As program manager of the Neil Good Day Center, a homeless-services facility in East Village, it's Brad Simmons' job to make sure the center's reputation is clean. That means no loitering outside the gates, no drugs or alcohol on the premises and at least three times a day, a small crew of volunteers from the center don fluorescent-yellow vests and walk the three blocks north to south and two blocks west to east around the center. There's a dumpster overfilled with trash bags in the day center's small parking lot to prove the crew's industry.
“I don't know of any other social-service agencies that have to put people in yellow vests and send them down the block,” Simmons says. “I don't agree with it, but we do it.”
The Neil Good Day Center, which opened in 1991, is a city operation, a place where homeless individuals can go to take a shower, pick up their mail, get help finding a job, housing or drug-treatment or take a GED class—or just get off the street for awhile. The city contracts with the Alpha Project, the nonprofit that operates the city's winter homeless shelter, to run the center. Federal grant money, $400,000 a year, funds the operation. Simmons estimates that since January 2005, roughly 9,000 individuals have come there for services.
A decade ago, Bob McElroy, executive director of the Alpha Project, was honored for the day center's role in helping to “revitalize” downtown by getting people off the street. Back then, McElroy said, that job was a little easier.
“We had able-bodied people who could work. Now, when I go out here,” McElroy says, gesturing to the day center's large main room where a couple dozen men and women watch TV, “I probably could find 10 people who could go out and do manual labor and work their way up. What we have left are poor, disenfranchised, mentally-ill people.”
The intransigence of this population, among other things, has been a concern of community groups who'd like to see the center shut down and its clients go elsewhere.
“The best-case scenario, for everybody, would be that that facility closes and the services are provided to those clients in a more comprehensive setting,” said Mitch Berner, manager of the East Village Association and a local lobbyist.
The day center, since it opened, has operated under what's known as a conditional-use permit that imposes certain conditions that must be adhered to. As a result of negotiations in 2004 with the East Village Association and a group called Families for a Safe Neighborhood, the city agreed to do a community-impact study of the center. It was to be conducted prior to June 30, 2006. If the city agreed to this condition, the association would drop its opposition to the day center's permit, pending the study's completion.
The study, it turns out, was easier agreed to than done. It's been more than two years since the city Planning Commission extended the day center's permit and the study's yet to begin. Sharon Johnson, the city's director of homeless services, has spent the intervening time figuring out exactly what the community-impact study should include. No such study's been required for any other social-services operation in San Diego. Johnson checked with every major city in California to see if any had conducted a similar study and found that no one had.
“We had to craft a way to respond to [community concerns], given no one else had actually ever done” this kind of study, she said. The final details were hammered out last month; Johnson just needs City Council approval to go ahead. The study, which will be done by a private company, will cost $100,000 and take roughly six months.
Two years after the city agreed to the study, some questions have arisen: The center is the city's own operation, so why does the city need to issue itself a permit? And, if the city issued itself the permit, is it legally obligated to adhere to the provision that requires a costly study? Lastly, is such a study still necessary?
Both sides agree the area around the Neil Good Day Center is far different today than what it was back in July 2004 when a critic shot a video of what looks like drug dealing, prostitution and a homeless encampment. Most of the footage was shot at night when the center is closed. Berner plans to show the video to the City Council when Johnson talks to them about the study.
“Some things have gotten better,” Berner said of the center. “Let me give some credit where credit is due—Alpha has had better managers on the property.”
Simmons, who took over managing the center in December 2004, got broken streetlights fixed and recruited volunteers to cut back bushes and trees that had grown out over the sidewalk, providing a place for drug dealers to hide themselves and their stash. There's a large, colorful mural on a warehouse just across the street, painted in 2005, that brightens up the place. The center has cans of paint for every color in the mural should it ever be defaced.
“It's just made a tremendous difference,” Simmons said of the cleanup. Prostitutes, loiterers and drug dealers know not to come around, he said.
“They know if we see [criminal activity], we're going to call [the police]; we're going to give a full description of what they're wearing and what they're doing and even which pocket they put it in. Anybody that knows the area and knows us knows to stay far away from here.”
Johnson said there have been no complaints about Neil Good since Simmons took over. “Past opposition was related to operational shortcomings,” she said, “which have all been corrected at this time.”
But Berner says the study is still necessary—no one can say for sure that the center doesn't negatively impact the people who live nearby. “And that's the purpose of having the consultant interview the owners, interview the clients, interview residents: to address what truly those impacts are and find ways to eliminate them, if possible.”
As for questions about the permit and whether the city must adhere to it, Ernie Linares, director of the city's Community Services Department, said community concern is what compelled the city to impose conditions on the center's operation. “When you have community opposition to a program, it was probably being a good partner to the community to undergo that process.”
But, he added, “even though there might have been good logic to get us to this point, now that time has transpired and the program has undergone changes, given where we're at today, does it make sense to do [the study], and could we back out of it? I think that's a question that's being explored right now.”
The City Attorney's office is looking at that question, said Deputy City Attorney Brock Ladewigh. “The city is not obligated to go through the [permit] process [for] public facilities like the Neil Good Day Center. Right now, the City Attorney's office is looking at: Are we legally obligated because we at one time subjected ourselves to the process—because the city had [issued a permit for the day center] in the past, does it have to do it moving forward, and that's what we're investigating.”