For a short time in April, San Diego's largest day center for the homeless was in danger of having no one to run it. Of the three homeless-services agencies that applied in November for the $400,000 contract to run the Neil Good Day Center, a 5,000-square-foot facility located at 299 17th St. in East Village, one agency had been disqualified, another deemed unsuitable to run the center and the remaining contractor, St. Vincent de Paul Village, was bowing out. In an April 14 letter to the city department that oversees contracts, Fr. Joe Carroll, president of St. Vincent de Paul Village, asked that his organization be removed from consideration.
“Since submitting our application to become the operator of the Neil Good Day Center in November 2007,” Carroll wrote, “St. Vincent de Paul has experienced a severe drop in donations.” Therefore, Carroll went on to say, his agency wouldn't be able to allocate the resources to the day center that it had described in its original bid proposal.
Apparently, conversations with city staff prompted Carroll to change his mind. According to an April 25 letter from Carroll, he was willing to move ahead with running the day center, but there would need to be revisions to the contract, he explained—like cutting a proposed social-worker position. Among other minor changes, Carroll also requested $38,074 to cover the cost of vouchers that Neil Good clients could use to purchase clothing from St. Vincent de Paul's thrift store.
The belt-tightening was in addition to St. Vincent de Paul's proposal to reduce the day center's operation to weekdays only. Under the center's previous overseer, the Alpha Project, the facility's blue gates opened every morning at 8 a.m. and stayed open until 4 p.m. on weekdays and 2 p.m. on weekends. The Alpha Project, which had been the day center's sole operator since 1991, had actually proposed increasing hours to 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week in its most recent contract proposal. But Alpha Project's proposal was disqualified. According to a letter from the city's contracting department, the nonprofit organization didn't follow application rules that required information to be presented in a certain format. There was also some required information missing from the proposal, the letter said.
Alpha Project was given the opportunity to appeal but opted not to. Amy Gonyeau, Alpha's chief operating officer, said she's working on a rebuttal to the city's disqualification letter. She said her organization didn't formally appeal because it suspected that the decision to go with St. Vincent de Paul was politically motivated. Alpha Project president Bob McElroy has, in the past, openly criticized Mayor Jerry Sanders for what McElroy says is a lack of leadership on homelessness issues. Two years ago, McElroy went so far as to bring a van full of homeless people over to City Hall to directly confront the mayor in his office.
Under St. Vincent de Paul's management, which started July 1, the day center is open from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays. The Union-Tribune first reported the change in hours on July 4, prompting homeless advocate David Ross, also known as “The Water Man”—because he regularly distributes bottles of water to the homeless—to demand an answer from the City Council as to how the cutback in days and an increase in the contract's cost (from $400,000 to $438,074) happened without council approval. In 2002, the last time the Neil Good Day Center contract was up for bid, both the City Council's Land Use and Housing Committee and the full council were asked to approve the contract.
But, that same year, the council voted to give the city's Purchasing and Contracting Department authority to approve any contracts under $1 million, the policy under which the current contract was awarded, said mayoral spokesperson Bill Harris.
Since the day center cut its hours, Ross has expanded his, adding Saturday and Sunday mornings to his water-distribution route. Last Sunday, at around 11:15 a.m., he pulled up in front of the day center in his black Hyundai, the car's horn announcing his arrival. To the north and south of the facility, about a block's distance away, people were camped out on the sidewalk, sitting amid shopping carts and sleeping bags. Roughly a dozen made their way to Ross' car to pick up a bottle of water and a bag of snack crackers. Ross described the site of the empty, locked day center as “abhorrent.”
On June 1, citing a drop in donations, St. Vincent de Paul announced that it was closing its transitional housing facility, the Paul Mirabile Center (PMC) between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m., meaning the roughly 385 men and women who sleep there each night would have to hit the street. The rule, one PMC resident explained to CityBeat, is that everyone must remain at least five blocks away from the St. Vincent de Paul campus until 4 p.m.
“They don't want you in the area; they just want you to go away,” he said. The same rule now applies to the Neil Good Day Center when it's closed, he added.
Ruth Bruland, division director at St. Vincent de Paul, said closing the PMC during the day was a difficult decision—she was the one who had to explain the situation to residents. “It was heartbreaking,” she said, but keeping daytime hours would have meant cutting from another program. If a PMC resident has a reason to be on the St. Vincent de Paul campus—like a class or appointment—they're allowed to be there, Bruland said. Otherwise, people are expected to leave the area.
As for cutting weekend hours at Neil Good, St. Vincent de Paul is instead providing more comprehensive case-management at the day center during the week, Bruland explained. “We know what's being said about us because of that decision,” she said. “There just isn't enough money.”
Ross, who worked as a case manager at St. Vincent de Paul for eight and a half years, questions whether the additional services are much of a benefit. He knows the people who frequent the day center, he said. Many of them have tried and failed at programs like St. Vincent de Paul's.
“It's a population that case management will not put a dent in,” he said flatly. “They want to lay there and rest—that doesn't sound good to people, but at least they're off the street. The emphasis is on people being safe.”
Ross questions, too, whether Carroll has taken on too much with the day center. “If you have a problem running your first facility, why take on another one?”