A shameful development

Much of this week's issue of CityBeat is dedicated to what we like about San Diego. It's a celebration of positivity, a break from what CityBeat typically does, which is to point out what's wrong in the way society goes about its business.

We didn't recognize the best nonprofit, private, social service agency in San Diego, but if we had, strong consideration would have gone to the San Diego Rescue Mission, which takes in people who have bottomed out-homeless, income-less and often addicted-and helps them get back on their feet.

The Rescue Mission takes no money-zero taxpayer dollars-from government and still manages to be successful. That's what we keep saying we want, right? Particularly in these dark economic times, we want the private sector to step up and take some of the social-service load off of government, don't we? Well, that's what the Rescue Mission does.

So it's certainly ironic that the mission has been the target of a months-long legal battle with a group of people who somehow fail to appreciate the organization's value.

Some 160 men-who've come to the Rescue Mission because they have no one else to turn to-are in danger of being tossed back out on the street because a small group of individuals have chosen to exploit a flaw in the Rescue Mission's permit to move into the former Harbor View Medical Center in the Bankers Hill / downtown area.

To recap: reading the writing on the wall, the Rescue Mission's operators knew redevelopment in East Village would push the mission out of its longtime J Street home, so in 2001 they bought the medical center building, which would house an emergency shelter, transitional housing, meal service and a drug and alcohol treatment program.

Seemed like a good place, on the edge of downtown, but opposition organized amid fears of property-value decline, increased crime and the general ugly face of homelessness.

Almost exactly a year ago, the City Council issued the Rescue Mission a highly restrictive conditional use permit for the new building, and renovations began. Five months ago, the opponents successfully sued the city, arguing that the permit was issued without necessary environmental review.

The Rescue Mission has since successfully fought a legal effort to order the agency to stop renovations, but that point is moot, thanks to a ruling last week that prohibits the mission from moving some of its down-on-their-luck charges into the building for the winter.

The Rescue Mission is now engaged in talks with regulatory authorities and other social-service organizations in hopes of finding a temporary space for the program, but unless mission officials find a building that already has a use permit for that sort of activity, the future looks grim. Any other building will be hopelessly tangled in red tape and, perhaps, the subject of similar neighborhood anxiety.

Previously on this page, we blamed the city attorney for being careless in the permitting process and not identifying the flaws. We have so far refrained from castigating the individuals who sued to block the Rescue Mission's move-they were, after all, exercising their right, and the court has agreed with them.

But those folks, calling themselves the Washington Elementary Parents Action Group, are not our favorite people at the moment. They found a glitch in the system and used it to their full advantage. They say their concerns include the proximity of the would-be homeless center to Washington Elementary School, but the school is five blocks away and across Interstate 5.

What's more, the Rescue Mission signed an agreement with the police department aimed at discouraging loitering and contracted with the city's Clean and Safe program to provide litter and loiter control. Also, part of the mission's plan was to have patrons of its free breakfast gather in a waiting area, out of public view.

The issue is the opponents' precious property values, and we place potentially declining property values far below the acute and chronic problem of homelessness on the list of major concerns.

The underlying theme here is that, again, homeless people, who are often saddled with addiction or mental illness, are thought of in our caste system as "untouchables." People tend not to like them milling about, rummaging through trash cans and panhandling for change. But that's what organizations like the Rescue Mission are trying to change by getting these folks the help they need.

If only we'd let them do it.