7 Principles for Interim Housing

By Tomiquia Moss

This is the last in a three-part series to help demystify interim housing and align the public and local decision-makers behind models that can work around the region. If you’re not already familiar with the ins-and-outs of interim housing, we recommend you read the first two posts. 

These principles for interim housing are the product of several months of consideration by All Home and our expert partners. Since we champion interim housing as one of the three essential components in the 1-2-4 Framework for Homelessness Solutions, we felt it was important to be clear about some basic principles. We hope the principles will serve as a reference point for jurisdictions and stakeholders to align around, advocate for, develop, and improve interim housing sites across the region. 

In our previous two posts in this series, we define interim housing as a short-term dwelling in which to stabilize and heal after living on the streets, on the way to a permanent home. Interim housing features non-congregate sleeping arrangements (i.e. individual rooms with doors that close), and offers a basic level of supportive services, individual privacy, security, and space to keep belongings.  

Consultation with our Interim Housing Working Group

In mid-2022, All Home convened a group of stakeholders spanning local, state, and regional agencies, nonprofit homeless housing operators, and nonprofit homeless housing developers to inform these principles. The group met bi-weekly over three months to explore challenges and best practices in interim housing solutions. 

The workgroup discussions heavily influenced these principles. The group held a range of opinions on the question of limits on length of stay and whether interim housing should be strictly non-congregate, while most other principles garnered strong consensus. All Home distilled and evaluated the findings of the working group to produce this set of Interim Housing Principles that we believe should be applied to future interim housing projects across the region.

We are deeply grateful to our partners for sharing their knowledge, experience, and insights with us. 

  • Sharon Lai, Facilitator 
  • Abigail Jacson, CalTrans
  • Amy Sawyer, San Francisco Mayor’s Office
  • Irene Farnsworth, Bay Area Housing Finance Authority
  • Jacky Morales Ferrand, City of San Jose 
  • Joanne Price, LifeMoves
  • Jonathan Russell, Bay Area Community Services 
  • Kate Hartley,  Bay Area Housing Finance Authority
  • Marc Sabin, Dignity Moves
  • Megan Basinger, City of Santa Rosa 
  • Nathan Ho, San Jose Mayor’s Office
  • Ray Hodges, San Mateo County
  • Ray Bramson, Destination: Home

The following successful interim housing sites also influenced the thinking behind these principles. 

While more research is needed, it appears to us that interim housing may be more successful at transitioning residents to permanent housing than traditional congregate shelter. We believe that applying following principles to interim housing developments will further serve that important purpose.

Principle 1: Flexible length of stay with housing navigation

Flexibility in length of stay is necessary to meet the needs of a diverse resident population. Too strict a limit would likely result in a revolving door without proper exits to housing, because of the current shortage of permanent affordable housing options relative to need in the Bay Area. No limits, however, could also undermine the search for permanent housing and tie up interim units that should be turned over to new residents in need. Meanwhile, some predictability helps interim housing providers plan and manage staffing levels and transition logistics. For all these reasons and more, flexibility is key. 

A clear policy on length of stay should be determined for any site and communicated clearly to residents. At the San Jose site listed above, for example, all clients are offered a 60-day stay, and extensions are considered on a case by case basis. LifeMoves Mountain View expects a 90-120 day stay, but has no time limit.

Regardless of the details of a length of stay policy, active housing navigation is critical. Housing navigation can include an initial needs assessment and a plan for each resident, outlining steps such as: articulating individual housing needs and desires, income and cost parameters and goals, and a timeline to reach those goals. Housing navigation helps ensure and accelerate permanent housing placements, which in turn helps site operators serve more residents.

However, it is better to have an unhoused individual stay in interim housing than be forced back into an unhoused condition, potentially perpetuating their trauma and reversing any stability that had been established. 

While imposed departure times may have some benefits, they have been known to result in poorer outcomes. Research has also shown that the rate of return to unsheltered homelessness from a shelter is higher for exits to “unknown arrangements” than exits to known housing arrangements. Therefore, housing navigation is critical regardless of the length of stay.

