A child walks around San Diego’s city-sanctioned campgrounds in Golden Hill. / Photo of Adriana Heldiz
A child walks around San Diego’s city-sanctioned campgrounds in Golden Hill. / Photo of Adriana Heldiz

Over the last year, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and other city leaders dramatically increased city spending to aid homeless San Diegans. The new contracts and other additions contributed to a more than 40 percent year-over-year spike in dollars the city has budgeted to address homelessness, according to a recent city analysis of its spending plans. But there does not appear be an obvious drop in homelessness, and just a fraction of those helped by the new city-funded services have moved onto permanent homes, underscoring the need for more long-term solutions and strategies than the city’s now delivering.

The city put up three shelter tents, allowed homeless San Diegans living in cars to park in safe lots, rushed to buy an indoor skydiving facility it plans to make a homeless services hub and opened a storage center for homeless San Diegans.

Faulconer and his team have said they are proud of the new programs and the increased investments despite the challenges that have come with them. The mayor has argued that the city can’t wait for permanent housing to materialize while thousands of homeless San Diegans suffer on the street.

Faulconer pushed forward the new contracts and increased spending even despite criticism from some advocates and City Council members. He also teamed with other mayors to successfully argue for more state funding, helping secure another $14 million for the city’s homelessness response that the city now plans to invest in expanding programs and creating new ones they hope can provide more results.

“We have made smart investments in programs that are helping people to get into clean, safe environments where they can access benefits and supportive services and find a permanent place to call home,” Faulconer said in November as he urged the City Council to press forward with his navigation center plans. “We are doing nothing less than building a new infrastructure for homeless services.”

Indeed, the new shelters and other programs have provided safe havens for hundreds of homeless San Diegans and helped at least 522 people move into permanent homes.

But far more are still waiting – or even back on the street.

The latest Housing Commission data shows more than 3,200 homeless San Diegans stayed in one of the three shelter tents through last November.

Of those, just 367 have moved into permanent homes and another 132 into longer-term housing during the same period.

And nonprofit Jewish Family Service reports that city’s roughly $660,000 two-year investment in the agency’s two Kearny Mesa safe parking lots has helped move 155 of the 701 homeless San Diegans who parked in those lots move permanently off the street since October 2017.

Meanwhile, a Sherman Heights storage center that opened last June and a new homeless service hub the city plans to open in late spring are envisioned more as resources for homeless San Diegans than holistic solutions to their homelessness.

Neither the fully booked storage center nor the housing navigation center are set up to supply actual housing –temporary or permanent. The city has committed to spend more than $3 million on contracts with the two nonprofits selected to operate the facilities, and expects to invest another $2 million in police overtime around the storage center.

Faulconer’s team has hailed the storage center as a success. Its 500 storage bins have now been full for months and the increased crime and blight residents feared largely haven’t played out, thanks in part to the influx of police officers – though residents tell VOSD there have been more issues with debris and homeless camps in the area since the storage facility hit capacity.

City officials now want to use the new state dollars to support the current facility and open additional ones, a step they believe will help keep more sidewalks clean elsewhere in the city and give homeless San Diegans a safe place to store belongings that could otherwise be stolen or seized during city clean-up operations.

The city is already hammering out more specific details for the navigation center.

The city plans to transform the former indoor skydiving facility it last year rushed to buy for $7 million into a place where homeless San Diegans often overwhelmed and alienated by a confusing web of services can be guided to aid best suited to their needs. Though the building won’t offer shelter or housing, the mayor’s team says workers there will connect clients to programs and housing.

The city and Family Health Centers of San Diego, the nonprofit contracted to operate the facility, now expect to begin welcoming homeless San Diegans in late spring. Faulconer had initially hoped the facility would open in 2018.

Anthony White, a spokesman for Family Health Centers, said the nonprofit that now operates health clinics across the county is reaching out to an array of partners to line up additional resources for the facility and raising funds to support the program.

