Weeks ago, San Diego city officials scrambled to convert the Convention Center into a temporary shelter to protect homeless San Diegans vulnerable to coronavirus. About 1,200 people have since moved in, including hundreds who until recently lived on the street.
But thousands of homeless people throughout the county remain outside, leaving many confused and scared amid mostly sluggish efforts to provide new shelter options in other cities.
Some staying far from downtown San Diego have considered or been urged to go to the Convention Center – a site with a limited number of daily openings – due to a dearth of shelter resources in their own communities. Many have repeatedly called the 2-1-1 information line hoping to secure shelter, motel vouchers or county-funded hotel rooms. Many are learning that existing shelters are full.
Two months after Gov. Gavin Newsom and county health officials issued stay-at-home orders virtually impossible for unsheltered homeless people to follow, some cities are considering options to provide more shelter as federal block grants and emergency shelter funds flow in to help. In many cases, the additional safe havens or subsidies could take weeks to materialize. Those that are starting to become available aren’t immediately able to meet the demand.
In the meantime, homeless people outside of the city of San Diego who are eager to move off the streets are grappling with what to do. They’re facing increasing challenges amid dwindling access to basic needs such as food, restrooms and showers during the pandemic due to countywide closures.
Racquel Fick, 49, who for a time found a safe refuge at an Interstate 5 rest stop with a bathroom near Camp Pendleton, said a state Highway Patrol officer wanted to take her to the Convention Center in downtown San Diego after it opened early last month due to a lack of available shelter beds in the area.
Fick declined. She feared her diabetes and heart issues could make her vulnerable to coronavirus, including if she went to the packed Convention Center. She also worried the bustling shelter would trigger her anxiety. She moved to a tree-covered space near a Carlsbad strip mall to avoid another encounter with Highway Patrol.
For weeks, Fick said, she has gone without showers and made countless calls to 2-1-1 in hopes of getting a hotel room instead.
“I don’t know where I’m gonna go,” Fick said.
Data from the Regional Task Force on the Homeless reveals about 570 more homeless individuals were staying in shelter beds or hotel rooms overseen by service providers on May 1 than on March 1, excluding seasonal and inclement weather shelters that were open two months ago.
The hundreds now in shelter make up the equivalent of 14 percent of the unsheltered population tallied during this January’s homeless census.
Advocates say that’s not enough.
Homeless advocate Vanessa Graziano started a grassroots effort in Oceanside to raise money to get people on the streets into hotel rooms during the shelter-in-place order.
She said homeless residents contact her often and sometimes are mad when she doesn’t have a room for them.
“I’m like OMG, I have to raise another $640 today or kids will be sleeping on the street,” she said.
Graziano said she’s concerned city officials aren’t making progress to provide shelter for the city’s homeless community during the crisis nor to bring resources to people on the streets.
“It doesn’t look like that’s happening anytime soon. It’s a tough situation here in North County,” Graziano said. “In Oceanside, we really have no shelters.”
Oceanside officials say they have rushed to do what they can to add capacity in the city where 242 unsheltered people were counted during the latest homeless census.
Late last month, the city secured 15 dedicated hotel rooms for homeless Oceanside residents in two North County hotels that the county has funded, said Megan Crooks of the city’s neighborhood services department.
Since the pandemic began, Crooks said the city has moved more than 50 people into county hotel rooms. Some have since been placed in other programs or permanent housing, while others have left the rooms for other reasons.
Now, Crooks said city staffers are hurrying to try to tee up additional shelter resources in hopes the City Council can vote to approve them in coming weeks.
After all, there’s major demand for the all 120 county-funded hotel rooms in Carlsbad and Escondido – and another 100 in downtown San Diego.
Greg Anglea, CEO of nonprofit Interfaith Community Services in Escondido, said the North County hotel rooms his nonprofit has helped operate are full and people are knocking on the organization’s doors every day to request housing.
“For somebody unsheltered today, there’s really no good option available in North County,” he said.
Anglea said his nonprofit is working with the city of Oceanside to bolster shelter options.
Elsewhere in North County, Vista is finalizing a $200,000 contract for up to 10 new beds in the Alliance Shelter Network, a North County-based organization that provides short-term housing assistance and case management services for homeless individuals.
Vista spokeswoman Andrea McCullough said the city hopes to sign the contract within the next two months.
The need for new resources has only grown as homeless-serving nonprofits, including Interfaith Community Services, have had to reduce the number of people in existing shelters to comply with social distancing requirements.
