July 25 2012 08:29 AM

Construction issues on supportive-housing project cause extension of winter shelter

David Alvarez
Photo by David Rolland

When the plan to establish a permanent supportive housing and temporary-bed facility for homeless people Downtown was wending its way through the approval process two years ago, part of the enticement for certain members of the San Diego City Council was that it would be funded in part with money that had been paying for an emergency winter homeless shelter. We backed the proposal, because it increased the supply of housing units that came with social services and case management. But the reallocation of the emergency-shelter money was a serious flaw.

Yes, by any measure, the new year-round facility, which is being developed by Connections Housing and will be operated by People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), is far superior to a big tent that’s up between November and March. The problem is numbers: The winter shelter got more than 200 single adults off the street and out of the cold at one time— serving about 1,000 different people throughout the winter. The original proposal for the Connections Housing project was to put 73 people in supportive-housing apartment units and 150 in transitional beds.

The 73 supportive-housing units are long-term accommodations, nothing like shelter beds, so they shouldn’t be counted as equal replacements. As for the 150 transitional beds, that appears to have been reduced to 134. 
Now, let’s pretend for the moment that they are equal replacements of the shelter beds. That right there would mean a net loss of more than 66 beds. And if 200-plus beds in the tent served about 1,000 individuals over the course of five months, simple math would suggest that the new facility—while better in quality—would serve less than 670, not including the small number of people lucky enough to get into the apartments. But even the transitional beds, as we understand it, are longer-term than the beds in the winter shelter; so, while the 134 transitional beds might serve some of the folks who use the winter tent each year, the overall number of people served is likely to be much smaller than that.

Meanwhile, the demand far exceeds the supply. In its annual count in January, the San Diego County Regional Task Force on the Homeless tallied 9,641 homeless people countywide, 5,267 of whom were unsheltered. In the city of San Diego, there were 6,379 homeless people, 3,623 unsheltered. Drilling in further, there were 1,122 homeless people Downtown, plus another 1,026 people in an area that stretches from North Park west to Ocean Beach. The number of people counted countywide has increased by 24 percent from 2009. San Diego needs more beds, not fewer.

As fate would have it, the new facility, which was supposed to be open by Dec. 1, has run into construction problems and isn’t likely to be done by the end of 2012. On Monday, the City Council approved a contingency plan to erect the temporary shelter tent for one more year if the new building isn’t ready on time, and the San Diego Housing Commission, which took over homelessness services two years ago, pledged to find the roughly $450,000 needed to raise, operate and dismantle the tent. So, those people who might’ve been shut out this winter got a one-winter reprieve.

Kudos to Councilmembers David Alvarez and Sherri Lightner for their comments during the hearing. Alvarez, unlike his predecessor in District 8, Ben Hueso, didn’t whine about the tent being located again in his region. And he said a tent is inadequate; additional permanent shelters are needed. Lightner suggested that the Housing Commission come to the council’s Land Use and Housing Committee with a comprehensive five-year plan to increase the supply of shelter beds.

As Alvarez noted, the temporary winter shelter is based on an “emergency.” Being exposed to the cold during winter nights is dangerous; people die regularly on the streets of San Diego. Given the net loss of shelter beds in the plan to transition from the winter tent to the housing facility, it’ll be a good thing if the facility isn’t ready by December. That’ll give the mayor and the City Council another year to come up with a plan to serve those people who’ll have no place to go when it gets cold.

And that’s a big reason why it’s crucial for Bob Filner to beat Carl DeMaio in November and become the city’s next mayor—Filner is far more likely than DeMaio to allocate the money needed to keep the emergency-shelter program running.

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