The Role of Interim Housing as a Homelessness Response

Ken Kirkey, Chief Partnership Officer, All Home

Addressing homelessness in the Bay Area requires new and expanded solutions, and advancing multiple strategies simultaneously at scale. Interim housing is one such solution that is not widely understood, partly because it goes by many names and has seen major changes since the pandemic. When it is a step on a clear pathway from homelessness to a permanent home, Interim Housing is a critical piece of the puzzle for ending homelessness in the Bay Area. This blog post is the first in a series to help demystify interim housing and align the public and local decision-makers behind models that can work around the region.

It’s important to read our take on interim housing in the context of the Regional Impact Council’s (RIC) and All Home’s deep commitment to a “yes, and” approach. This is exemplified by the 1-2-4 Framework for Homelessness Solutions that is a core part of our Regional Action Plan (RAP) to reduce unsheltered homelessness by 75% by 2024. If you’re not familiar with our work you should read this short update on the RAP and 1-2-4 Framework. The main takeaway is that to end the suffering on our streets and reach functional zero homelessness, we must simultaneously invest in interim housing, permanent housing, and homelessness prevention solutions. Each of these three strategies are critical, and none of them will get us to our goal without the others. 

We are focusing on interim housing for this series not because it is more important than permanent housing or homelessness prevention, but because it is the least understood. We’ll produce similar deep-dives on the other elements of the 1-2-4 Framework in the future.

Homeless Shelters in the Bay Area Prior to COVID-19

Homeless shelters have long been part of the homelessness response system across the U.S., but with some very important differences in different parts of the country. Traditionally, most homeless shelters have provided “congregate” accommodations—multi-client facilities with large sleeping rooms, cots for sleeping, and shared facilities without private personal space. 

There are of course a wide array of shelter facilities, some of which are able to provide more privacy and services. Many shelters are designed as places to sleep rather than places to live, because they serve other uses during the day such as a church, or because they lack the staffing or resources to provide 24/7 support. These may also predate the high levels of unsheltered homelessness that we see in the Bay Area today.

Criticism of congregate shelters is often focused on what they do not offer clients. Such shortcomings may include limited health or counseling services; lack of support related to finding a job or access to social services; no privacy; no accommodation for a partner if a client is in a relationship, or for a pet; and, storage space for personal belongings is typically not available. It is commonplace for shelters to require that users go elsewhere during the day without the security of knowing they can return to the facility the same evening.

Traditional shelters house or “shelter” thousands of individuals and families in most big American cities. The Bay Area, similarly to other regions in California, has long provided fewer shelter options than most other metropolitan regions. For example, despite having similar rates of homelessness per capita, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic San Francisco’s inventory of homeless shelters could only meet a little more than 36 percent of need, whereas New York City and Washington D.C. had the capacity to provide shelter to more than 90 percent of unhoused people in those cities.  It’s notable that just prior to the pandemic, San Francisco had more shelter capacity than other Bay Area cities and counties.

The role of weather is also worth mentioning. In parts of the country where winter brings frequent sub-freezing temperatures, the risk of freezing to death or hypothermia has been cited in court orders and legislation as a primary basis for providing shelter to the scale of the unhoused population (e.g., NY, DC, Boston). This has not been the case in California.

There is a persistent myth in our region that unhoused individuals actually “prefer to be outside” when in fact, the Bay Area and its communities have not provided even basic congregate shelter space at a scale commensurate with the need—most of our unhoused neighbors have had literally no place to go other than public space or be rotated in and out of our emergency and enforcement systems. Virtually all humans, and those experiencing homelessness are no exception, want a safe and secure place to call home. 

But it’s also true that for some people who are unhoused, moving out of one’s own tent in an encampment community and into traditional congregate shelter does not meet the need of “a safe and secure place to call home.” It usually involves giving up one’s possessions, being separated from their partner or a beloved pet, not to mention a measure of independence and freedom of movement. Traditional shelter has real limitations and can be legitimately off-putting, which is one reason why we’re seeing the rise of interim housing — a different model for transitional housing that aims to provide more privacy, security, and dignity for residents.

COVID Changed the Shelter Landscape

The COVID-19 pandemic upended various aspects of life for many people, with profound impacts on how and where people work, live, travel and communicate.  One major impact of the pandemic on the Bay Area’s unhoused population was that the region’s already limited shelter capacity was temporarily unavailable due to the risk of the virus’s spread in congregate living facilities.  

Through a variety of programs and efforts, the State of California and public and private homelessness service providers worked quickly to replace shelter space with safer options. This led to a number of innovations including transforming existing buildings, often hotels or motels, into interim and then permanent housing for previously unhoused individuals. The pandemic also made the plight of the region’s highly vulnerable unhoused population even more visible and urgent than before.

