March 13 2013 08:55 AM

Thousands of units, not hundreds, are needed to end homelessness in San Diego

Toni Atkins—looking to the heavens for affordable-housing money?
Photo by David Rolland

If you tried to drive east on A Street on Monday morning and got detoured northward on Fifth Avenue, you saw that something momentous was happening. Upward of 500 people, most of them in power suits, were seated in folding chairs in the middle of A Street, or standing in the back or on the sidewalks, listening to more than a dozen muckety-mucks speak into a microphone on a portable stage.

The occasion was the grand opening of Connections Housing, a complex where chronically homeless people are being housed and given the help they need to, hopefully, get their lives back on track. If you'd told us 10 years ago that this would be an event where politicians would want to be heard, and where power brokers would want to be seen, we'd have thought you were nuts. But, hey, we welcome them to the bandwagon; there's plenty of room for everyone. This isn't the end; there's lots of work yet to be done.

We constantly hear Connections described as a "shelter." It's much more than that. The top nine floors of the building at the corner of Sixth Avenue and A Street are filled with 73 apartments of various sizes and designs. These are for the most vulnerable people that an outreach team could find in the vicinity surrounding the location. The folks living in the units will stay as long as needed as they receive help for whatever maladies are keeping them on the margins of society. Ideally, if they're able, they'll be stabilized and move elsewhere so others can move in and get help.

Floors 2 and 3 are interim housing—one floor for women and one for men. Here, there are 16 single-occupancy bedrooms and 134 beds in cubicle-like clusters. These are for shorter-term stays. On Floor 1 there's a mental- and physical-health clinic run by Family Health Centers and a community room. The top level of the basement is a "depot" crammed with service providers—employment help, computer access, counseling, addiction-recovery assistance, help with government benefits and even a salon. The train-station metaphor there is a bit overdone, but whatever works. The sub-basement is food services and administrative offices.

It's all fantastic. It represents what's considered the best way to help people get off the streets: Move folks into housing first, no strings attached, and then work with them to attack their problems. The motivation is compassionate and economic: The most vulnerable people cost society far more money in emergency care and law enforcement than it takes to house and help them. Hopefully, it's the first step toward a solution for 223 people at a time.

What it isn't is a cure for homelessness in San Diego—at least not this complex alone. On one morning in January 2012, volunteers fanned out across San Diego and counted 6,379 homeless folks, 3,623 of whom were living on the streets or in vehicles, the remainder in shelters or transitional housing (results of this year's count are expected in April). Connections Housing scratches the surface of the problem.

On Sunday, U-T San Diego said in an editorial, "When the Connections Housing project was approved at City Hall, it was said that the winter shelter would no longer be needed. But nobody believes that now and, in fact, some activists are advocating that it be a year-round shelter."

While it's true that city officials were saying that the center would eliminate the need for the winter shelter, no one who understands the numbers ever really believed it, and CityBeat's been among the "activists" challenging that absurd assertion all along. San Diego needs thousands of new supportive-housing units, not hundreds. Connections Housing is intended to be a model to be duplicated in other neighborhoods.

The question is, who's going to pay for additional centers? Over time, they pay for themselves, but money's needed up front, and we've lost the primary source of housing subsidies—redevelopment financing. Housing advocates want a long-overdue increase in what's known as the "linkage fee," which real-estate developers pay to help create affordable housing to compensate for the low-wage jobs they create. The fee is supposed to increase, but it's only been cut in the past 22 years. Problem is, there are probably not enough votes on the City Council to raise it, and even if there were, the amount that the increase would generate is modest.

Opponents of the fee increase argue that new affordable housing should be included in an omnibus infrastructure-bond measure, but no one knows when such a measure will even be proposed, and success at the ballot box is hardly a slam dunk. Word is, advocates are faced with a choice: Push for a linkage-fee increase when the vacant District 4 City Council seat is filled later this year and risk political fallout, or wait and work with opponents on a bond measure next year or later.

Eyes are also focused on Toni Atkins, a genuine housing advocate from San Diego who's risen to majority leader in the state Assembly. We hope she's got the political mojo to get a statewide housing-funding bill passed sooner rather than later.

In any event, we're glad so many more folks appear to care about the plight of homeless people, because the task is far from done, and we need all the help we can get.

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