the Senate is a significant step forward. As the bill moves to the Assembly this fall, we remain hopeful that California will continue to lead the way in addressing unsheltered homelessness with compassion and innovation.

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