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A year after opening its doors to 223 homeless San Diegans, Connections Housing is feeling the weight of its heavy promises.

Calling itself an all-inclusive network to address chronic homelessness, Connections Housing, operated by People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH, pledged to reduce homelessness near its downtown location by bringing people off the streets and into interim and permanent beds.

Connections said it would provide the newly sheltered residents every vital resource to keep them off the streets and move them into permanent housing.

But a recent San Diego County Grand Jury report found some major snags in the execution of that plan: Employee salaries and benefits comprise about a third of yearly costs, and a complicated budget provides money for services already furnished by outside volunteers – specifically food. According to the report, despite its budget for meals, Connections has no specific funds allocated for food, and has relied on donations from local nonprofit Urban Angels to provide the nearly 75,000 meals served since opening.

Beyond the roughly $2.4 million budget and its implementation issues, most of Connections’ numbers look good. According to PATH’s research, homelessness within a quarter-mile radius is down 70 percent. Connections has a nearly perfect retention rate in its 73 permanent apartments — most of the residents in the permanent supportive housing stay put.

“They’re really developing a sense of community,” said April Joy Galka, PATH’s director of programs. She said the permanent residents, who live on floors four through 12, recently started their own newsletter. There’s a community garden on the fifth floor terrace, where they grow vegetables to cook in their apartments.

But not all residents have access to the open space. Residents of the 16 special-needs “single room occupancy” units can’t get into the garden.

They don’t get fobs for the elevator that would take them there. Nor do they have their own kitchens or mailboxes.

That’s because they are in a short-term program and aren’t permanent residents, Galka said. She says that ideally the single-room occupants, who all suffer from serious illnesses, are moved into a more permanent housing situation within six months. But it can take a year or longer.

John Woods has been in a second-floor single-room unit for 16 months while he waits to move to a permanent apartment. “I think that is the catalyst for my frustration,” Woods said, “that I’ve been here such a long time.”

The high retention rate of Connections’ permanent apartments means there isn’t space for single-room residents to move upstairs. But for tenants like Woods, who spend more than a year in their interim rooms, the sparse accommodations start to feel permanent.

The single-room units share a floor with a 134-bed interim program run by Alpha Project, which has a partnership with Connections. But Alpha Project residents have different rules and guidelines than their single-room unit neighbors, including Alpha Project residents’ mandatory use of supportive services. Unlike the special-needs single-room residents, Alpha Project residents must successfully gain income within 90 days. Alpha Project residents also have a mandatory lights-out curfew, whereas single-room residents are allowed to come and go as they please.

“We knew that going in – that we shared space,” Woods said. “But it’s still kind of strange (that) to come and go, we have to walk through where people are sleeping.”

Galka said the divisions between permanent apartments, single-room units and the Alpha Project housing are due to the different funding streams and housing vouchers each program within Connections receives.

“SROs are different because they are medically frail,” and therefore receive specific funding, said Viviana Guzman of Solari Enterprises, which is contracted by PATH to manage the Connections property.

Yet many residents are unaware of how funding determines where they sleep – or who they can ask for help.

Guzman said the division between different units is not a daily issue. “When SRO residents need anything, like soap or laundry detergent, they know where to get it and how the system works,” she said.

That system requires single-room unit residents to contact their PATH case managers and schedule appointments to discuss their needs. But Woods says residents usually turn to Alpha Project staff with all their requests.

And there are a lot of them.

“These are very, very high-needs clients,” said Amy Gonyeau, COO at Alpha Project. “There is never a dull moment. We provide daily support to the SRO residents. No doubt, we provide that support 24 hours a day.”

The grand jury report also noted the blurry line between single-room occupants and Alpha Project:

Since Alpha Project generally runs the second and third floors, PATH’s responsibilities for the 16 special needs residents seem confusing. Alpha Project counselors escort these people to meals, help in counseling, and assist these residents, although PATH receives grant money for these special needs clients who have housing vouchers to pay for their rent.

Woods said he doesn’t think there is any malicious intent behind what he calls the mismanagement of the single-room units. “But I think the grand jury’s report said it best that some salaries were certainly padded by the budget. Other things have been neglected. I think this is one of the things that has been neglected,” he said.

But Gonyeau said she hoped the confusion could be resolved. “We work closely with PATH and property management to address issues on a daily basis,” she said. “The first year poses all the challenges, and hopefully this [next] year we’ll have a smoother transition.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Image courtesy of PATH

Down in the basement, Connections is experiencing other growing pains.

The PATH Depot was touted by PATH partners and politicians as a one-stop shop for every resource a sheltered homeless person might need. It was supposed to be the element that set apart the project from other permanent homeless housing projects – the keystone of Connections. In an op-ed published two weeks before Connections opened, PATH President Joel Jon Roberts wrote that residents would be “literally embraced by 35 San Diego service agencies that will be based out of the PATH Depot.”

But just two months after the grand opening, the depot was still filling in, leaving residents to question when the full array of providers would be available.

Turns out, they might never all show up, or at least not all at once. The majority of depot providers aren’t based out of Connections — they volunteer their services each month during limited hours.

The depot does provide some valuable services, though. The June calendar included employability classes, legal aid and computer workshops. Connections staff said they even launched the Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program that has helped nearly 150 veterans get hired.

And there are more permanent providers: mental health services from Alvarado Parkway Institute and medical help by Family Health Centers of San Diego, both of which are on-site 40 hours a week.

Residents told me they knew about the services at the depot, from a calendar of providers and PATH activities readily available at the main desk. But it’s hard to figure out which of these providers actually show up.

Kalie Standish, associate director of community engagement at PATH, said there were roughly 30 providers and partners coming on site each month. The Connections website lists nearly 60 depot service providers. The June calendar only showed 20 providers coming on site that month. The numbers just don’t add up.

In an effort to clarify, Standish said in an email that all service providers are volunteering their time:

Their involvement can be daily, weekly, monthly, or even quarterly. Some months we may have 20 providers, with other months at 40. We stagger classes and offerings dependent on the need of individuals we’re serving.

Despite the confusion, those who do show up in the depot are helping residents. Heather Pollock, executive director and staff attorney for Girls Think Tank, said the legal referral clinic she runs at Connections is getting a lot of foot traffic. “PATH has done a good job of highlighting us and encouraging people to utilize our service,” she said. Pollock is only there twice a month for an hour, she said, but she stays later if people need additional services.

Galka and Standish said Connections is drafting a response to the grand jury report. PATH has until the end of August to submit formal comments on the report’s findings.

Gwyneth Shoecraft

Gwyneth is an intern for Voice of San Diego.

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