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Several hundred people filled a barricaded block of downtown next to Connections Housing, the city’s long-awaited, $38 million permanent homeless services center, one sunny morning in March.

More than an hour of jubilant, we-did-it speeches followed from politicians, developers, consultants and the project’s lead agency, People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH. Years of fundraising and politicking had wrought a sparkling building to help some of the city’s neediest. But after the hallways and streets cleared, the center’s leaders faced the challenge of fulfilling those promises.

So far, that has proved harder than the celebration-day speakers let on.

You might expect some stresses and strains, considering the center’s audacious assignment: Take more than 200 of downtown’s most vulnerable, difficult street-dwellers and coax them to live under one roof.

But how things are going inside Connections Housing now merits at least a fraction of the public attention paid to its opening. The building is full, but it’s taking time to get up to speed, according to interviews with project leaders and several people who live in the building:

• What’s supposed to be a one-stop service center is limited, as several groups and agencies that pledged to provide services have yet to move onsite.

• Though PATH and city leaders raised $38 million to pay for the building itself, Connections still doesn’t know where all the money will come from to keep its doors open through the next year.

• For all of its buzz about being cutting-edge, Connections faces many of the same hurdles as existing homeless services providers: primarily, a local shortage of permanent apartments in which to place people after they’ve been served by the facility. It’s unclear whether, or how, the short-term “interim” bed program will perform better than existing programs.

Lynda Conrad, 53, praises Connections for simply bringing her indoors. “Getting into here has enabled me to become human again,” she said one recent afternoon, as she ate lunch outside on the sidewalk across the street.

An outreach worker had found Conrad sleeping near the Social Security office and recommended her for the short-term program. Conrad used to sell jewelry she makes at the Embarcadero, but she was ticketed for selling outside of a kiosk and lost her income and her room in a residential hotel.

Now, she sleeps indoors, in a cubicle with Zsa Zsa Richardson, 47, whom she didn’t know before Connections.

“I love it. I feel safe,” said Conrad, one of the only residents out of about 10 interviewed for this story who agreed to describe her experiences publicly.

But Conrad, Richardson and others described difficulties getting the help they need — setting up and getting to appointments for benefits in multiple agencies around town, delays in meeting with case managers, different answers from different people. These are exactly the type of problems that PATH’s model is designed to eradicate.

Conrad and several others admonished me that every new project takes time to find its footing.

But these growing pains have high stakes: “I definitely wouldn’t want to go backwards again,” she said.

‘I’m Not Sure If Everybody’s Here Yet’

One of the hallmarks of the Connections project is a one-stop service center, a sort of “mall” where building residents are supposed to find services they need to transition off of the streets, all in one place.

In tours and promotional materials, PATH said 35 agencies — legal help, employment training, salon services among them — would set up shop in the building.

As PATH President Joel John Roberts wrote in an op-ed about the project in February, “When people on the streets choose to access services at Connections Housing, they are literally embraced by 35 San Diego service agencies that will be based out of the PATH Depot, a multiservice center located within Connections Housing.”

But in the project’s first months, “very limited” services were available to the residents, according to PATH’s reports to the Housing Commission, the agency overseeing the project on the city’s behalf.

Connections instituted two daily hour-long windows when residents would be urged to use the depot. Some agencies schedule an hour or a few hours a week to be onsite. Others are there less frequently.

“I’m not sure if everybody’s here yet. There are a few organizations there at least every week, sometimes every other week,” Conrad said. “They said 35 companies. I haven’t seen anywhere near that.”

The abridged services means residents of the building’s short-term beds — meant to move them from the streets to permanent housing within 90 days — didn’t have enough help to make that move by the end of April, said Amy Gonyeau, chief operating officer for Alpha Project, an agency partnering with PATH to run the short-term program in Connections.

“We don’t have the support enough to give anybody a fair shot at getting through this program, so I’m waiting,” she said in April. “I’m not going to jeopardize people’s stay here because we don’t have the support we need right now.”

By early May, Gonyeau said the services in the depot were picking up. “They have increased some groups and things like that,” she said. “Services have increased but it’s still not what it should be. I think they’re working on it.”

After I made numerous requests over two weeks, PATH would not allow me to visit the building to observe how the depot is working. PATH’s San Diego director, Jessica Wishan, asked for patience.

“We’ve only truly been open for a month and a half,” she said. “We’re trying to get people used to housing and services. Perhaps refining, you know, what those needs are. It’s a very collaborative process.”

