Counting Down to the Downtown Homeless Shelter’s Big Reveal
Photo by Sam Hodgson
A view of the Connections housing facility, which is slated to open soon in downtown San Diego.
Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2013 9:52 am | Updated: 3:26 pm, Thu Jan 10, 2013.
A new, year-round homeless services center that will sleep more than 220 people nightly is set to open in phases as early as this month. It’s a widely anticipated project that will bring more than 20 different agencies, including a health clinic, under its roof.
The 14-floor, $38 million center represents a big change in local homeless services. For one, it’s permanent. The city’s financial investment in homeless services has for years been a temporary winter tent program. The tents come down in April.
Over the past year, scores of construction workers have been renovating the high-rise built in the 1920s, originally as an athletic club. (They even found signs of an erstwhile indoor swimming pool during the renovation.) The building’s most recent iteration was the World Trade Center office complex.
It’s been a couple of years since the new center was frequently in the news as community meetings sprung up to debate its placement — and even its existence. Since then, numbers have fluctuated on development costs and how many of each type of housing/bed might appear. Downtown leaders have warmed to the proposal since that combative first stage.
It’s another example that we’re in a remarkable time in local homelessness discussions.
When the team first started talking with downtown residents and business owners, “there was so much hesitancy,” said Jennette Lawrence Shay, director of government and community relations for the Family Health Centers of San Diego, which will operate a ground-floor clinic in Connections. Now, the Downtown Partnership has made homelessness one of its chief focuses.
“We’re talking about night-and-day difference,” Shay said.
As I’ve pursued our quest to better understand homelessness in San Diego, this new center, Connections Housing, has been the talk of the town. Homeless services advocates find lots to cheer in the effort that matches a successful Los Angeles service provider, People Assisting the Homeless, with lots of local service organizations to form a one-stop center.
But a few questions temper their enthusiasm.
Here’s a brief guide to the basics and why Connections is not a panacea for homelessness — downtown or elsewhere. (Construction continues, so Sam Hodgson’s photos from our recent visit show a work in progress.)
• Two basements will hold a kitchen, administrative offices and a bevy of offices where residents can get help and resources from more than 20 service organizations and training groups.
• A ground-floor medical clinic will serve between 70 and 100 patients per day and will be the new location for the Family Health Centers of San Diego’s downtown clinic, located at Park and Broadway since the mid-1990s. The clinic will be open to anyone, not just residents of the Connections building.
• Floors two and three will hold 134 cubicle-style beds and community bathrooms, kitchen and laundry facilities. Those beds are meant for 30- to 60-day stays.
Floors two and three will also house 16 private units for longer-term residents with special needs.
• The remaining floors up to the 12th will be subdivided into 73 studio apartments with their own small kitchens and bathrooms. These apartments will house residents and match them with supportive services.
The thorny math:
Various counts peg the number of people sleeping unsheltered in downtown in the hundreds, or sometimes higher than 1,000. (We’ve written about what goes into those downtown counts here and here.)
The emergency winter tent shelter, now up at 16th Street and Newton Avenue, sleeps about 225 people per night.
Connections serves 134 homeless individuals on a short-term basis year-round. (CityBeat scorned this difference in an editorial last summer.)
The leaders at Connections say the building makes a dent, but doesn’t cover the whole homeless population. They’re hoping this center will be successful enough to persuade other neighborhoods to allow similar centers.
“You can’t have one building solving all of the problems of homelessness,” said Joel Roberts, CEO of PATH, the L.A. group at the helm of the project.
But the city has committed the money it usually spends on the emergency winter tent — about $400,000 in federal grants — to running the interim bed program at Connections. This year a private donor, United Healthcare, stepped forward with a big $250,000 check to fund the winter tent because the permanent shelter wasn’t yet open.
The tent’s fate next year and beyond is unclear.
“Connections is a wonderful project and everyone’s really anxious for it to get going,” said Mathew Packard, director of housing innovations for the San Diego Housing Commission. “But it’s not going to solve homelessness for us. And next winter when it gets cold and rainy we’re still going to have homeless people.”
