Friday, Oct. 27, 2006 | The beige, fabric-walled tent that stands at 16th Street and Newton Avenue in Barrio Logan is big enough to fit bunk beds for more than 200 homeless single adults. For the last six years, city officials have closed off an entire block of the street to build the tent, one of the three shelters that constitute their emergency winter program for the homeless.

Some argue “emergency” is the wrong word to describe the way the city thinks about this and the two other shelters involved in its winter shelter program. The tent is hardly a haphazard program. In six years, organizers have added health service providers and food programs – even the veterans hired to put up the tent have its assembly down to a science.

The catch for the program this year is the tent’s next-door neighbor, a dirt lot bordered by a covered chain-link fence. That lot, called the Graybill Terminal site, is a former fuel tank storage site. Because of at least one diesel spill, its soil needs to be treated before it can be developed for residential use.

The treatment was supposed to be completed by the summer. But logistical delays have pushed the process back until now. This year, crews will be removing loads of soil while the homeless congregate next door for their winter shelter. That many are concerned the fumes stirred up from an underground oil spill could cause harm to the homeless neighbors.

At a City Council meeting on Monday, Councilman Ben Hueso raised the issue among many concerns with the shelter’s impact on the Barrio Logan community. He said the health impacts for the homeless individuals staying in the shelter should be investigated before the city approves the funding for the shelter.

The council approved the emergency winter homeless program by a 5-3 on Monday despite the concerns. Council members Donna Frye and Tony Young sided with Hueso in voting against the program.

“There will be trucks every six minutes and approximately 112,000 tons of toxic waste will be removed during the time the shelter program will be in effect,” Hueso noted in a memo to City Attorney Mike Aguirre, which Aguirre read at Monday’s City Council meeting.

To address the health concerns, the county Department of Environmental Health met with the company in charge of the environmental remediation of the site, Renova Partners, Thursday. They discussed revising portions of a remediation plan already in place – specifically its community health and safety considerations – in light of the opening of the homeless shelter.

Mark McPherson, chief of land and water quality for the county, said Renova filed its remediation plan outlining the treatment for the facility in March. That plan was then open for public review for 30 days. At that time the remedy – removing 11 feet of soil from the site for treatment – was planned for the summer. Because of logistical delays, the remediation, which could take at least six months, has been pushed back until the winter – coinciding with the shelter’s operation.

Renova also submitted a dust management plan Thursday that may appease even more of the health concerns, McPherson said. He said his staff is determining the necessary revisions, if any, this week – the county may, for example, require more coverage of stockpiles and excavation holes in the lot.

“We had a good discussion,” McPherson said. “We want to make sure that the developer is given a chance to do their work.” And the county’s action doesn’t hold up the shelter in anyway, he said.

Hueso has been in office since January, and said he’s challenged the shelter’s location in Barrio Logan for several years.

“I had some issues with that lot in the past,” Hueso said in an interview. “None of the reports made any reference to the contamination, but we heard, ‘That’s how we do it every year.’ It concerns me that we’re continuing a practice just to maintain a status quo.”

Alpha Project Director Bob McElroy said he was blindsided by the environmental and health concerns.

“I thought it was a slam dunk,” he said of the winter homeless plan debated by council Monday.

He said he sympathizes with Hueso about the shelter going up in Barrio Logan every year, but added, “We are homeless providers and we have to do anything we can.”

“Far more toxic to [Hueso’s district] is having 200 people out using his district as a lavatory,” he said.

Fred Sainz, Mayor Jerry Sanders’ spokesman, said a report into the clean-up effort’s effects on the homeless tent – requested by Hueso – should be compiled by the end of next week.

“We are on track to get that shelter open,” he said.

The tent is up now and is slated be open Nov. 1 through April 15.

Sainz reiterated Sanders’ position that providing these homeless services is not part of the city’s core mission, but rather that of the county.

“Our community has a responsibility to have a winter shelter,” he said. “But we fully believe that is a county responsibility. In the absence of their leadership on these issues, the city has been placed in this unfortunate position. … We don’t believe this is an area in which we succeed.”

McElroy, of the Alpha Project, said the shelter will be welcomed in the homeless community.

“It’s not pretty,” he said of the fabric tent. “But it’s really pretty when you’re sleeping on sidewalks.”

One afternoon this week, a handful of people sat around the corner from the shelter, among their own makeshift tents, blankets draped over rusted shopping carts and rumpled sleeping bags carpeting the sidewalk. They’ve heard rumors about the contamination of the site, but that doesn’t deter them from sleeping close to the shelter as they wait for it to open.

“Hell, man, half our soil is contaminated,” said James Stacy, a homeless man who used a cane to gesture in emphasis. “I’ve lived in worse places than this. It’s getting nasty out here.”

Suffering from pneumonia – he said he got caught in the rain a couple weeks ago – Stacy said he’d rather sleep in a bed in the tent adjacent to the fumes in question than sleep on the street.

“We need to sleep somewhere,” he said. “We need to sleep somewhere.”

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