A little after 9 p.m. Monday night, Bob McElroy, who heads the Alpha Project, the nonprofit that operates the city's winter homeless shelter, got a text message from City Councilmember Jim Madaffer.
"The wheels are coming off," Madaffer wrote.
The vehicle losing its wheels was the city's winter homeless shelter, the Nov. 1 opening of which was subject to City Council approval at an evening meeting at Point Loma Nazarene University. The shelter got the majority vote it needed and will open next week, but not without controversy.
A few hours before the meeting, City Councilmember Ben Hueso issued an eight-point memo asking questions about the shelter's location and funding source.
"Is it safe to put over 400 individuals next to a location currently being cleaned for toxic waste? There will be trucks every 6 minutes and approximately 112,000 tons of toxic waste will be removed during the time the shelter program will be in effect."
The shelter sits adjacent to what was a fuel-tank farm, which is not really an issue until dirt gets stirred up, which, as Hueso's memo points out, will happen while the shelter's open. Such activity requires approval from oversight agencies, and the site's clean-up plan was approved months ago by the county Department of Environmental Health, though the fact that 210 people would be living next to the site wasn't, apparently, taken into account (city staff couldn't explain that point at the meeting).
The Environmental Health Coalition, a public-health watchdog group, reviewed the cleanup plan and thinks it's a relatively good one, said EHC's Laura Benson, "but [the site's owners] were hoping to do the work over the summer," before the shelter opened. The City Council got a promise Monday night from the owner, Graybill LLC, that there will be monitors set up to check air quality hourly, and McElroy said he'd be the first to yell if he thought the shelter's residents were in danger. He added that he's meeting with representatives from Graybill this week.
Still, why is it that the only place the city can site its temporary shelter-the shelter's been in the same spot for six years-is next to polluted land? Benson pointed out that the trolley yard on the other side of the shelter isn't exactly an ideal neighbor.
"These issues give rise to the fact that we need to get this thing relocated," Madaffer said Monday. Madaffer's pushing for a permanent, year-round shelter located at a so-called "central-intake facility" that would be a one-stop site for a range of homeless services. Madaffer pointed out that the county government spends roughly $70 million a year on homeless services. "How many more years do we have to have this temporary shelter?" he asked.
The San Diego Housing Commission has provided the majority of the shelter's operating budget in the past but told the City Council in April that it couldn't do so this year-federal money the Housing Commission had previously used to cover shelter costs now comes with restrictions that prevent it from being spent on the shelter. There were plans for the Centre City Development Corporation, which administers downtown redevelopment, to take over repayment of a loan for a piece of property on behalf of the Housing Commission, giving the housing agency money for the shelter, but that deal didn't happen. An April memo from the City Council's independent budget analyst (IBA) warns, "If the Housing Commission is unable to finalize the identified funding for the [shelter] prior to June 30, then the city will need to identify other revenue to fund this program."
Did that happen? No. Barring another solution, the Housing Commission's on the hook for $445,000. That money will come out its reserves, which, the IBA points out in the same memo, are dangerously low: 1.5 percent of the agency's budget versus the "optimal" 5 percent. The city's general-fund reserve, on the other hand, is at 4.2 percent, according to the IBA report.
The lack of funding opened the door for City Councilmember Donna Frye to repeat one of her familiar refrains: CCDC owes the city at least $80 million-"money that was loaned to them years ago. That debt hasn't been paid back." At the least, Frye said, CCDC could kick down the money for the shelter.
Where was the mayor?
Under the new executive-mayor form of government, Mayor Jerry Sanders isn't required to attend City Council meetings. But on Monday night there was a special guest: George W. Bush's homelessness czar, Philip Mangano, in from Washington, D.C., to compliment San Diego on its Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, a local version of a federal initiative to get longtime homeless individuals off the streets during the next decade. Last week, a mayor's spokesperson said Sanders and Mangano would hold a press conference to give the plan a duo thumbs-up. No such event occurred. It could have been a great PR moment for a mayor who's been criticized for not caring enough about people living on the street. Fred Sainz, the mayor's spokesperson, explained that Sanders had a prior, commitment Monday night to speak to the Coalition of Neighborhood Councils, a group comprising community leaders from District 4.
There apparently are no such scheduling conflicts on Wednesday, Oct. 25, when, according to a press release from the Hard Rock Hotel San Diego, Sanders will attend the 420-suite "condo" hotel's "topping-off party," or, as the event's promoters call it, the "Sanders Stairway to Heaven."