Jan. 18 2012 11:52 AM

Mayor says new housing complex will obviate the need for winter shelter, and that's just not true

The winter shelter
Photo by Kelly Davis
There was so much buzz surrounding the high-energy opening of Mayor Jerry Sanders' State of the City speech last week—Eminem's “Lose Yourself” accompanying a video of legacy land-use projects and AC/DC's “Hells Bells” as entrance music—that it threatened to drown out some of the silly things Sanders said in his annual talk.

“This year,” he said a few minutes in, “we look forward to opening the Connections Housing Center, a permanent shelter Downtown where the homeless can find supportive housing and treatment as they battle drug addiction and mental-health issues. Our comprehensive approach to homelessness is a model for other cities grappling with this problem and should make 2012 the first year in memory when San Diego won't need to open a winter homeless shelter, because beds and services will already be waiting.”

We appreciate that homelessness made the cut as a topic to be included in the speech. And it's true that San Diego has stepped up its efforts to get people into supportive housing—read Kelly Davis' comprehensive overview of those efforts, publish in our Nov. 23, 2011, issue. However, Sanders suggests that the problem has been solved, and that's just flat-out wrong.

The Connections Housing Center is not an emergency, cold-weather shelter. The facility will provide a total of 223 beds—73 in supportive-housing units and 150 transitional beds. The housing units are very long-term, and the transitional beds are longer-term than emergency shelter. The current winter shelter serves 220 people each night and up to 1,000 distinct individuals during the course of a winter. The housing center will focus on the people in the worst danger of dying on the street and who spend their nights in relatively close proximity to the facility, located at Sixth Avenue and A Street. Out in the cold—literally—will be people who need shelter for a few nights or a couple of weeks, in addition to more chronically homeless people who can't get into the housing center because it's full.

Even if the housing center were simply replacing the winter shelter with the same sort of service and the same number of beds, Sanders' statement would still be false. In September 2010, the Downtown San Diego Partnership (a nonprofit, businessoriented organization) and the Centre City Development Corp. (which has administered redevelopment Downtown on the city's behalf ) conducted early-morning surveys of homeless folks in the urban core and identified 1,040 of them. So, to say that a 223-bed housing facility obviates the need for a winter shelter doesn't come close to passing the smell test. Even the people from Connections Housing know that. From their FAQ sheet: “Connections Housing will not eliminate the need for other homeless services in San Diego. Most importantly, we must continue to increase the stock of permanent supportive housing units (apartments linked to services), as that is the best and most permanent solution for chronic homelessness. In addition, there will always be a need for services for people who are episodically homeless due to a job loss, illness, or other unanticipated setback.”

Sanders is putting the best spin possible on the fact that because of the Connections Housing Center, there will be no more emergency winter shelter. Funding for the shelter—nearly $375,000 this year—will be transferred to the budget for the housing center. And, the end of the winter shelter, which is among the biggest annual headaches for city officials, was used as a selling point when the merits of the housing center were being debated and Downtown NIMBYs were on the attack: Help us get a Downtown supportive-housing complex and you never have to deal with a winter shelter again.

Due to the loss of funding and the assurances that have been delivered, we don't expect to make much headway in our call for a continued winter shelter. But make no mistake: Despite Sanders' rosy take on homelessness in San Diego, there will be hundreds of people shivering in the cold come December with no place to go.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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