With its Italian-style architecture and striking views of skyscrapers and the glittering bay, it's no surprise that passersby drop in to ask how much the condos cost at the Villa Mandel building in downtown San Diego. But nothing is for sale, and anyone who asks the question almost certainly makes too much to live here.
At just $399 a month, the Villa Mandel's 90 rooms are only rented to the poor and the homeless, including many who take advantage of counseling, medical, and religious services at a Catholic-run complex next door.
"It's wonderful," says a beaming Amanda Lopez, a woman in her 50s who ran a window-cleaning business before an injury forced her to retire and move to a single-room occupancy hotel where she felt unsafe. Now she has her own furnished apartment, complete with private bathroom, full kitchen, and windows that look out on the landmark San Diego-Coronado Bridge. And a new roommate just moved in: a shy black cat, approved by the management, who hides under the covers of her bed.
Just five or 10 years ago, a place like Villa Mandel wouldn't have existed in San Diego or in most other American cities. The homeless were often left to fend for themselves once they left shelters and rehabilitation programs, a difficult proposition for those with mental or physical disabilities or both.
"You might have heard about how to get them fed or into substance abuse treatment," says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, "but you wouldn't have heard about how to get them into an apartment."
But over the past few years, cities from coast to coast have begun embracing a new strategy: permanent housing for the homeless with supportive services built in. The Bush administration, which is calling for an end to chronic homelessness - in conjunction with dozens of cities - is supporting the efforts with nearly $600 million in grants for permanent housing.
Villa Mandel cost $11.8 million to build, with the money coming largely from the city and the federal government.
Just as housing for millionaires comes with concierges, doormen, and parking attendants, apartments for transients should be equipped with case workers and doctors, says Father Joe Carroll, director of San Diego's St. Vincent de Paul Village. The three-square-block complex includes Villa Mandel and a variety of services for the homeless.
With an annual budget of $30 million, St. Vincent de Paul Village has 12 psychiatrists along with doctors, dentists, case workers, and drug counselors. Staff members make sure Villa Mandel residents get to their appointments. "We walk them down to the clinic, we walk them to the counselors," Father Carroll says. "What we offer here is decent housing and a decent life."
The federal government covers about 25 percent of the complex's expenses; the rest is from private and corporate donations.
Elsewhere, the city of Columbus, Ohio, and the surrounding county are now home to 600 units of supportive housing for the homeless, with 100 more scheduled to become available in 2006. Similar programs have been launched in San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles, according to homeless advocates.
Does the permanent supportive housing approach work? Will it keep the homeless off the streets for good? It's too early to tell at San Diego's Villa Mandel, which opened its doors in 2003 and is named in memory of a local advocate for the homeless. But residents say they're thrilled to have homes that are clean, private, and safe.
"I'm a happy camper," says Victor Johnson, a former shoe salesman who serves as acting tenant president and hopes to start a regular game night. "I feel comfortable and safe here. The services are the icing, and the apartment is the cake."
Mr. Johnson, who's disabled by a medical condition, says he can't afford to live in San Diego, and he doesn't want to become a burden to his parents. Villa Mandel came to the rescue, providing him a one-bedroom apartment that allows him plenty of room to maneuver his wheelchair.
All but five of the complex's 90 rooms are studio apartments not much larger than a single-person college dorm room. But the price is right, especially in a city where the median house price is $528,000, and it's nearly impossible to rent a one-bedroom apartment for less than $800 a month.
Amenities include a security staff and a six-story mural-like glass mosaic on one side of the building, touted as the largest of its kind in the world. Catholic church services are held next door, but residents aren't required to take part in any religious activities.
Many obstacles confront building permanent housing for the homeless. Across the country, homeless advocates must cope with the "not in my backyard" sentiment.
"There's an effort to force them out to more remote locations, which are much worse for the people they're trying to help," says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. "They're far removed from jobs and services that people need."
Barbara Poppe, executive director of the Community Shelter Board in Columbus, acknowledges that bringing neighbors on board is a struggle. "It has been very hard to have the general public understand that permanent, supportive housing is not an emergency shelter," she says. "We go through a process of working with neighbors to have them understand what the project is going to be."
Money is another issue, since the rent is often subsidized. In Columbus, officials turned to federal and state grants in addition to private donations, Ms. Poppe says.
Then there's the matter of proper tenant behavior. Many homeless suffer from both mental illness and drug addiction, Poppe says, but they still must follow rules or be kicked out.
Still, simply being able to take a shower and wear clean clothes can make a huge difference in how people behave, she says. "Their whole stature changes. They often are unrecognizable from their prior life."
Mary Connor may fit in that category. A few years ago, she called her car home after mental problems forced her to leave her job as a computer engineer. She's still considered disabled, but now has her own room at Villa Mandel. She spends her days with friends such as Ms. Lopez and Mr. Johnson.
On a recent afternoon, Ms. Connor talked with Johnson about preparing a building Christmas party and getting together with other residents for a holiday trip to a Hometown Buffet restaurant.
She also reflected on having a home of her own in one of America's most expensive cities.
"Without this," she says, "I don't know where I'd be living."
For years, cities have been giving one-way bus tickets to the homeless. The idea of "Greyhound therapy," as it's sarcastically known, is to turn a homeless person into someone else's problem.
But now, one major American city is working to transform this long-derided approach into a legitimate strategy.
To reduce the homeless population, social workers in San Francisco have been sending homeless people to a very familiar location - home.
Since the "Homeward Bound" program began in February 2005, the city has spent about $125,000 to put nearly 900 homeless people on buses.
The catch: "We'll only send them to a place where they have relatives, close friends, or social workers who commit to us that they'll take care of the person," says Trent Rhorer, who oversees San Francisco's social services programs.
"It's much different than saying, 'We'll ship you up to Seattle because you want to go there, even if you don't have any resources up there either,' " he says.
Does it work? At least one homeless advocate is skeptical.
"It's a step nicer than putting someone on a bus and saying, 'Get out of here,' " says Juan Prada, executive director of the San Francisco-based Coalition on Homelessness. "But we don't know what follow-up is done, and it doesn't resolve anything" for homeless people who don't want to leave the city they call home.
Mr. Rhorer says there is follow-up, and fewer than a dozen people have returned to San Francisco after availing themselves of the program.
"The overwhelming number of people are still with their relatives or friends," he says, "and a few of them have jobs."