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A view of the Connections Housing facility in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

This story is a part of The People’s Reporter, a feature where the public can submit questions, readers vote on which questions they want answered and VOSD investigates.

The question from Ed McNulty of Serra Mesa: What happened to the 2010 plan to use the old World Trade Center building as a one-stop center for homeless services? How much was spent?

To submit your question or vote on our next topic, click here.

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Nearly a decade ago, city leaders rallied behind a plan to create a one-stop service center for homeless San Diegans. They asked homeless-serving nonprofits to submit bids to operate a downtown center with an array of services for people who were homeless or on the brink as well as shelter beds and supportive housing.

When Connections Housing opened in 2013, city leaders barricaded an entire block and spent an hour giving celebratory speeches to honor the achievement. The facility touted its mission to provide “virtually every resource needed to break the cycle of homelessness, all within one comprehensive facility.”

Yet before it opened its doors to all that fanfare, the project had been quietly scaled back as it moved through bureaucratic hoops – from a center where any homeless San Diegan could come and be connected with services to one that served a far narrower population.

The change was driven by a fear that the center to serve homeless San Diegans would become a magnet for … homeless San Diegans.

In the end, Los Angeles-based PATH, the group chosen to operate the facility, agreed to only have clients enrolled in its programs use the services. Loitering or lining up outside the facility – things you’d expect outside a drop-in assessment center – were also barred in a conditional use permit.

Now, nearly a decade later, Mayor Kevin Faulconer is still trying to create the sort of walk-in service center he and others once sought to provide at the old World Trade Center at Sixth Avenue and B Street, this time at a former indoor skydiving facility in East Village.

What played out with Connections demonstrates that there’s no guarantee that vision will be achieved.

Today, Connections Housing includes 73 supportive housing units, 150 short-term shelter beds and a depot where clients can connect with just over a dozen service providers who make scheduled visits there.

The nearly $40 million project has helped hundreds of homeless San Diegans move off the street, and its leaders and neighbors report that it seems to have led to a dramatic reduction in homelessness in the quarter-mile that surrounds it. Connections also hasn’t generated the volume of complaints or quality of life concerns some feared years ago.

Yet Connections hasn’t been the transformative project power-brokers imagined when they suggested it could help make San Diego a model for addressing homelessness. The project also hasn’t been replicated in other neighborhoods, a goal supporters regularly touted.

San Diego now has the fourth-largest homeless population in the nation and Connections, like other homeless-serving projects in the region, has grappled with the dearth of affordable housing for its clients.

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The concept for the one-stop service center that laid the groundwork for the Connections project emerged in the wake of a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness in the region. That plan has since been shelved. Key leaders also visited a PATH facility in Los Angeles and were enamored with the array of services offered in a single space.

Some of those same leaders were adamant that San Diego needed to shift to the federally backed housing-first model, in which homeless people are connected with permanent housing rather than first being required to spend time treating the various issues that led to their homelessness.

In 2009, the city issued a request for proposals for the one-stop shop plus supportive housing and shelter beds. It was San Diego’s first major foray into permanent supportive housing, typically apartments that come with mental-health and other services on site.

PATH was later chosen as the operator and suggested the city-owned former World Trade Center building would be an ideal location. The nonprofit proposed housing temporary beds, apartments and services at that single facility rather than just a drop-in center.

PATH and developer Affirmed Housing initially estimated building upgrades and rehabilitation would cost about $34 million. The final sticker price turned out to be $39 million and was covered by sources including tax credits plus millions of dollars from downtown development agency Civic San Diego and the Housing Commission.

At the time, former Centre City Advisory Committee chairwoman Joyce Summer said, nearby residents and businesses worried the project might attract long lines of homeless people outside plus increased crime and blight.

Don Petros, property manager at the Procopio Tower across the street, recalls fearing a “magnet effect.”

“The concern that I had was that it would attract people, not just coming by, but not becoming part of the program, but instead just hanging around and loitering in the neighborhood,” Petros said.

PATH CEO Joel John Roberts said he and his team tried to work closely with residents and businesses to address their concerns. Those conversations led PATH to agree to focus its outreach on homeless clients within a quarter mile of the building.

“At some point, when we talked with the city, we basically said, ‘We’ve done this in L.A. and we know that if you just do a one-stop (shop), you’ll just have people from all over the city and the county come in, coming into one geographic area, and we don’t think that’s fair to the geographic area,’” Roberts said.

By the time discussions with the city and residents concluded, the concept of the walk-in, one-stop shop was history.