Principle 2: Prioritize Individual Privacy

Privacy is deeply important to most people, and those who are unhoused are no exception. In fact, the lack of privacy and security for people who are unsheltered makes it even more important. The ability to close a door behind you provides an inherent sense of personal safety that is not possible for a person while living outdoors. It allows a place to breathe and relief from the stress of constant vigilance. 

Individual private interim housing units provide security and certainty, including for personal belongings. Many people understandably choose not to stay in traditional congregate shelter models that require them to pack up their personal items and leave each morning, or limit them to one small bag of possessions. 

The COVID-19 pandemic also underscored the benefit of private sleeping spaces from a public health perspective. Physical personal safety is also an issue, especially for certain populations such as transgender individuals, 22 percent of whom reported in one study experiencing sexual assault perpetrated by other residents or shelter staff. 

In communities that have piloted individual private interim housing, such as Mountain View and San Jose, the reported rate of acceptance is close to 100%. In San Francisco, DignityMoves reports that “no one has turned down a room” at their 33 Gough St. site.

All future interim housing projects should be designed with privacy as a goal, with secure private spaces being optimal for most people. Sites should be designed for 24-hour access with secure storage for a reasonable amount of personal belongings. 

Wherever possible, we recommend existing congregate shelters be converted to provide partitions or other separation between individuals to increase privacy and security, and solutions to store personal belongings be increased to the extent practicable.

Principle 3: Include Basic Supportive Services

With evidence from our working group and existing models, we define basic supportive services as a maximum service staff to client ratio of at least 1 to 15, behavioral and mental health support, and case management that includes housing navigation. These services are critical to achieving positive outcomes for residents, and for relationships with neighbors and other stakeholders. In fact, interim housing is highly unlikely to meet its goals without them. 

Depending on the population being served, additional wraparound services and amenities may be necessary. These may include educational workshops, medical clinics, meals, dining, recreation, laundry, pet services, financial assistance, legal services, employment assistance, and access to the internet. LifeMoves Mountain View includes many of these services, and that site returned 86 percent of families and 67 percent of individual residents to stable housing. 

Principle 4: Set Basic Site Management standards

Site management refers to operating procedures and rules, and is typically conducted by the site service provider or property manager. The purpose of site management is to ensure a clean and safe environment for residents, staff, and neighbors. Basic site management standards should include a reasonable level of security, daily wellness checks, garbage collection, and regular maintenance and cleaning. 

City or county regulatory requirements may dictate certain site management standards, and standards may also depend on neighborhood needs or the approach of the service operator. Regardless of local variations, defining and agreeing on an adequate, basic level of site management is necessary for the success of a site and its residents, even in low-barrier models. Site management standards may include engagement with the community and resident participation in site maintenance. Site management plans will need to balance the needs of both residents and neighbors—the more that both sets of stakeholders see positive results, the more likely the site will be successful, and the easier it will be to site similar projects in the future.

In order for interim housing to be consistent with a Housing First approach, site management standards should not create barriers to entry for potential residents (such as requiring sobriety or abstinence), but rather to ensure a dignified and safe space for residents, staff, and neighbors.  

Principle 5: Grievance procedures and conflict resolution

Interim housing program participants are generally not afforded the same legal protections governing tenant-landlord relations. Shelter programs that receive State or Federal funding are required to abide by certain regulations, but such protections are not always in place for interim housing. San Francisco has a formal grievance process that includes an appeal process and mediation for those living in shelters or denied shelter services, for which the Eviction Defense Collaborative is available to support clients. 

All interim housing projects should require operators to adopt a grievance procedure with clear and transparent policies on the recourse for individuals if services are denied or terminated. Putting a clear process in place will serve the interests of all parties, including ensuring all residents are made aware of the rules and regulations they must abide by to maintain their placement at the interim housing site. Such processes should be designed to mediate disputes, resolve conflicts, and avoid termination of client participation if at all possible. However, significant threats to the health and safety of other clients or staff must be taken seriously. 

