1401 Imperial Avenue
Earlier this year, the San Diego City Council voted to purchase this former indoor skydiving facility at 1401 Imperial Avenue in hopes of making it the city’s first navigation center for homeless. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Earlier this year, the San Diego City Council voted to purchase this former indoor skydiving facility at 1401 Imperial Avenue in hopes of making it the city’s first navigation center for homeless. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego recently sunk $7 million into a building that city leaders hope can help homeless San Diegans navigate a complex homeless-services system that can alienate and overwhelm the most vulnerable.

But the planned East Village housing navigation center raises a key question: Can a new building fix the problems that were created by the confusing tangle of government agencies and nonprofits offering homeless services?

Two out-of-town experts warn against seeing the housing navigation center as a holistic solution to the process it seeks to improve.

“It will not make up for any deficiencies in your system if your system still can’t deliver the key resources that are needed,” said Barbara Poppe, an Ohio-based consultant who once led the agency coordinating the federal government’s response to homelessness.

For years, public and nonprofit agencies have struggled to get on the same page to address the region’s growing homelessness. They’ve also struggled to quickly move homeless San Diegans into housing — and to find affordable housing for them.

A slew of efforts are underway throughout the county and in the city to improve the homeless-serving system and more efficiently help homeless San Diegans. The success of those efforts will play heavily in the success of the city’s new navigation center. In the absence of a systematic approach, homeless San Diegans can bounce from place to place seeking help. The chaos of street life makes it a struggle to keep appointments and deadlines. They can also wait months or even years for help. Many with the greatest challenges never make it off the street.

Indeed, a Sacramento consultant’s 2017 review of San Diego’s homeless-serving system noted that many of the most vulnerable homeless had been assessed by homeless service providers but remained on streets because they needed more help navigating the system.

The Focus Strategies report urged the region to improve coordination, prioritize the most vulnerable and more swiftly move clients into housing.

One thing it didn’t recommend: a new navigation center to accomplish that.

But the city last month purchased a shuttered indoor skydiving facility at 14th Street and Imperial Avenue in hopes of transforming it into the physical embodiment of a coordinated homeless-serving system. The city is awaiting proposals from homeless-serving nonprofits to operate it.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s team envisions the facility as a place where homeless San Diegans are quickly assessed and linked with the right resources to help them off the street. They want a center where homeless San Diegans walk in and are paired with experts who help them find housing, help them get IDs, Social Security benefits, healthcare services and more. Clients would also be referred to resources elsewhere that are best suited for their needs.

The concept isn’t new.

Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy has advocated a similar concept for more than a decade. And more than five years ago, city officials got behind a similar facility, eventually known as PATH Connections Housing. PATH originally proposed a drop-in facility, but by the time it opened only clients already enrolled in other PATH programs could use the services in the building.

Fast-forward to 2016. A handful of prominent business leaders rallied behind McElroy’s long-held idea, also called for hundreds of shelter beds.

In early 2017, the mayor announced the city was seeking qualified nonprofits with ideas for operating the center. The concept has since been refined to eliminate shelter beds and focus on connecting clients to permanent housing. The city’s Housing Commission is now accepting proposals, and the city could open the facility as soon as July.

Jonathan Herrera, the mayor’s senior adviser on homelessness coordination, acknowledged that the region has been talking about coordination systems for years — and that no single agency in the city has fully mastered the process.

“We’ve talked about how we’d like to see that implemented, but we don’t have an example where a service provider or network is operating in that fashion,” Herrera said.

Some homeless-serving agencies don’t put their shelter bed information or other resources into a coordinated entry system. Regional leaders want that to change, so it’s easier to route clients to housing and other help.

The city has decided a brick-and-mortar hub is the needed solution.

It’s taken that approach rather than a web or phone app, Herrera said, because many homeless San Diegans don’t have regular access to phones or computers.

The goal: Give all homeless San Diegans seeking help a clear, optional starting point that eases confusion. The city is hoping this facility can be replicated across the region.

City Councilman Chris Ward, who represents downtown and is vice chair of the regional group overseeing the county’s homeless-serving approach, said he sees the project as a model for the rest of the county.

County Supervisor Ron Roberts, chair of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, hinted that the organization could support the navigation center approach and perhaps get involved itself. He wouldn’t confirm whether the Regional Task Force, which is listed as one of several prospective bidders on the city’s website, will submit a proposal.

“The city’s assessment center could be the first in an important countywide network, with the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, as the manager of the regional coordinated entry system, playing a tailored role,” Roberts wrote in a statement.

But two outside experts, including one who’s worked in San Diego, emphasized that the navigation center can’t be — and shouldn’t be considered — a panacea for all San Diego’s homelessness woes.

Poppe, who once led national conversations about homelessness coordination, said simply relocating services to a single facility won’t necessarily reduce homelessness.

She said success will require both a regional system and staff able to quickly connect homeless San Diegans who walk into the facility to permanent housing.

Those who work at the center and who coordinate with them must be equipped to help homeless San Diegans find both creative solutions and affordable housing, a lacking resource that nonprofit leaders have long wearied over.

“If in fact it is a true triage and connection to housing then it could be a really valuable addition to your community — if in fact it has the ability to connect people and get problems solved,” Poppe said. Merideth Spriggs, who founded a Las Vegas-based homeless outreach nonprofit and once led efforts to move homeless San Diegans into PATH, had a similar take.

She’s kept in touch with downtown business owners and other homeless service providers since she left PATH in 2013. At the time, she was frustrated that PATH — which had been billed as a one-stop shop similar to the navigation center — wasn’t delivering what had been promised.

She’s since heard about a continued lack of coordination between homeless-serving agencies and the challenges they face moving homeless San Diegans into housing.

“I worry that you’re not going to fix your underlying issues,” Spriggs said.

She believes the new center’s success rests on San Diego nonprofits’ ability to work from the same playbook, and the ability of navigation center staff to keep promises they make to homeless clients and deliver housing options.

Herrera said he’s confident the city can make the most of the project because of the strides the region has made the past few years.

“We’re in a place now where service providers are ready to work together. We’ve got the leadership necessary to make this work,” Herrera said. “So I have a larger degree of confidence that this is going to be successful and do what we intend to do.”

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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