City Council Democrats and advocates remain skeptical. They have argued the facility – still outfitted with two 30-foot tall wind tunnels – won’t solve the more urgent problem derailing efforts to address homelessness: a lack of affordable housing.

Faulconer and his supporters are more optimistic.

“Helping someone transition from homelessness isn’t just about finding an apartment. It is about rebuilding a life,” the mayor said last year. “The navigation center will be where this starts.”

Faulconer has gotten a closer look at the challenges facing homeless San Diegans looking to rebuild their lives through the city’s new shelter tents and safe parking lots.

Mayoral staffers and Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy, whose agency operates one of the three tents, have argued the focus on moving shelter residents into permanent housing has distracted from the assistance the new programs are giving hundreds of homeless San Diegans.

As they planned for the new shelters and other services, the mayor and other city leaders focused more on getting homeless San Diegans off the street than on what would happen after that. They have since had to grapple with a forced evacuation after the flooding of one tent and a search for a new location for another that must move this March – incidents that will likely add to the city’s shelter bill for this year. The city plans to use $1.6 million in new state funds to move the soon-to-be shuttered tent for women and families.

Now city officials have personal experience with the challenge homeless service providers have struggled with for years: The region doesn’t have enough housing, and that makes it difficult to move homeless San Diegans out of temporary refuges and into homes.

“There wasn’t any housing,” McElroy told me last summer as critics lamented the tent outcomes. “God, if there was, we’d have everybody in it.”

At the time, advocates and some City Council members were raising alarms amid reports that just 12 percent of shelter clients had moved into permanent housing through the end of last May – far short of the city’s target of 65 percent. They were also critical of the decision to raid Housing Commission reserves and other accounts meant to support much-needed housing projects to help bankroll the tents.

After a review by an outside consultant, the City Council voted last fall to reduce the housing target to 30 percent moving into longer-term housing – a far lower number and a broader definition than the one previously applied – and to boost staffing resources to help move more clients into homes.

The Housing Commission report released last week showed the nonprofits were collectively able to meet the less-stringent target late last year but that success likely had already been within reach before the city scaled back those goals.

The same report revealed a third of those who have exited the shelters since they opened a year ago had moved into permanent or longer-term housing.

Faulconer spokesman Greg Block said the city is determined to help more tent clients move into homes in 2019. He said a team of city researchers has been digging into tent operations in hopes of applying data-based lessons and information on clients’ needs. The city plans to share its findings with nonprofits operating the tents in coming weeks.

The city-funded safe parking lots have reported better housing outcomes for clients living in cars, who tend to be less vulnerable than the shelter clients.

Lots like these are safe havens for the hundreds of San Diegans living in cars because they can be cited for parking on city streets for too long or sleeping in their cars. Few public or private lots allow around-the-clock parking free of charge.

Nonprofits Jewish Family Service and Dreams for Change initially partnered to help expand a safe parking lot in Kearny Mesa and open a second lot nearby.  

Jewish Family Service, which has since begun operating the lots on its own, reported that the safe lot program helped move 21 percent of clients into housing during its first eight-and-a-half months – an outcome similar to homeless shelters operating in the city.

Jewish Family Service COO Dana Toppel said that between July and September, 48 percent of the agency’s safe parking clients moved into permanent housing.

The improved outcome follows more than $200,000 in donations to hire additional staff to help connect clients to housing and aid them with car repairs and rental assistance, Toppel said.

The city is now eyeing additional safe parking lots following a recent City Council vote to accept new money from the state, and plans to use state funding to sustain the existing Kearny Mesa lots.

But City Council Democrats Georgette Gómez, Chris Ward and Barbara Bry have said they want more information about outcomes and spending on new homeless programs before they sign off on more of them in the new year.

“A lot of the programs that have been coming forward (are) reactionary, and I’ve not really seen a holistic approach in where we’re going,” said Gómez, now the City Council president, last year. “We’re just reacting, having a piecemeal type of a program moving forward.”

City leaders are now awaiting a broader homelessness strategy for the city that a Washington D.C.-based consultant is expected to deliver this summer.

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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