In an email, PATH marketing director Jeremy Sydell denied that the depot is hamstrung.

It’s not accurate to describe the current range of services as sparse. The depot currently hosts a minimum of 15 partner agencies per week, offering a full range of supportive services in one location. We’ve made significant progress since February and continue to work with existing partners, as well as new possible partners, to expand services and hours.

That minimum of 15 agencies, if accurate, contrasts with the picture Roberts painted of residents being “literally embraced” by 35 service agencies, and also differs from the list of three dozen partner agencies on the Connections website.

Wishan and Sydell emphasized that the partner agencies are not compensated for their work in the depot, and so Connections can’t force them to spend time there. And they say there are other agencies that agreed to set up shop there that haven’t yet.

But the one-stop service center, modeled after PATH’s own center in Los Angeles that many local lawmakers toured before lending their support, was central to the proposal for this project, which beat a competing bid from Father Joe’s Villages. It’s perhaps the most frequently cited tool PATH touted for ending the cycle of homelessness for the people who come through the building.

PATH submitted updated reports this week to the Housing Commission about what services building residents have received since people began moving in in January.

“We’re getting into the swing of things,” Gonyeau said earlier this month. “It’s going a lot better in the last couple of weeks.”

Money to Keep the Doors Open

Connections cost $38 million to build — largely a combination of government funds intended for redevelopment, mental health and low-income housing projects.

But Connections still doesn’t have all the money it needs to operate the building in the future.

The Connections building receives many different funding streams for its operations budget of about $2 million. Residents of 89 permanent apartments pay 30 percent of any income they have to stay there. The rest of their rent payment comes from federal vouchers the Housing Commission designated for the building.

For the 134 short-term beds, the city also pitches in about $442,000 each year from the federal grants it previously spent on its emergency tent shelter program. The idea was that Connections would eradicate the need for the tent and its 200-plus emergency beds, but that swap seemed more ridiculous as Connections got closer to opening. The city grapples with hundreds of homeless people living downtown; Connections can only accommodate 134 in its short-term program.

That tent shelter is still open this year, and the mayor proposed spending $1.3 million in city general fund money next year to keep it open year-round. There’s also talk of funding the city’s other tent, for homeless veterans, year-round. That still leaves Connections with a gap of at least $500,000 for operations in the coming fiscal year, its leaders say.

Where does this gap show up? Not in the case management services to residents, Wishan contends. She said the current ratio of case managers to residents is sufficient. Currently there are 22 residents for every case manager in the 89 permanent units and about 15 residents for every case manager in the short-term program. That’s well within the typical range provided in other programs that combine housing and services.

“We have the supportive services that we have now, which are sufficient, and then we have the overall goal of increasing and strengthening those services,” Wishan said.

‘An Emphasis on Finding Permanent Solutions’

Roberts called Connections a “new, cutting-edge homeless housing program” in his commentary.

But whatever one chooses to call it, the program still faces the same key problem as many others.

A chorus of local providers has cried out for more spaces — affordable housing units, and private landlords willing to accept the reduced-rent vouchers and formerly homeless tenants — to place people in their own apartments. Last year in San Diego, transitional housing programs placed just 43 percent of their participants into permanent housing. The federal standard for that transition is 65 percent.

There’s a new voice in that chorus now: Connections.

Connections staff started with the benefit of moving 73 people initially into their own upstairs permanent units. A recent NPR feature highlighted the life-changing impact of the project on Wanda Foreman, who used to sleep outside under a tree nearby before she moved into one of the apartments.

Connections also has 35 vouchers it will be able to use to place people from the interim section of the building into longer-term housing.

But it’s unclear how quickly those vouchers will come back into the rotation for other people exiting the building, and what will happen to the other 100 or so residents in the 134-bed program.

“Until then, all we can do is work collaboratively and leverage the resources that we do have,” Wishan said. “And work with people with the goal to find permanent housing for them.” Wishan said she’s optimistic.

So did Gonyeau. Some short-term residents have found jobs, she said. Others have leads on permanent apartments.

“Connections Housing is housing, not shelter, with an emphasis on finding permanent solutions rather than temporary ones,” Roberts wrote in his op-ed.

Now, it’s up to PATH, the residents trying to leave the streets for good and the city leaders who posed for photos and offered sweeping praise at the building’s opening to ensure that.

Clarification: This post has been updated to better reflect the number of homeless people living downtown.

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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