By Kelly Davis.
It’s been two weeks since the tent-like structures the city’s used for nearly 30 years to shelter homeless adults and military vets during winter months came down for the last time.
Replacing the tents is a 350-bed, year-round, bricks-and-mortar shelter in St. Vincent de Paul’s Paul Mirable Center in East Village. Roughly 100 people moved from the tents into the PMC on April 1; another 250 are expected to move in by July 1. Up to 40 percent of the beds will be set aside for veterans.
A continuation of the winter tents — let alone a year-round shelter — wasn’t supposed to be in the city’s future. Only a few years ago, the plan was for Connections Housing, with its 134 short-term-stay beds and 73 units of permanent-supportive housing, to replace the adult winter shelter when it opened in 2013. But the city’s evolving approach to ending homelessness, plus a boost in tax revenues, resulted in money to keep the tents open. Roughly $1.5 million from the city’s general fund will cover the shelter’s $1.8 million annual operating cost.
This is homelessness we’re talking about, though, so the move is not without controversy. At a March City Council meeting, public speakers questioned whether St. Vincent de Paul was the right provider for the job and why the shelter’s operating plan called for stays to be limited to 45 days. The shelter’s 350 beds are replacing a program that’s being phased out, folks argued, meaning it’s not adding to the city’s supply of emergency beds. Meanwhile, a group of private developers is looking at whether a building just outside of downtown can become the shelter that’ll finally put a dent in San Diego’s homeless population.
Here are four things to keep in mind amid all the changes.
The new shelter doesn’t necessarily boost the city’s number of available beds.
For the last several years, the PMC’s 350 beds, arranged barracks-style and separated by cubicles, have been used for transitional housing — a short-term program intended to be a person’s final step out of homelessness.
But transitional housing programs, which usually come with strict program requirements, have fallen out of fashion. The Department of Housing and Urban Development now favors what’s called “housing first” – an approach that’s just like it sounds: Giving people a permanent residence and connecting them with services from there. In 2013, federally funded transitional-housing programs in San Diego were moving only 43 percent of tenants into permanent housing, far below the 65 percent bar set by HUD.
The PMC’s program was one of those low performers. St. Vincent de Paul got HUD’s approval to keep the funding, but only if it was reallocated to a program that assists homeless families.
So, while the 350 beds aren’t new, if not for Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s decision to spend general-fund money on a year-round shelter, those beds would have gone away.
The goal of moving shelter residents into permanent housing within 45 days might be unrealistic.
A press release announcing that St. Vincent de Paul had been awarded the shelter contract included as a bullet point that “45-day lengths of stay” would “reinforce the importance of moving out of homelessness and into more permanent housing.”
Housing officials took the average stay in the 2014-2015 winter tent, 30 days, and added a 15-day cushion to arrive at the 45-day limit, said Maria Velasquez, a spokeswoman for the Housing Commission.
That doesn’t necessarily mean folks in the winter tent were moving into stable housing within 30 days, though, said Amy Gonyeau, COO for the Alpha Project, the agency that operated the winter shelter up through April 1. That 30-day average factored in people who stayed for only a night or two before returning to the street, Gonyeau said.
More realistic would be a 90-day length of stay, like at Connections Housing, said Monica Ball, a downtown Realtor who’s been involved in efforts to end homelessness.
Folks who’ve been chronically homeless rarely have the documentation needed to tap into what little income they might be entitled to, like disability or Social Security benefits. Getting those documents can take time, Ball said.
“If they need a birth certificate and they’re coming in fresh off the street, it can take 45 days.”
And then there’s the challenge of finding housing. Talk to anyone involved in homeless services and they’ll tell you there’s a critical lack of decent affordable housing.
“A shelter, by itself … is only going to be able to flow people into the resources that are available,” said Michael McConnell, a team leader for 25 Cities San Diego, the local arm of a national effort aimed at ending homelessness.
“Forty-five days is just very, very short,” said Jim Vargas, St. Vincent de Paul’s new CEO. “For some people, 45 days may be fine. Some people will be out in less.”
Vargas said 45 days is the goal, and folks who need more time will be allowed to stay longer.
St. Vincent de Paul’s transitional-housing program wasn’t able to move enough people into permanent housing fast enough, but the organization says things will be different with the shelter.
Bill Bolstad, vice president of capital development at St. Vincent de Paul, said the transitional-housing program’s underperformance has no bearing on the shelter. The transitional program operated during a different era for San Diego’s homeless services, when communication and collaboration among providers, the community and city leaders wasn’t nearly as strong as it is now.
Bolstad said there’s been a shift away from focusing on a program’s performance to looking at a region’s system of homeless services as a whole. Meaning, if a program’s struggling, maybe it’s because there’s a gap in the system.
Each person who enters the PMC’s shelter program will be assessed to find out their medical needs, whether they have mental health issues or have struggled with addiction as well as what sort of programs and services they’ve engaged with in the past. That data will help match the person to the right type of housing, whether it’s affordable rental housing or something that’s paired with services. If data show that a certain group of people is harder to place, that would, ideally, trigger a shift in resources.
“Our hope is that it will help identify what the need is in our system,” Bolstad said.
Bolstad said St. Vincent’s plans to hire one or two more “housing locators” to join the eight or nine they already have — folks whose job it is to find affordable market-rate housing and landlords willing to accept federal housing vouchers.
Developers and community groups don’t think a 350-bed shelter will have an impact on East Village’s homeless population.
Marcos Aguilera, chair of the Barrio Logan Association, refers to the high-rise condo project going up at 15th Street and Island Avenue in East Village as the “Pinnacle bubble” (Pinnacle is name of the developer). The area adjacent to the building is a hub for homeless folks whose tents line nearby sidewalks. The condo project will only push those folks into neighboring Logan Heights and Barrio Logan, Aguilera said.
Barrio Logan already has its own problems with the homeless, independent of the shelter having been located there for so long.
“Anyone that says just because the tent went away that the problem went away? That’s people putting blinders on their eyes,” he said.
“Developers who would like to do some projects in Barrio Logan, one of the concerns is the current state of affairs with the homeless,” he said. “The long-term thing would be the Hancock Center. That’s kind of a game-changer there.”
He’s referring to a large building on Hancock Street, just outside downtown and near where the veterans winter tent was located. Both Aguilera and Ball, the Realtor, are part of an informal group looking at whether the building could be purchased, or leased and turned into a shelter that could hold up to 600 beds.
Aguilera said it was too early to discuss details, but said funding would need to be a mix of private and public dollars.
“It has the legs to happen,” he said. “Just the right entities need to find out about it in the right way.”