Oct. 31 2012 12:00 AM

Operators concerned about weather, security, future

David Ross watches while contents of the Check-In Center are loaded into a U-Haul
Photo by Kelly Davis
12/31/12 update: Noor Kasmi, president of Girls Think Tank, told me in an email that St. Vincent de Paul will allow the Check-In Center to stay at the 16th and Commercial parking lot beyond the original Jan. 1 deadline. SVdP's also promised to help look for a new location.  

I got a call last night from David Ross, an advocate for the homeless who's known on the street as "The Waterman" because he hands out bottles of water. Ross said that this morning, volunteers would be moving bins out of the Check-In Center-a building on city-owned land where homeless people can store their stuff-and over to a parking lot at 16th and Commercial streets. ---

The Check-In Center opened in January 2011, the result of a legal settlement stemming from a Sept. 22, 2009, incident in which employees with the city's Environmental Services Department threw away homeless people's possessions without providing sufficient notice or following city law. It was modeled after a similar program in Downtown L.A.; unlike L.A.'s, though, which is paid for by local business owners, San Diego's Check-In Center doesn't have a consistent funding source. A few City Council members have provided grants from their discretionary budgets, but Girls Think Tank (GTT), a small nonprofit that took over operation of the Check-In Center earlier this year, is going to have to fundraise to keep it going. In September, GTT got notice that they have to vacate the Check-In Center's current location at the end of this month so the building could be demolished to make way for an affordable-housing project.

The almost-empty Check-In Center; the space used to be filled with neatly lined-up bins

Jacky Vel, director of operations for the Check-In Center, said that over the last six month, GTT's looked at more than 15 possible sites. Vel said she "completely laid out plans" for three promising sites, but all three fell through-GTT was either outbid, or the owner of the site was asking too much.  

"We are prepared to pay for rent, but not market rate," Vel said. 

GTT got permission from St. Vincent de Paul to use a gated parking lot at 16th and Commercial until Jan. 1, 2013. But that means moving more than 350 storage bins (actually, large trash cans) all the way from Ninth Avenue and Broadway. Volunteers, mostly homeless men who use the Check-In Center, were loading the bins into a U-Haul truck 26 at a time when I stopped by today. 

Jan Swanson was one of the volunteers. He called the Check-In Center "a blessing." He used to stash his possessions in the bushes, hoping they would be there when he returned. 

"I have a place to store my stuff during the day to be able to take care of doctor's appointments, to look for work, and not have to worry about getting my stuff stolen," he said. 

Another volunteer, J.R., a vet, said he's been able to get other vets to make use of the Check-In Center. He said it's been a first step to helping them get access to services, like drug and alcohol treatment, and finding employment. 

"I've seen some lives change around here," he said. 
The Check-In Center's temporary home at 16th and Commercial

The Check-In Center's temporary home is in an area that many homeless folks refer to as "the bottoms," since it's where you'll find a more hard-core population, more drug activity and crime. Vel said GTT can't afford 24-hour security, though guards at St. Vincent de Paul said they'd keep an eye on the lot. To protect from dampness and rain, Vel said, they're encouraging people to put their stuff in plastic bags and tie down the tops of the bins. Ross is worried that handicapped people who might not have been able to get their stuff out before the move-or didn't know about the move-won't be able to make it all the way to 16th Street.

"We could not wait for people to come get their stuff out," he said. "How do you get ahold of these people?"

Over at the lot, Danny McCray, the Check-In Center's security guard, who'll be working during the day at the lot, said he plans to be prepared for inclement weather. 

"I'm going to get a bunch of rain stuff, but I'm going to make sure they have [access to] their bins," he said.

Though, one thing he won't be able to do is offer folks use of the small iron he kept behind the Check-In Center's desk in case someone needed to touch up a shirt or slacks before going to a job interview. 


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