Jan. 6 2016 12:57 AM

San Diego embraces housing-first for homeless, drops ball on winter shelter

Street tents in East Village
Photo by Ron Donoho

    A Father Joe’s Villages web page warns about the dangers of inclement weather. It reads: “Imagine if the roof over your head disappeared and the blanket on your bed was soaking wet. For San Diego’s homeless neighbors, shelter and warmth are far from guaranteed. Cold, wet weather means more than just a night of discomfort. It also means days of wet blankets and clothes and the inability to warm up, even during the day. For many it can be life threatening.”

    Last year, for a variety of reasons, at least 91 people died homeless on the streets of San Diego, according to numbers used by the San Diego Rescue Mission.

    One way to combat people dying in the streets is to make use of emergency weather shelters. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has dramatically seized on this concept. In a controversial move, he is calling for all homeless individuals in that state to be housed in shelters when the temperature dips below 32 degrees—even against their will in some cases.

    “Our state…should not leave anyone outside in freezing temperatures. That’s called basic humanity,” Cuomo told news channel NY1.

    But as San Diego braces for what is being billed as an unusually wet El Nino winter our city now actually has fewer inclement weather shelter spots available for homeless individuals than it did during the winter of 2014-15.

    This subject is being tiptoed around politically. But the discussion is even more imperative now that the weather thresholds for opening emergency winter shelter have been reached.

    Father Joe’s Villages opens its inclement weather shelter when the temperature dips below 50 degrees and there is at least a 40 percent chance of rain. The inclement weather shelter consists of the dining halls at Paul Mirabile Center and a roofed area inside the Neil Good Day Center in East Village. Few seem to know this has been an ongoing, standard practice but Deacon Jim Vargas of Father Joe’s Villages confirmed that, “We’ve always done this in the past.” Except that the weather thresholds in past years have not been as clearly defined.

    There is space in the dining halls and the day center for roughly 250 cots and floor mats. Anyone seeking emergency shelter can sign in at Father Joe’s after it’s announced (usually by 2 p.m.) that the shelter is opening. After 6 p.m. on these days—Tuesday was the second night the shelter was opened this winter—the tables in the dining hall are cleared and replaced with cots and mats. The bedding must be cleared out by 5 a.m. the next morning so the dining tables can be put back for a 6 a.m. breakfast service.

    Last November, Mayor Kevin Faulconer touted the city’s contribution to ending homelessness in a press release that announced: “…Improved Results with Permanent 350-Bed Facility, Plans to Shelter 250 Homeless San Diegans During Extreme Cold Weather.”

    It would appear the plan to “Shelter 250 Homeless San Diegans” is an unfunded, re-wrapped package of Father Joe’s longstanding practice of opening its dining halls.

    It costs more than $5,000 per night (or $21 per person) to open the inclement weather shelter for 250 people, said Vargas. He said Father Joe’s Villages was negotiating with the city on funding the inclement weather shelter program.

    “Father Joe’s Villages is paying for the inclement weather nights and is currently raising money to pay for those nights,” mayoral spokesperson Craig Gustafson confirmed in an email. “You should consider asking your readers to make a donation.”


    Let’s look closely at the city’s contribution to putting roofs over the heads of local homeless individuals. Is City Hall getting onboard the national “housing-first” movement to transition people into stable, long-term housing situations? Yes. San Diego does have the fourth largest homeless population in the country and trails other cities in eradicating veteran homelessness. Downtown homelessness spiked 26 percent last year. But San Diego’s shifting of funding from two annual temporary winter tents to spending nearly $2 million to provide year-round interim housing at the Paul Mirabile Center is in line with best practices around the country.

    However, right now as the 2015-16 winter of El Niño seems to be gearing up there are fewer total inclement weather shelter beds available in the downtown pipeline on any cold and wet night.

    In the winter of 2014-15 there were 350 beds available in the Paul Mirabile Center, which at the time was designated as transitional housing and was federally funded. Last winter there was the inclement weather shelter in the dining halls and the Neil Good Day Center (250 cots and mats) and the 350 beds in the temporary tents erected in Midway and Barrio Logan.

    This winter there are those same 350 beds in the Paul Mirabile Center, now designated as interim housing and funded by the city. For winter shelter this season there are the 250 inclement weather spots in the dining halls and the day center. But there are no winter tents. Long a political hot-button issue, last year the City Council voted to discontinue them.

    That means there are 350 fewer beds available during this winter than last, according to Amy Gonyeau, COO of Alpha Project, which oversaw the temporary tents last year. “It’s unfortunate,” she says.

    I’ve been debating the math on this with the mayor’s office for several weeks. Gustafson points to the increase in the year-round number of bed nights now being funded by the city at Paul Mirabile compared to the number of bed nights the city funded that were available in the temporary tents—an annual increase of 73,850 bed nights.

    True. And it can also be said that, with the new set-up at Paul Mirabile, homeless people are more effectively and efficiently being placed in rapid rehousing situations.

    But revisit the reason why Father Joe’s Villages opens inclement weather shelter when it gets cold and rainy. “For many, it can be life-threatening.” Yes, there are now more bed nights being provided year-round but fewer actual beds available during a critical, cold-and-wet season for a vulnerable portion of the city’s population.

    Veterans Village of San Diego president and CEO Phil Landis definitely counts fewer winter shelter beds this year. “If you do the math that’s the conclusion you come to,” he says. “Couldn’t the city do the year-round shelter and the tents? I think we have a social responsibility to do that which we can. And I think we can do more.”


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