In the end, few were surprised. The winter homeless shelter will be downtown, again.
But when the San Diego City Council’s vote came down, there were, nonetheless, gasps from the center of the room. Then realization. Then outrage.
Caryl Iseman, realtor and president of the East Village Community Action Network, shot up, collected her purse and pink cell phone, shuffled out of her row and rushed the dais.
As District 2 Councilman Kevin Faulconer descended, Iseman charged. “Kevin, there’s going to be a lawsuit. There is going to be a lawsuit, Kevin,” she told him.
Faulconer started to utter a direct response, and then paused. “Thanks for coming out, Caryl,” said Faulconer, who with Council President Ben Hueso voted against the shelter’s placement. For weeks he’d tried to avoid this outcome. He looked at last resigned to his loss.
It was not just Iseman predicting that council’s 6-2 vote would result in legal action. “There’s going to be a wrongful death suit, too, if someone dies out in the cold,” said Cricket Bradburn, a district 2 resident.
Iseman and her supporters regrouped with their attorney and mingled. Some wore pearls and knee-length coats, knee-high stiletto boots, and immaculate hairstyles.
Next to them sat some of the city’s thousands of homeless, in plastic sandals, ratty T-shirts and sockless shoes. They said little. They appeared less enthused about the winter shelter’s approval than the East Villagers were angry it would be in their neighborhood.
Council selected a primary location at the corner of 15th Street and Island Avenue, the same place it was last year. The owner said it is unavailable this year because he received stimulus funds to develop it. But council still wants to use it, so the mayor’s staff will try to secure it.
If that fails, 220 beds will be moved into an empty warehouse at the corner of 13th and F streets, a few blocks away.
The issue came full circle.
Last month, that site was presented by the mayor’s office in a list of several downtown locations for the winter shelter, but council rejected them, saying the list was incomplete because it had not considered sites beyond downtown.
But that is where services for the homeless are, the mayor’s office said, though the mayor agreed to look elsewhere. He asked for council members’ help in choosing sites citywide. They refused. So his staff canvassed the city, and the mayor proposed his own list: 27 sites scattered across the city from Otay Mesa to University City.
On Tuesday, residents who in years past would have stayed home converged at council chambers, showing up to testify against sites that were never likely options, just to be safe. The shelter was volleyed across the room as one-by-one, residents and constituents made the case for why not their neighborhoods.
Some chastised the council for waiting “until the 11th hour,” and said viable alternatives had been overlooked.
“All of you have to wake up in your districts and understand that it is time that you look at some sites. I looked at some sites,” Iseman said during the public comment period, “and there is a good site…”
Just then, they cut her microphone. The council did not have to hear it. She walked back to her seat, a moment of truth, perhaps, averted.
There was tension among council members, too. Hueso challenged member Donna Frye’s reference to the Regional Taskforce on Homelessness’ count of homeless people in each council district, which found that the number downtown far exceeded other areas of the city.
And council members displayed some confusion over the realities of homelessness in the area.
District 7 Councilwoman Marti Emerald asked Bob McElroy, director of the Alpha Project, which runs the winter shelter, how having the county’s detox center downtown affects the number of downtown’s homeless.
“Most of the folks that utilize detox are not homeless,” McElroy said. There was applause in the chamber.
Hueso, discussing longer term plans to develop a permanent homeless services facility downtown, questioned the mayor’s office on whether the process had moved forward.
Told it had, he wondered why no one knew.
“That’s not clear in the media or in the press, that we’ve been working on this,” Hueso said. It has been extensively reported, including here.
There were voices for the homeless, too, though far fewer of them.
David Ross, a local activist, said he showed up as a matter of principle, though he knew the shelter would end up downtown.
Rob Langford appealed to decency. “We are troubled by the negative and less than human portrayal of people who are on the streets, who are there simply because of the crime of being poor,” he said. “These are people’s parents. These are people’s children. These are people’s brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents.”
After the meeting, the crowd streamed out. The East Village representatives rode the elevator to the lobby. They left City Hall on cell phones, headed for a downtown restaurant to strategize their next steps, Iseman said.
On the ground floor, Anita and Mark Wilson, a homeless couple, stepped off a separate elevator and, together, quietly walked outside.