There's a perfunctory tone to a 2008 report of possible sites for the city of San Diego's annual winter homeless shelter:
Of the post-apocalyptic concrete graveyard at 22nd and Commercial streets: “Private parcels (school district?).”
Of a bit of land at the I-5 off-ramp at B Street: “Area way too small.”
And of the corner of Park Boulevard and Broadway, the location of a new-ish office and condo development called Smart Corner: “No available space.”
Thirteen sites were evaluated, 12 of them deemed unsuitable, each for a laundry list of reasons: too small, private property, not wheelchair accessible, not near public transportation, unsafe for pedestrians, possible contamination.
“We've pretty much exhausted the sites Downtown,” Scott Kessler, then the deputy director of city planning, told a City Council-convened task force last May.
But amid the 12 losers was one clear winner: a large vacant lot at the corner of 15th and J streets. “Private owner willing to make site available,” the report concluded. “Northerly [half] of lot is best for tent location.”
Developer OliverMcMillan owns the land; plans are for it to be the location of a mixed-use building, though there's no project start date. The city's Redevelopment Agency spent roughly $140,000 getting the site ready for the shelter—grading, paving, repairing surrounding sidewalks and making sure there were water and electrical hookups.
Bob McElroy, head of the Alpha Project, the nonprofit that's operated the winter shelter for the last several years, said he thought OliverMcMillan was making the site available not just for the 2008-09 shelter, but this year's shelter, too, so “that we wouldn't have to go through this circus again,” McElroy said, referring to the annual site-selection process that's happened since 2007, when District 8 City Councilmember Ben Hueso successfully argued that the shelter's long-time location at the end of Newton Avenue, near the ballpark, was bad for his community.
But OliverMcMillan, whose CEO, Dene Oliver, chaired the regional Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, is wavering on whether to let the city use the site a second time. The 2009-10 shelter is scheduled to open in November.
“It's not off the table, but it's something we're going to have to weigh,” said Evan Gerber, a project manager for Oliver
McMillan. The city, he added, “shouldn't be relying on Oliver McMillan.”
Gerber said nearby business owners complained about the influx of homeless people while the tent was open. “There's a social cost of putting the shelter there,” he said.
“That's news to me,” McElroy said about complaints. While the tent's up, he said, a security crew walks the perimeter four times a day, asking loiterers to leave. If anything, “having 200 people off the street, as opposed to on the street, is a positive impact,” he added.
McElroy described the OliverMcMillan site as the “perfect place”—near service providers like St. Vincent de Paul and God's Extended Hand—but said he's aware that business owners and residents want the shelter out of their neighborhood.
“There's never a right place to put a shelter,” McElroy said, but until there's a solution to getting people off the street, East Village “is where they'll be.”
Attorney Scott Dreher said a 1997 appeals-court ruling obligates the city to find a suitable site each year for a winter shelter. State law, Dreher wrote in an e-mail, “requires a specific site, not a vague assurance that maybe you'll try to find a site.” The location, he said, must be “big enough and convenient enough for it to be effective in meeting the need.”
District 3 City Councilmember Todd Gloria said city-owned land at 13th and F streets, slated to become a park, is a possibility for this year's shelter. Rachel Laing, a spokesperson for Mayor Jerry Sanders, confirmed that the location had been added to the list of sites and that last year's rejects are being re-evaluated.
The land at 13th and F is large enough but, like the Oliver McMillan site, would require remediation—there's currently a vacant building on the property. Even though the city identified the 15th-and-J spot by mid-May 2008, the City Council didn't approve it until September, and the shelter opened two weeks late because improvements hadn't been completed, McElroy said.
Gloria wants the site-selection process to happen soon. “It's important that we have the conversation now,” he said.
But even if the 13th-and-F site works for this year's shelter, by the following year, the site will be a park.
In March, the City Council put out a request for social-services providers to submit proposals for a one-stop homelessness-services center. This month, a selection committee will hold the first of four meetings to evaluate the responses. Maria Velasquez, spokesperson for the San Diego Housing Commission—the agency overseeing the review process—said she couldn't disclose how many proposals had been received or who submitted them, per Housing Commission policy. Velasquez said the goal is to have a winning proposal ready for City Council review by September.
The guidelines for proposals, though, don't require that shelter beds be part of the one-stop center—it's an optional component, added only after advocates for the homeless argued that without a permanent spot for an emergency shelter, the annual debate over where to site it would continue.