On Sept. 16, Jay Goldstone, chief operating officer for Mayor Jerry Sanders, handed San Diego's eight City Council members an assignment: If, as a majority of council members argued at a Sept. 14 meeting, homelessness is a citywide problem that requires a citywide solution, then where in each council district should / could a temporary homeless shelter be located. Not offering shelter isn't an option: Under the terms of a 1997 court ruling, the city of San Diego must, annually, come up with a list of “adequate” sites for a winter homeless shelter. But as Downtown has evolved, finding a suitable space has become increasingly difficult, and opposition among new residents and businesses has become fiercer.
Seven of the eight council members sent Goldstone a response (City Council President Ben Hueso was the only one to not send a memo as of CityBeat's press time), but no one offered up sites in their district. Granted, they had a mere five days to come up with an answer. Responses ranged from glib—District 5 Councilmember Carl DeMaio suggested locating the shelter in the civic center complex to “serve as a daily reminder” that the city needs a permanent shelter—to District 1 Councilmember Sherri Lightener's six-point list of ways the city could be more proactive on sheltering the homeless. Lightener urged the mayor's office to make “the best of another year of poor planning” and go with one of two possible Downtown sites but have each council district “provide some support” for additional security at the shelter and “vouchers for hotels in each council district” for people who need a temporary place to stay.
A January 2009 one-night street count conducted by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless found 986 unsheltered people were on the streets of District 2, which includes Downtown, East Village and the beach areas south of La Jolla. District 3, which includes Hillcrest, North Park and Balboa Park, came in a distant second with an unsheltered population of 455. District 8 (Barrio Logan, Logan Heights) was third with 115.
By locating the shelter Downtown, “we're only serving a portion of the population,” argued Tony Manolatos, spokesperson for District 2 Councilmember Kevin Faulconer. Manolatos insisted that his boss' goal isn't to disperse the homeless into other districts, but “the entire shelter should be someplace else.”
“It makes no sense to place the winter shelter tent outside of Downtown,” said Rosemary Johnston, director of the Interfaith Shelter Network. “The homeless population is not divided equally across council districts, like peanut butter on bread, so why should the services be?
“How does the city propose to transport homeless people to Tierrasanta, for example, to enter the shelter, and then provide transportation back Downtown where many of the services are in walking distance of previous tent locations?” Johnston added.
San Diego Police Department Assistant Chief Boyd Long, who's been on the police force for as long as the city's been hosting a winter shelter, said that there are benefits to public safety in having a shelter.
“Each night there's 900 to 1,000 people [in Central Division] that lay their heads on the sidewalk,” Long said. When the shelter's open, “there's 200 less of that population our officers have to deal with.” There are fewer calls for service, Long said, and a reduction in violence. And, Alpha Project, the shelter's operators, leave a couple of beds open each night if police come in contact with someone in need of shelter.
“It gives us a tool,” Long said.
Editor's note: The original version of this story said that Asst. Police Chief Boyd Long preferred that the shelter be located Downtown. Though the conversation with Long was about his experience with the shelter, which has always been located Downtown, and the benefits it's had on public safety for Central Division officers, he never specifically indicated a preference for location.
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