Moreover, replicating Connections in other neighborhoods will be difficult.
“The federal government doesn’t have more money to spend,” Packard said. And Connections used some redevelopment funds and incentives toward the cost of construction. The state has since dismantled its redevelopment program, precluding similar funding for a future Connections-style project.
“Is it possible? Yeah,” Packard said. “People would have to be extraordinarily creative.”
Who’s moving in?
• An outreach team has been building a list since last spring of more than 400 people who spend most of their nights in the quarter-mile radius of the building. Those people are then prioritized based on who’s most vulnerable, said Jessica Wishan, PATH’s San Diego director.
She declined to say when the final decisions on who is moving in will be made.
From this point, anyone interested in living in Connections in the future can add his or her name to a list at the Neil Good Day Center.
What about the ticket ban?
If you followed the debate about the permanent center when it was up for approval in 2010, you might remember another political sticking point. If the city builds the center, many business owners and politicians wanted to know, can the city again issue tickets to homeless people for sleeping on the streets?
Currently, a legal settlement means police can’t issue illegal lodging tickets unless there is an available bed in a shelter to direct someone to.
The city attorney envisioned a model where tickets might again be issued within a certain radius of the building — should there be open beds in the Connections facility, of course. It’s too soon to say before Connections opens how this math might work.
We detailed these arguments in a 2010 episode of San Diego Explained.
I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at email@example.com or 619.325.0531.
Homeless Families In San Diego Crowd Emergency Shelters
The growing number of poor families in San Diego County is taking a toll on emergency shelters.
The growing number of poor families in San Diego County is taking a toll on emergency shelters.
Nearly one in five children (19.2 percent) in San Diego County lived below the federal poverty level in 2011.
“I’ve been working with families for 12 years, and I’ve never seen the amount of kids and families that we had last year,” said Molly Downs, emergency services director for the San Diego Rescue Mission.
The overnight emergency shelter has a capacity for 60 women and children. It’s open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and provides families with dinner, breakfast, a bed and a hot shower.
“We’re supposed to have 60 women and children. We had 96 last night …44 kids and around 25 families.”
Herb Johnson, Rescue Mission CEO said a “special services envelope” allows them to add 20 more beds if needed. He said they do all they can to avoid turning families away from their front door, located downtown on Elm St.
“You know, the doorbell rings at 9:30 p.m. and there’s a mother standing out there with five kids and no place to go,” said Johnson.
Families can stay at the emergency shelter for 30 days, though sometimes that’s stretched to three or four months if a family is on a waiting list for the long-term shelter.
“We know that if we put them out of here, and they don’t have a bed, there isn’t another bed likely for them,” explained Johnson.
Downs described a typical night in the shelter as “a bit chaotic” because of so many babies and children sleeping in the same room, but she said the shelter provides the children some stability and a routine.
“We have a kid corner where they can watch movies and do their homework, and we let them burn some energy outside. We have a basketball hoop and bikes and balls,” she said.
The children nicknamed their outside play area, “the playground in the sky” because it sits atop the Rescue Mission’s employee parking garage and offers views of the city and planes passing by.
But Downs said the playground is only a temporary escape from a very hard life — especially school-age children who struggle in class because they don’t sleep well at night and it’s hard for them to pay attention and to learn. “We try to get lights out at 9 p.m., but they wake up at 5 a.m. and eat breakfast around 6 a.m.”
Most of the children attend Monarch School, dedicated for homeless children, or Washington Elementary — both schools are within walking distance to the shelter.
“We’ve had schools call us and say that some of our kids are so tired they’re falling asleep in class, and we’ll try to get those kids to sleep and make sure their homework is done, but it’s hard to get them up at five and out of the door,” said Downs.
Johnson said his workday typically ends at 6:30 p.m., just before the shelter opens. He said he’s often overwhelmed with guilt on his drive home, especially during bad weather.
“It’s like a freight train of women and baby carriages and kids coming up 2nd Ave. I look at those kids, they’re soaking wet, it’s raining. At least I know they’re going to be safe here,” he said.