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Monday was a big day for homeless services in San Diego. Hundreds of people gathered in the morning on a cordoned-off block on A Street to commemorate the opening of Connections Housing, the city’s permanent, year-round homeless services facility.

The building will have 223 beds, 83 of which are private apartments for long-term living, and 134 of which are interim beds meant for 30- to 60-day stays. The building also incorporates a health clinic, a kitchen and offices where residents can get help from about 30 service organizations and training groups.

A few blocks away, the City Council voted later in the day to spend $400,000 for two public restrooms in East Village, and $300,000 to keep the downtown winter tent shelter open for three months after its planned closing date in April, both proposals put forth by Mayor Bob Filner.

The morning celebration represented the culmination of years of citywide discussion about location, funding and scope of the permanent project. State, county and city politicians cheered the building’s opening alongside developers, financiers and business groups. Ultimately, the project to rehab the high-rise that was originally built as an athletic club in the 1920s cost $38 million. (Here’s our explainer on the building.)

In the run-up to Connections’ approval in 2010, many argued that the new center would obviate the need for the winter tent shelters the city erects every year — one for single adults, the other for veterans. The city even obligated the funding stream it spends on the tent each year to running the interim beds at Connections.

“This is a game-changer in the way we handle homelessness in this community,” City Councilman Todd Gloria said at the opening ceremony. “For too long, we’ve decided that two tents in the wintertime was enough. That caring for 16 weeks out of the year was sufficient. I personally believe that San Diegans care about this situation 52 weeks out of the year, and that’s what this building signifies.”

But many of the morning’s celebratory speeches included the caveat that Connections does not represent a magic bullet — and that come next winter, the city will still need the winter tents.

The council grappled later in the day with Filner’s proposal to keep the winter tent located at 16th and Newton Avenue, open longer. (The veterans shelter, which will close in April, was not included in the mayor’s proposal.)

The city’s Independent Budget Analyst in a report Friday supported Filner’s proposal for the new East Village restrooms, but recommended that the council defer the rest of the proposals until they can weigh them against the other pieces in Filner’s next year budget, which is expected to have a $40 million deficit.

But in the meeting, a couple dozen people spoke in support of extending the life of the downtown tent, many of them residents of the shelter who spoke to the impact the service has had on their lives. (We held our recent homelessness discussion at that tent.)

The city’s contract for the tent goes through the Housing Commission, whose CEO, Rick Gentry, said he supported the extension of either of the winter tents. Gentry reminded the council that last fall, the Housing Commission had to work with the developers at Connections to find private funding to operate the tent this year to ensure crucial shelter before the new facility opened.

Gentry cautioned that keeping the tent open past April could compromise the funding it would need to open up again at the end of the year.

“The funding for the winter shelter for next winter has not been identified,” Gentry said. “You all need to understand that.”

The mayor stood up and interrupted. “In my budget, the funding will be there for the winter tent,” he said. Later, as Gloria asked questions about how to pay for the bathrooms’ maintenance, the mayor came to the mic again.

“I have never seen such a bureaucratization of the need to go to the bathroom,” he said. “Let us let people go to the bathroom, please.”

Ultimately, the council approved funding the bathrooms and the tent shelter extension.

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

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Kelly Bennett

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

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