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If you’re a homeless person who walks off the street and into downtown’s Paul Mirabile Center, the region’s largest year-round shelter, you’ll likely wait almost three weeks for a bed. Potential clients at Interfaith Community Service’s smaller 49-bed shelter in Escondido can wait as long as six weeks.
The latest census of San Diego County’s homeless population revealed a 19 percent increase in those living on the streets. The frequent shortage of immediate shelter and resources for the homeless only make it more challenging to get people off the streets.
“As a community, we need to realize there are not adequate resources right now,” said Bill Bolstad of Father Joe’s Villages, which operates the Paul Mirabile Center.
The mismatch between need and San Diego’s relative lack of emergency resources aren’t new.
Just 9 percent of year-round beds available to San Diego’s homeless population last year were considered emergency resources, according to a Voice of San Diego analysis of federal Housing and Urban Development data. Other West Coast cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix reported about double that share.
Interfaith Community Services Executive Director Greg Anglea, who leads a regional committee overseeing local progress on ending veteran and chronic homelessness, said there’s long been a supply-and-demand issue.
Counterintuitively, the increased focus on connecting the homeless with permanent housing has further emphasized the need for short-term beds, Angela and others say. It can take weeks or even months to secure long-term housing for a homeless person, and without an interim place for that person to stay, he or she can lose touch with those trying to help.
“Even if we have apartment for someone, it doesn’t do that person any good if we can’t get a hold of them,” Anglea said.
One homeless-serving nonprofit is determined to do something about it.
The Alpha Project, which for years operated a city-funded winter tent, is floating a 600-bed emergency shelter to downtown property owners and power-brokers.
Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy is adamant the region needs more shelter beds to accommodate the homeless, particularly those who have flocked to East Village.
“I’m tired of seeing good people wallow in filth and mental illness and medical issues that are gonna kill them,” McElroy said.
McElroy’s selling a vision for a central intake facility at a to-be-determined location outside downtown that would connect people with an array of other nonprofit and government resources. It’d be part of a coordinated entry system, meaning someone who walked into the Alpha Project hub could eventually be placed into another program or housing. Those who walked in would get an immediate place to stay and time to figure out what’s next.
“It just provides one place where you go and check in if you’re homeless,” said Amy Gonyeau, Alpha Project’s chief operating officer.
Ideally, those staying at the shelter would also get on-location help securing identification cards and benefits like Social Security, steps that can complicate a chronically homeless person’s effort to get housing. Veterans and others awaiting housing through other programs would be welcome, Gonyeau said.
(Consequently, there are now resources available for veterans thanks to federal goals and newer local initiatives. Bolstad said veterans can often be placed in Father Joe’s interim shelter that same day while non-veterans can wait weeks.)
The concept isn’t new. Clients at Father Joe’s short-term shelter are entered into a regional coordinated assessment system upon their arrival and welcomed on an interim basis while they await permanent housing. Connections Housing, another downtown provider, was sold as a place where the homeless could access a variety of services. Larger shelters and central intake hubs have been discussed for years, namely by Alpha Project.
But Alpha Project, which helps run the short-term bed program at Connections, believes larger-scale, around-the-clock help is now more urgently needed than ever.
Others see a need for a 24-hour resource, too.
One of them is Dolores Diaz, executive director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, whose organization conducts the annual homeless census. She said a facility that could welcome those in need 24/7 would be an asset.
“Clearly, when we look at our unsheltered point-in-time count numbers, we need to do everything possible to get people off the street or they’re going to die prematurely,” Diaz said.
National experts are increasingly talking about the importance of emergency housing in places like San Diego, with large unsheltered homeless populations and tight housing markets.
Matthew Doherty, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, said short-term shelter can prove crucial in such communities.
“Shelter and bridge housing play critical roles in providing pathways for people and often do provide a way to help people more efficiently,” Doherty said.
Yet there’s disagreement about whether adding more shelter in San Diego is the best first step.
Michael McConnell, a homeless advocate who’s leading a regional effort to assess demand for various homeless interventions, said more analysis is needed.
Some providers are moving away from transitional housing programs in the wake of a federal push to follow other models. McConnell said those nonprofits may be able to offer emergency or short-term beds instead.
In other cases, current shelter providers could lower the barriers to entry into their programs. Then there’s the issue of the lack of permanent housing for the homeless to move to – creating a bottleneck at existing shelters.
“The problem still is not the front end,” McConnell said. “It’s the back end.”
Gonyeau of the Alpha Project doesn’t entirely disagree with McConnell. She and McElroy are adamant connecting clients with permanent housing is the ultimate goal.
They just believe hundreds of beds are needed in the meantime. The latest point-in-time count showed a 21 percent spike in downtown street homelessness alone.
“Most of the shelters are full every day,” Gonyeau said. “We need that immediacy to start helping people work on what they need to work on.”