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The city of San Diego is temporarily housing homeless residents at the Convention Center in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

This month, the city has rapidly moved nearly 1,100 homeless San Diegans into the Convention Center to try to protect them from the coronavirus.

Now Mayor Kevin Faulconer and other regional leaders are committing themselves to a herculean effort: They want to move the homeless San Diegans who first began moving into the facility on April 1 into permanent homes.

The timeline for their mission is unclear.

What is clear is that the homeless San Diegans staying at the Convention Center will need to move out eventually. The city is pursuing an array of solutions to try to ease that process, including the potential purchase of financially distressed hotels that could house them and regulatory changes that could make it easier for them to move people into their own apartments more quickly. Officials at the city, Housing Commission and Convention Center Corp. acknowledge they will have to evaluate operations there along with new public health orders and the status of Convention Center bookings.

For now, the Society of Human Resource Management convention remains on the books for June 28 through July 1 and Convention Center Corp. CEO Rip Rippetoe estimates it would take about two weeks to prepare the facility after homeless San Diegans move out – if the event remains on the calendar.

With the timeline uncertain, Faulconer said he wants the city, county and nonprofits working at the Convention Center make the most of the time they have there.

“Let’s look at every single individual and say, ‘What is the one barrier that is preventing this person from getting a place of their own?’” Faulconer said. “Let’s put an army to it and let’s change the dynamic.”

As of Saturday night, 1,088 homeless San Diegans from other shelters and from the streets were sleeping at the Convention Center. Homeless service providers, Housing Commission staffers and even city librarians are now mobilizing to help house them at Faulconer’s direction. County public health nurses, behavioral health workers and staffers focused on linking homeless San Diegans with public benefits have also been deployed there.

The Convention Center could eventually shelter as many as 1,500 homeless San Diegans at an estimated cost of $2.8 million a month beyond service contracts the city has already approved. The city expects the cost to be at least partly covered with $7.1 million in pooled state emergency grant funds doled out to the city, county and Regional Task Force on the Homeless. They city also expects to seek federal stimulus and emergency dollars that could support the operation. On Thursday, more than $248 million arrived in the city’s bank accounts from the federal government but it must be used for COVID-19 response efforts. City staff is determining now what qualifies.

With so many homeless San Diegans moving in, Faulconer said he wants to ensure they have another destination to move into next.

“If we’re going to get people help and get them into that environment, let’s not just look at the short term but let’s focus energy – if not more – on how do we place people permanently?” Faulconer said. “That’s the challenge I put out to folks.”

So far, the mayor’s office reports 19 homeless San Diegans staying in the Convention Center have secured permanent or longer-term homes. More than 1,000 people staying there are still in need.

Housing them won’t be easy.

The city’s now-shuttered bridge shelters – named with the expectation they would be bridges to longer-term homes – have served more than 6,250 homeless San Diegans since they first opened a few years ago. Through March, about one-fifth of them obtained permanent, transitional or other longer-term housing.

Now the city is hosting hundreds of homeless San Diegans in its own Convention Center and has committed to an accelerated effort to house them during a pandemic that has crippled the regional and national economy.

City and regional leaders believe the pandemic may open up doors that would otherwise be closed.

“There’s this unique environment that gives us an opportunity to look at unique efforts to house these individuals,” said Tamera Kohler, CEO of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.

A lack of available low-income housing has long crippled the region’s efforts to reduce homelessness, a reality Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy has grappled with as he tries to move clients off the street.

He emphasized the depth of the challenge even before the pandemic.

“If (housing) was there, we would be putting people there, but it’s not,” McElroy said. “Not for our folks.”

To try to address that massive gap, Faulconer and the Housing Commission are eyeing hotels sitting empty during the pandemic that could quickly be converted into homes for hundreds of homeless San Diegans.

Last week, the Housing Commission board gave agency staff the go-ahead to begin negotiating with owners of 10 small hotels in hopes of moving forward to purchase a few of them.

City and Housing Commission officials have also begun lobbying for administrative changes that could expedite and ease the process to house homeless veterans using federal Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers . They are also pushing for tweaks to other federal housing voucher policies that would make it more financially viable to house multiple homeless people who prefer to live with someone else in a single subsidized unit.

“It could be a real win nationally,” said Lisa Jones, senior vice president of homeless housing innovations at the San Diego Housing Commission.

On the ground at the Convention Center, Jones said about a dozen additional Housing Commission and Regional Task Force on the Homeless staffers are working on site to help connect those staying there with housing and bolster the efforts of staffers from Alpha Project, Father Joe’s Villages and Veterans Village of San Diego who had been doing that work in the city’s bridge shelters.

Librarians and county workers are also helping homeless San Diegans with benefits paperwork, stimulus check applications and other steps that could help ease their path into housing.

To try to give those workers more resources to offer up, Faulconer and Housing Commission CEO Rick Gentry touted an existing incentive program to encourage landlords to offer their units up to house people staying in the Convention Center. The mayor’s office said Friday that almost two dozen new landlords had reached out about the program since the mayor urged them to help with the housing effort early last week.

“It’s hard to describe the magnitude of people that are working together towards this common goal of keeping people safe in this COVID-19 environment while also thinking about their future and the future of our system,” Jones said.

John Brady of the Voices of Our City Choir, an advocate who once lived on the streets himself, has been regularly visiting the Convention Center since its opening and lobbied for the city to consider using it as a shelter.

Now that it’s open, Brady said, he’s been impressed with the efforts playing out there and the focus on meeting the needs of those staying there – from benefits applications to housing and health care – all in one space.

While he acknowledged there has been initial confusion about how unsheltered homeless San Diegans can get into the facility, he expects success and lessons that will help house more people even after the pandemic.

“Once people get in, I feel like we’re maximizing this opportunity to reinvent at a wholesale level how we address an individual in crisis,” Brady said. “The good news is we’re gonna come out of this, I believe, a wholly improved system.”

A handful of homeless San Diegans staying at the shelter who spoke with Voice of San Diego had positive reviews on their experiences.

Brenda Galvan, 64, who moved into one of Alpha Project’s beds earlier this month, said she was relieved that they had a safe place to stay and appreciated the helpfulness of staff at the shelter.

“Where would we be if they didn’t open this up?” Galvan said. “I’m thankful personally.”

Donald Dunlap, 48, agreed. Dunlap, who is also staying in one of the Alpha Project’s beds, said he has especially enjoyed the boxed meals caterers who have long worked at the Convention Center are serving up three times a day.

“I love it,” Dunlap said. “Definitely one of the best shelters I’ve ever been to.”

Both Dunlap and Galvan said they were eager to learn more about housing opportunities.

Dunlap said he was still awaiting an in-depth conversation about potential housing prospects. Galvan said she and her husband have broadened the scope of their search beyond Oceanside, where they once lived, after speaking with staff at the shelter who suggested that might help them access housing more quickly.

“They’re trying their best to find something,” Galvan said.

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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