A man beds down for the night along 11th Avenue. Photo by Kelly Davis.
Last week, a City Council committee delayed a vote on a proposed Downtown “one-stop” homeless-services center and supportive-housing complex, ostensibly to give the project's future neighbors a chance to provide feedback.
But the 90-day delay has another purpose. City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, whose district includes Downtown, says that while he supports the project in theory, his approval of it is tied to rescinding a 2007 court settlement that prohibits police from ticketing people for sleeping in public.
“It's not too much to expect that if we're going to provide beds and provide wrap-around services… if we're going to provide people a place to go, it's not acceptable to sleep on the sidewalk,” he said.
The settlement, between the city of San Diego and attorneys for nine homeless people, says that San Diego police officers “will not ordinarily” ticket people for sleeping in public between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. if there aren't available shelter beds. Three years ago, there were enough beds for only about half of the city's homeless population. Today, the bed count is roughly the same. Though there are some additional shelter options for special populations like vets and domestic-abuse victims, for single adult males, who make up roughly 80 percent of the street population, “generally there aren't many opportunities for immediate shelter,” said Amy Benjamin, the city's housing and homeless services coordinator.
Though a similar settlement in Los Angeles specified the number, type and location of beds that would need to be in place before police could start handing out tickets, San Diego's contains no such provisions. Ultimately, it would be up to a judge to determine whether the goal of the lawsuit had been met—in other words, are there “a substantially sufficient number of beds available for people who need them,” said Scott Dreher, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys.
The homeless-services-center proposal, from L.A.-based PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) and destined for what's now the World Trade Center on Sixth Avenue, includes 225 beds—75 units of permanent supportive housing (housing with attached services) and 150 beds that would be available for short-term stays. A proposal by Father Joe's Villages, ultimately deemed financially infeasible by a selection committee, included 500 beds—350 emergency shelter beds, 70 units of supportive housing and 80 interim beds. Both proposals listed as a source of funding federal grant money that normally goes to the city's winter shelter program, which provides 220 beds for single adults and 150 beds for homeless vets between December and March.
Mathew Packard, vice president of development for Father Joe's Villages, disagreed that his organization's proposal didn't pencil out and said that revising the proposal to include fewer beds wasn't an option.
“We felt strongly and still do that the facility ultimately being built… must include a minimum of 350 beds of entry-level or emergency housing so as not to result in a net loss of veteran and general adult beds in the community. On that point, any compromise or revision in our proposal would not be in the best interest of the community or those we serve.”
The loss in beds not only troubles advocates for the homeless, but it also makes it difficult to argue that once the new facility is built, the ticket ban can be lifted.
“If the proposal's approval is tied to lifting the ban, it seems to me it will have to be revised to provide more emergency shelter beds,” said Rosemary Johnston, program director for the Interfaith Shelter Network. Johnston is among several social-services providers who've come out in opposition to the PATH project because of the loss of beds.
Bob McElroy, whose Alpha Project operates the single-adult winter shelter, called the addition of 225 beds “a drop in the bucket.”
“There's 370 beds during the winter, and look at Downtown—it still looks like Bangladesh,” he said.
Cissy Fisher, vice president of special housing initiatives for the San Diego Housing Commission, said that while the World Trade Center building could probably hold more beds, “I believe that the PATH team wants to take a conservative approach and so is proposing what is in their comfort zone for operating and economic reasons.”
Dreher said that he and Tim Cohelen, his co-counsel in the ticket case, have met several times with Faulconer and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith to talk about the ticket settlement. As CityBeat reported in July, a product of those meetings had been an idea to lift the ban in areas where shelter is available.
“They want all of Downtown exempt in exchange for this [PATH] proposal, and I don't see where the numbers match up,” Dreher said. “If you have 800 homeless Downtown and you add 225 beds, none of which are in addition to what we presently have, how can the court say that there is a bed available for substantially all the people who lack [one]?”
Faulconer said Downtown has done its part in providing homelessness services.
“I'm willing to help provide those beds in Downtown,” he said. “I've yet to hear other districts say that they've wanted to do that.”
He acknowledged, though, that Downtown has both the largest concentration of homeless people and that the proposed facility is possible only because the Centre City Development Corp., which oversees Downtown redevelopment, put up $10 million for the project.
“I think the model will call for smaller facilities that won't take as much capital as the one Downtown,” he said.
Todd Gloria, who chairs the City Council's Land Use and Housing committee, said that while he agrees the PATH project can be a model, future projects and the ability to ticket people shouldn't go hand-in-hand.
“I see how they're linked, but I don't choose to link them,” he said. “Doing the [PATH] project will probably get us closer to a point where the plaintiffs will feel comfortable in going back to what we had prior to their lawsuit, but that can't be the driver for individual projects and conversations.”
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