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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.)

The setup:

• 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 or 619.325.0531.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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