Instead, only clients already enrolled in PATH programs could use the services.

Before PATH opened, there was also much talk of the city eventually opening other facilities like it. Those other facilities were part of the sales pitch.

“This cannot be the only one that we move forward on,” Faulconer, then a city councilman, said before voting to approve the Connections’ permit in 2011, two years before it opened. “In order for the plan to end chronic homelessness to be a success in a city the size of San Diego, we have to have regional opportunities in different parts, different centers like this in different neighborhoods, to help those that need help.”

That never happened.

As those conversations played out, officials agreed to help subsidize PATH’s shelter beds. The program has become one of a handful of interim housing programs aided by the city with federal community development block grants, and money from the city’s general fund. This year, PATH reports, it’s received about $717,100 in city and Housing Commission funds to support operations.

Even with a chorus of powerful supporters, Connections faced major challenges in its early months.

Providers were slow to move into the service depot, and the program struggled to meet outcomes set by the city, particularly to move homeless clients into housing. Managers also had to contend with how to aid the more than 200 vulnerable clients.

The often-empty service center troubled Merideth Spriggs, who led efforts to bring homeless clients to Connections. Family Health Centers of San Diego opened a clinic at the facility that welcomed anyone who sought its services but the vision of three dozen service providers operating there never materialized. Today, just 14 agencies regularly visit the center. They include county health workers, Legal Aid Society of San Diego and homeless advocacy group Think Dignity.

“I got frustrated that you had this big beautiful building and other than Family Health Centers outside, the homeless couldn’t get help,” said Spriggs, who resigned soon after the center opened.

As the program continued to ramp up, some clients were disheartened too.

DeForrest “DeDe” Hancock, who has since moved off the street, said she was asked to leave Connections shelter a few years ago amid confusion about whether she had gotten permission to be excused from the facility’s curfew.

“That experience itself is like, ‘OK, what did I really do?’” said Hancock, who then moved on to a YWCA program and continued to struggle with homelessness.

A December 2016 report by LeSar Development Consultants, funded by the Housing Commission, called for PATH to lower barriers for clients and ensure program rules weren’t hampering the agency from serving the most vulnerable homeless San Diegans – the very mission the agency had committed to years before.

Jonathan Castillo, who now manages Connections, said PATH has since curtailed many of the rules once applied to its shelter beds, which were then overseen by nonprofit Alpha Project, and taken other steps to ensure it can serve the neediest clients, such as updating its intake process to ensure those most in need are prioritized.

Connections has also contended with many of the same challenges other San Diego homeless providers face – namely, the region’s housing crisis.

PATH, like other city-funded shelters, has fallen short of a city-set contractual target to move 65 percent of homeless clients into permanent or longer-term housing, which can include transitional programs.

Last year, just over half of clients who entered PATH’s shelter met that benchmark and about 30 percent moved onto permanent housing. By comparison, data from the Regional Task Force on the Homeless shows an average of 21 percent of homeless San Diegans who left shelters in the city in the past year moved to permanent homes – meaning PATH is performing slightly better than others.

City and community leaders had expected more dramatic results. They hoped PATH could provide a model for other local homeless providers and more quickly move their clients into housing – and thus help more homeless San Diegans than other projects.

Monica Ball, a downtown homeless advocate who provided input as Connections ramped up, said PATH’s struggles to meet the high expectations shouldn’t be surprising.

“If there isn’t any housing, you can’t get anybody placed,” Ball said. “It doesn’t matter what the name of the agency is.”

Castillo said he’s proud of what the agency has been able to achieve in light of the regionwide affordable-housing shortage.

“What we’re working with is what exists in the community,” Castillo said.

Despite the challenges, there have been success stories too.

PATH reports more than 90 percent of those who moved into its supportive housing units have remained there, and that the homeless population in the area surrounding the facility has more than halved.

The agency also says its interim bed program moved about 130 homeless San Diegans to permanent housing last year and dozens more in previous years.

San Diego native Joyce Gongora, 61, appears poised to become one of the lucky ones.

Gongora faced a series of setbacks including a heart attack, knee surgery, a stroke and a stint living in her tiny Hyundai Accent before she moved into one of PATH’s interim beds in August.

With PATH’s help, she just signed initial paperwork to move into Talmadge Gateway, a supportive housing project in Talmadge. As Gongora described the apartment last Thursday, her eyes filled with tears.

“I’m thankful for everything that’s been done to help me,” she said. “I don’t know what I would have done without them.”

Lisa Halverstadt

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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