San Diego's annual winter homeless shelter opened Nov. 24—just as weather forecasters were predicting rain and the temperature had dropped at least 10 degrees from the week before. Compared with previous years, there was little debate about where the shelter should go. But this year's site, on private land at 16th Street and Island Avenue, is, like last year's location at Petco's Tailgate Park, a one-time deal. The site at 16th and Island was the only one on a pro forma list of 13 possible sites presented to the City Council in September that wasn't too small, too unsafe or too far from necessary services.
Last October, a City Council committee that oversees land-use and housing issues put together a task force charged with finding a solution to the annual shelter shuffle. On Dec. 2, the task force will present its recommendations to the full council—probably sooner than it's ready to, but a key task-force member, City Councilmember Toni Atkins, leaves office on Dec. 8. Atkins has described the work of the task force as “Phase 1” and wants to make sure her remaining colleagues move to Phase 2.
She says she's “pretty disappointed” with what the task force has—or hasn't—accomplished. “I wanted to be much further along in the process than we are,” she said.
Homeless-services providers are disappointed, too, said Rosemary Johnston, president of the county's Interfaith Shelter Network as well as the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. Under the leadership of City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, whose district includes Downtown, the task force managed to ignore its No. 1 objective: Siting a permanent homeless facility.
“The goal… was to identify a site for a permanent year-round shelter to avoid the annual angst that seems to grip the City Council every year when they need to site the winter shelter program,” Johnston said. “While it's good that they set up this committee, I think they need to be reminded what the main purpose of the committee was.”
Compounding this is the fact that no one from the service-provider community was asked be a part of the task force, which met six times and saw its membership diminish to barely a quorum, partly because members often received meeting notices only a week in advance. Task-force member Tina Victory told CityBeat that she stopped showing up because meetings weren't focusing on the facility but rather unrelated issues like enforcing the city's vagrancy laws.Regardless of the outcome, whether Downtown San Diego needs a city-run permanent homeless shelter seems to be the sticking point. No one argues that the city's short on shelter beds, so much so that since 2005, per the terms of a legal settlement with attorneys representing eight homeless individuals, police officers can't ticket people for sleeping in public between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. unless officers receive a complaint. And the number of people on the street is only increasing. Bob McElroy, CEO of the Alpha Project, the agency that runs the annual winter shelter, put the number of people he had to turn away this year “in the hundreds” (the winter shelter holds 220 people) and said a street count he assisted the police with recently came up with twice the number as last year.
But Jennifer LeSar, a member of the Centre City Development Corp.'s board of directors and CCDC's representative on the homeless-facility task force, said the goal is to build a central intake facility rather than a shelter—a sort of one-stop shop for homeless services. CCDC has set aside up to $10 million for such a facility. The hope is to funnel people through intake and into housing, LeSar said.
Her vision is long-term: CCDC has made a commitment to increasing Downtown's supply of supportive housing—low-cost apartment units that include ongoing case-management. Nationwide, supportive housing is held up as the model for getting chronically homeless people off the street and, countywide, there's a push to build more supportive housing as part of the regional Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, an effort administered by the United Way of San Diego County. Currently, there are 200 supportive housing units located Downtown. Another 100 are in the pipeline and 112 more are in the early negotiation stages, said Jeff Graham CCDC's assistant vice president of redevelopment.
“The goal is to not need a shelter,” LeSar said, as more people move from the street into housing via the central intake facility. She's proposed putting such a facility in an affordable-housing development on CCDC-owned land at Ninth and Broadway, though she said CCDC's board has yet to formally discuss such a plan. The Ninth and Broadway project is slated to include 88 supportive-housing units.
But the heads of two of San Diego's largest homeless-services providers, St. Vincent de Paul and the Alpha Project, both say that a central intake facility must include an on-site shelter.
“It should all be together or it's not going to work,” said Fr. Joe Carroll, president of St. Vincent de Paul. “Let's say somebody comes in off the street and he needs emergency shelter. Where do we send him? How does he get there? If you do [housing] upstairs, then he can come down in the morning and get all the services. If you send him somewhere else, now he's got to get back. So you have all these transportation problems. We think it should be all in one complex.”
“It's got to be all-inclusive: You come, you stay, we triage, we place,” said Alpha Project's McElroy. “You've got to have a front door for this population—meet them where they are, get to know them as individuals” before placing them into long-term housing.
Several years ago, McElroy sent a staff member around the country to look at what other cities were doing as far as central intake facilities and, in 2005, presented the city with a plan to put a central intake facility at 19th and B streets, the current site of a city-vehicle storage and maintenance yard. The idea didn't fly with city officials.
Carroll said he has a proposal for a facility drawn up and ready to go—one that he presented to the city task force. He already owns the land—a lot at 14th and Commercial in East Village—he just needs help with building costs, which he estimates at between $30 million and $40 million. The facility would include between 250 and 500 beds.
San Diego's homeless-facility task force looked into two facilities: L.A.'s PATH Mall and St. Patrick's Partnership Center in St. Louis, both held up as a national models. L.A.'s facility is 40,000 square feet and houses 98 shelter beds. According to a task-force report, it's “located at the end of a dead-end street that was considered to be a blight on the neighborhood.” The St. Louis building is 100,000 square feet and is home to 22 different programs ranging from child care to substance-abuse treatment to a full floor dedicated to job training. There's no on-site housing, but a 26-unit supportive housing complex is located next door, and 14 units of short-term housing are off-site.
A subcommittee of the group working on San Diego County's Plan to End Chronic Homelessness recommended that an all-inclusive central intake facility be about 200,000 square feet in size. A facility with 320 beds “would reach maximum capacity immediately,” the subcommittee's report said. Five hundred beds was recommended as the minimum.
“That vision is just too grand,” Johnston acknowledged.
At the Dec. 2 meeting, the City Council will formalize a request for proposals for a homeless-services facility. Faulconer said he's going to keep an open mind as far as what model is best for Downtown and wait to see what ideas come in. As far as Atkins' hope that there's a Phase 2 to the task force, Faulconer promised that would happen, but he added that other parts of the city—and county—need to bear some of the burden. Intake facilities dispersed around the city, rather than a monolithic Downtown structure, is one idea.
“Here in Downtown,” Faulconer said, “we're moving forward now, but for this to work, other areas need to move forward, too.” David Rolland contributed to this story. Send comments and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.