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In January, Mayor Kevin Faulconer promised to quickly add hundreds of shelter beds to aid San Diego’s growing homeless population. After months of stagnation, his staff settled on three sites that had been on city officials’ radar all along.
Faulconer on Wednesday announced the city will pitch temporary tents at Barrio Logan and Midway sites that for years housed winter homeless tents, and at a third East Village parking lot that city officials have inquired about since at least the beginning of the year.
The difference maker: A deadly hepatitis A outbreak that’s left 16 dead, infected more than 400 people and disproportionately battered those living on the streets.
As street homelessness grew this year, Faulconer pledged quick action but then said consensus would be necessary. Consensus didn’t materialize, and the process stalled. Now, in the midst of the outbreak, Faulconer has decided to move forward.
“I wish you could snap your fingers and make things happen overnight,” Faulconer said in June. “It’s important to do it the right way. It’s important to get buy-in.”
By that time, city officials had analyzed countless buildings and properties, ruling many of them out in the process.
Since then, the county’s declared a public health emergency and the region’s received a hail of national scrutiny over the outbreak and the city and county’s months-long failure to address it.
At a Wednesday press conference, flanked by politicians and community leaders, Faulconer struck a different tone.
“One of the reasons we’ve reached a critical mass on homelessness is because government entities have been looking for answers that’ll make everyone happy,” said Faulconer.
“The truth is that nothing is easy when it comes to reducing homelessness and frankly, we can’t spend any more time worrying about whether this group or that group will be offended,” Faulconer said. “Lives are on the line. We need to take action.”
He’s now hoping at least one or two of the shelters, which are each expected to temporarily house at least 100 people, will open by the end of the year. Faulconer said the city will rely on a $1.5 million donation from a group led by Padres managing partner Peter Seidler and restaurateur Dan Shea to buy the tents. The city plans to contract with homeless-serving nonprofits Alpha Project, Father Joe’s Villages and Veterans Village of San Diego to operate them. Faulconer’s already talking about more tents elsewhere in the city too.
Faulconer’s Wednesday announcement comes nearly two months after Seidler and Shea publicly committed to supply at least two large industrial tents – and eight months since Faulconer’s January pledge to quickly add hundreds of shelter beds.
The city could have moved forward sooner.
Alpha Project operated a winter tent at the 16th Street and Newton Avenue in Barrio Logan for nearly a decade and Veterans Village ran another for homeless veterans on Sports Arena Boulevard in Midway for years too.
The sites were familiar to city officials leading the search for new shelter locations. One was even identified as a candidate for a shelter site months ago.
Emails obtained by Voice of San Diego through a public records request show city officials had looked closely at the parking lot at 14th Street and Commercial Avenue at the beginning of the year.
The parking lot, often called the Penske site, is on the nonprofit’s St. Vincent de Paul campus in East Village.
In a January email, Stacie Spector, then the mayor’s point person on homelessness, told Assistant Chief Operating Officer Stacey LoMedico that the site “might be back on deck as an (emergency) site option.”
A month later, Spector advised LoMedico that she wanted to organize an “ASAP meeting” with Father Joe’s Villages, city officials and the company that produces industrial tents to “assess viability and timeline and configuration of beds.”
By the end of March, Father Joe’s had announced another plan for the site: a 16-story affordable housing development with a homeless day center, expanded medical clinic and other amenities.
Yet on Wednesday, Father Joe’s publicly committed to operate a tent on the site until September 2018.
Bill Bolstad, Father Joe’s chief development officer, said the hepatitis A outbreak and surging homeless population convinced the nonprofit it could offer up the space after all.
“The fact of the matter is, the conditions on the street mean we have to do something,” Bolstad said.
Jonathan Herrera, the mayor’s senior adviser on homelessness coordination, said the recent public outcry amid the hepatitis A outbreak inspired a different approach to all the sites.
“I will be the first to say that each of these sites had an array of issues that we had to overcome and I think the recent attention on this issue, and most definitely the urgency that we’ve gotten from our stakeholders to come up with a solution, I think has provided us the flexibility we need to overcome these hurdles,” Herrera said.
In other words, city officials had looked at many sites and repeatedly pointed to reasons they couldn’t work.
Now, they’ve decided sites they either identified months ago or that previously housed shelters are acceptable after all.
“If you waited to find a site that made everybody happy, no action would be taken,” Faulconer said after the press conference. “It’s time for action.”