Principle 6: Track Metrics on Desired Outcomes

All interim housing projects and government partners should evaluate how effectively these sites help clients stabilize their lives, improve wellbeing, and exit to a permanent home. Metrics should be outcome-oriented and could focus on permanent housing placement, health, income, service utilization, and retention of housing after exiting.  

Such metrics are critical to hold systems and sites accountable, ensure positive outcomes for residents, and inform ongoing advocacy for resources and service improvements. Meaningful metrics report outcomes and not outputs. For example, the number of meals served, services utilized, people who stayed at a given site, etc. do not equate to meaningful results: long-term wellness and housing stability. Best practices raised by the working group included tracking of complex services through qualitative follow-up, utilizing evidence-based practices like harm reduction, and Critical Time Intervention. Both quantitative and qualitative metrics can be helpful. 

The following metrics are worth considering. 

  • Exits to permanent housing and also terminations of client participation (with reasons cited)
  • Post-exit rate of remaining in permanent housing over time (sustained permanent exits from homelessness)
  • Change in income (impact on financial stability)
  • Change in health metrics (impact on health)
  • Cost per person for both capital and services (financial effectiveness)
  • Personal narrative and surveys (wellness, overall satisfaction)

Principle 7: Strategic and flexible eligibility methodology

In order for interim housing to play its intended role as a step on the pathway to a permanent home, it cannot become a permanent home for people with no place else to go. Especially given the insufficient amount of interim housing around the region today, clients need to move through it to permanent housing as quickly as possible so that more people can use the limited units that exist. In other words, the goal of interim housing should be to resolve temporary homelessness quickly, provide stability, and create successful exits to permanent housing.

The Coordinated Entry Systems (CES) that each county uses for shelter placements usually prioritizes the most high-needs people for limited shelter beds. Those are often chronically homeless individuals with multiple complex health and behavioral challenges. Defaulting to the standard Coordinated Entry System (CES) algorithm could result in a misalignment of acuity of need with available services at an interim housing site. For example, placing a chronically homeless individual with intensive needs into a private-room facility that is designed for people who can manage more independently is a setup for failure for the client and the site. Success in ending homelessness requires matching someone who is experiencing homelessness with the site that provides the level of service a client requires to attain housing stability.

All Home recommends the chronically homeless population continue to be prioritized for Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). Interim housing should ideally be used to keep a short or first-time experience from turning into chronic homelessness. It is designed for clients who can be successful in an environment where they live mostly independently, but in a community where there is some interaction with other clients at the site. 

Deviating from the CES algorithm would also enable jurisdictions to prioritize interim housing placements for people living unsheltered nearby. Community bonds that develop when people live for significant time in encampments can continue if a new nearby interim site can accommodate all residents of a single encampment who wish to move in. Not only is this helpful for residents, who want to stay close to the people and places they know, it can help with neighborhood support. In counties that have done this, there were also visible improvements in the immediate area that led to more public support and neighborhood acceptance of the interim housing site.

Not serving the most acute or high-needs clients first does not in and of itself create inequity. It does, however, open the door to subjectivity, which can lead to inequitable outcomes. Bypassing a centralized list system would also leave the responsibility of tracking and processing on the individual operator, if not agreed upon by the county or city agency. Careful coordination and oversight would likely be needed to ensure eligibility decisions are fair, equitable, and follow consistent criteria.

With these principles in action, interim housing can be a critical component of a well-functioning homelessness response system. All Home is working to create the conditions where we can end homelessness as we know it. To get there, we need effective interim housing operating at scale alongside necessary concurrent investments in permanent housing and homelessness prevention. We hope these principles, and our other two posts about interim housing, help us get there. Stay tuned for posts on strengthening the other two components of the 1-2-4 Framework for Homelessness Solutions, prevention and permanent housing.