The Alpha Project bridge shelter in downtown San Diego / Photo by Megan Wood

For years, San Diego has wrestled with the best way to approach homelessness: Add more temporary shelter space to get people off the street immediately but temporarily, or invest solely in housing – which costs more and takes longer but provides a permanent solution?

The city’s new homelessness plan has an answer: Do both.

City Council Democrats, led by Councilman Chris Ward, last fall demanded that the city create a comprehensive strategy to address homelessness after being asked to approve to a series one-off initiatives and projects pushed by Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

They argued the city needed an overarching vision for combating homelessness to guide decision-making going forward, establish gaps in the homeless service system and lay out how much solutions will cost.

Now the plan, written by consultants from the Corporation for Supportive Housing, has arrived – and it concludes the city needs to deliver about 3,500 new permanent housing units and hundreds more rental-assistance slots.

It also recommends that the city add up to 500 new shelter beds – and in doing so, it appears to side with Faulconer’s approach to the shelter question.

“While it is clear that the most important solution is an increase in low-income and supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness, it is also clear that housing development will take time – time people who are living outside do not have to wait,” Ann Oliva and Liz Drapa of the Corporation for Supportive Housing wrote. “Aggressive measures must be taken in the interim.”

Drapa and Oliva, a former deputy assistant secretary in the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and lead author of the plan, echo the arguments made by Faulconer, philanthropists and homeless service providers two years ago as they rushed to erect three shelter tents.

“Lives are on the line. We need to take action,” Faulconer said in September 2017 when he announced he’d add the new shelter beds as the region’s homeless population was hammered by a deadly hepatitis A outbreak.

The mayor has continued that refrain the past two years as he has added an array of new homeless service programs.

Oliva and Drapa’s conclusion runs counter to some homeless advocates’ argument that new shelter beds only leave the city with a backlog of homeless folks in need of a permanent solution.

Former Regional Task Force on the Homeless board president Tom Theisen has for years said he fears that new shelter investments will sideline efforts to produce more housing for homeless San Diegans.

“My concern is that they will use the call for shelter as an excuse to again postpone addressing the shortage of supportive housing in our community,” Theisen said this week after hearing that the plan recommends both new housing and shelter beds. “It is time to start with supportive housing and then after we have that supportive housing going forward to focus on shelter.”

Faulconer and other city officials have pressed forward with new shelter investments, promising to also work on delivering more permanent housing opportunities.

Earlier this year, in a surprise vote, the City Council decided to establish a fourth temporary shelter at 17th Street and Imperial Avenue in East Village. City Council members are set to vote next week on a contract with nonprofit Alpha Project to operate the 150 new shelter beds.

Oliva and Drapa suggest the city can also deliver more shelter beds by working with nonprofits that operate so-called transitional housing programs, which require homeless people to access services before they seek more permanent housing, to convert at least 25 percent of their beds to shelter beds. The federal government has for years pushed communities including San Diego to move away from transitional housing.

Oliva and Drapa say some of those transitional beds could also become recuperative care beds, which serve homeless San Diegans recovering from major health issues. There are now only a few dozen such beds countywide, far short of what regional leaders – and the new plan – suggest are needed. The plan calls for the city to deliver 100 to 150 medical respite beds in the city alone.

Interested in learning more about the homelessness plan and what it will take to implement it? Join me at Politifest on Oct. 26 for a discussion with key players engaged in trying to execute the new city strategy.

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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