A recognition of the shortcomings of traditional congregate shelter, the scale of suffering on our streets, and the need to have a “both-and” approach led the Regional Impact Council to recognize a new approach to Interim housing for the Bay Area—one that can provide a temporary place to heal and stabilize for our unhoused neighbors—on a path to a place they can truly call home.

What is Interim Housing?

There is not yet a clear consensus on what interim housing is or what to call it, as an emerging type of housing that is different from both traditional homeless shelters and permanent supportive housing. We are using the term interim housing to describe housing being developed across the Bay Area to provide a short-term home in which to stabilize and heal after living on the streets, on the way to a permanent home.  

Interim housing should not be the end goal or the only solution for people who are unhoused. But in a region with more than 35,000 unhoused individuals, where deeply affordable housing is scarce and building more is costly and slow, the streets should not be the waiting room for a permanent home. Furthermore, providing an interim place for people to stabilize can lead them back to being housed. This could be through reunification with family or even back to conventional housing, potentially reducing the overall number of permanent supportive housing units (that’s permanent, deeply affordable housing that includes supportive services and case management) the Bay Area needs to build.

Interim housing can provide our neighbors with some dignity through a private room in a secure, clean, and attractive environment with direct access to services (housing navigation support, employment services, mental and behavioral health counseling, etc).  Although there are many variations of how it can appear, interim housing communities generally share the following characteristics:

Short-term, transitional housing

Interim housing communities are intended as a stepping stone for residents to get on their feet after the trauma that comes from being unhoused, including feeling vulnerable and unsafe and being unable to plan for the future, since the present is all about survival.  While the length of stay varies and flexibility is important, many communities envision a tenancy that is between three months to a year. The goal is to proactively prepare and support residents to move into permanent housing, so stays should not last indefinitely but it is also counterproductive to eject residents back into homelessness after a certain amount of time.

Not traditional congregate shelter

While congregate shelters play an important role and many people accept them as preferable to being on the streets, others want a different model for some of the reasons listed above (accommodating partners, pets, possessions, etc). Interim housing communities typically have either shared, private/non-communal bathrooms or private in-unit bathrooms. They can often accommodate couples and pets, which traditional shelters rarely do, and may also provide some storage space. 

Offers Supportive Services

Most interim housing communities use established nonprofit service organizations and partner with county resources to provide the wrap-around support needed to assist residents with moving forward from homelessness and finding a permanent home: connecting them with mental and behavioral healthcare, employment and housing specialists, community resources, case management, etc.

Interim Supportive Housing – Bay Area Examples

Learn more about the following examples of interim housing from around the region in the All Home Solutions Library at the links below.

Delta Landing

  • Location: City of Pittsburg, County Contra Costa County
  • Partners:  Bay Area Community Services (BACS), Contra Costa Health
  • Units: 172

One of the first sites completed with Homekey funds, Delta Landing is a state-of-the-art 172-unit interim housing facility with basic healthcare, housing navigation, and case management provided on-site to help residents recover from homelessness and find permanent housing.

Bayview Vehicle Triage Center (VTC) 

aerial view of RVs parked at Bayview Vehicle Triage Center
  • Location: San Francisco 
  • Partners: CA State Parks. City and County of SF, Urban Alchemy, Bayview Hunters Point Foundation
  • Vehicles Accomodated: 53 (currently), 135 spaces housing up to 203 people (next phase)

This safe parking facility provides 24/7 staffing and security, bathrooms, mobile shower facilities, potable water, and mobile blackwater pumping services, as well as health care, housing, employment, or other services.

Bridge Housing Communities

  • Location: San José, Santa Clara County
  • Partners: City of San José, HomeFirst Services

The City of San José operates five interim housing communities, which are sometimes called Bridge Housing Communities (BHCs) and three Emergency Interim Housing Communities. Program participants have access to numerous resources to help them succeed in their efforts to find permanent housing and remain stably housed.

LifeMoves Mountain View

Resident room with desk, chair and twin size bed
  • Location: Mountain View, Santa Clara County
  • Partners: LifeMoves, Santa Clara County, City of Mountain View
  • Units: 88 individual units, 12 units for families

LifeMoves operates a Project Homekey interim housing site for individuals and families in Mountain View. The site provides private rooms with doors that lock and shared common spaces for laundry, dining, bathroom and recreation.

Caritas Village

  • Location:  Santa Rosa, Sonoma County
  • Partners:  Burbank Housing, Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa
  • Units: 128

Caritas Village will consist of two unique yet complementary facilities, Caritas Center and Caritas Homes. Caritas Center’s 46,000 square feet will include a family shelter, childcare center, drop-in center, and recuperation shelter, as well as a new health clinic. Half of Caritas Homes 128 units will be permanent supportive housing for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

Stay tuned for more blog posts in this series about interim housing. Next we’ll dig into the issues around interim housing and why it is consistent with a Housing First approach, then we’ll share some principles for interim housing that we’re developing with our partners in this space.