The nonprofit’s 49-bed shelter in Escondido can now only house 20 people on a given night.
The county-funded hotel rooms, also overseen by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, were added in an effort to address that crunch.
Anglea said the North County rooms are insufficient to meet the need, and that shelter capacity before the pandemic was lacking too.
Exhibit A: While the latest homeless census tallied more than 770 unsheltered people in North County, there are just three shelters in the area with 144 beds in Carlsbad, Vista and Escondido.
The challenge, Anglea and others say, has been funding them since most federal homelessness dollars support permanent housing solutions rather than shelter. Maintaining funding for existing shelters has been challenging as a result.
Tamera Kohler, CEO of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, acknowledged coronavirus has further exposed a shortage of shelter options for homeless San Diegans that existed long before the pandemic.
“It just highlights our scarcity of resources,” Kohler said.
Kohler said the pandemic has spurred more conversations with cities about shelter needs and other resources and made leaders across the county more aware of their homeless populations’ struggles.
Weeks before most other cities began discussing how to shelter vulnerable homeless people during the pandemic, Encinitas started its own hotel voucher program in collaboration with local nonprofit Community Resource Center in mid-March to shelter more than 80 homeless households in hotels. But four weeks later, it released more than 50 households from those hotels when city funding ran out.
Now, those individuals are back to living on the streets or in their cars.
Mike Cartwright moved back onto the streets in the midst of the pandemic. Cartwright previously told VOSD he was frustrated because officials knew the virus wasn’t going to last just a few weeks.
He said he wondered why he and other homeless individuals in Encinitas are living on the streets when people in Carlsbad and Escondido are still in hotels.
Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear told VOSD last month that the city is trying its best but does not have the resources to indefinitely fund motel vouchers and hasn’t received any state funding from the county for motel vouchers and shelter.
She wrote in the email since the county is the agency that receives money and provides services for homelessness, it is up to North County Supervisors Kristen Gaspar and Jim Desmond and the countywide Regional Task Force on the Homeless to create a solution for all of North County.
“However, the fact remains that there are people who are living unsheltered outdoors,” Blakespear wrote. “We need to have a better solution for these people than what we currently offer.”
Timothy Jones, who sleeps near El Cajon’s downtown library, has for weeks mulled whether a move to the Convention Center is his best shot at a safe place to stay. Jones said he had heard nonprofit East County Transitional Living Center’s shelter beds were full and that county motel rooms and vouchers weren’t available.
Until signing up for general relief benefits he used to pay for a few nights at an El Cajon motel last week, Jones said he had been unable to shower since before coronavirus-related shutdowns began. Since those orders, the 56-year-old, who has congestive heart failure and high blood pressure, said a public restroom he had relied on closed. Outreach events that included a visit from a mobile shower have halted too.
“Everything I was using to clean myself up, wash my clothes, take showers, is pretty much shut down because of the coronavirus,” Jones said. “It’s turned into a proverbial ghost town. It has made everything harder when it comes to being homeless.”
Jones’ spirits were briefly buoyed a couple weeks ago when he heard the El Cajon Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team planned to hand out hotel vouchers. That turned out to be a rumor. Instead, he said, officers showed up at Prescott Promenade on May 8 with a county worker who was able to help him sign up for benefits but not a voucher.
There may have been confusion due to newly available county resources. Weeks before the coronavirus pandemic hit, county supervisors voted on Jan. 28 to expand an existing hotel voucher program to provide temporary safe havens for homeless people living in unincorporated areas.
As of last Monday, 259 homeless San Diegans were staying in hotels across the region with the help of county vouchers. County supervisors will vote Tuesday on whether to expand the program to serve dozens more.
City officials across the region have said more help may be coming.
Unlike the city of San Diego, which early on received $3.7 million in emergency homelessness funds from the state it earmarked to support the Convention Center operation, cities from El Cajon to Oceanside for now have only received smaller block grant allocations and in a few cases, emergency shelter grants, to help their homeless residents.
More money could be coming. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised budget proposal released last week includes $450 million for cities – including 17 cities in San Diego County – that did not receive large, direct federal CARES Act allocations. Newsom’s proposal urged cities to prioritize spending on the impacts of COVID-19 on homeless Californians including shelter, outreach and rental subsidies.
Leaders in El Cajon and Chula Vista, which have large unsheltered homeless populations, moved last week to allocate federal block grant money to provide more aid. Other cities are weighing how they might use those funds and are eyeing other potential funding sources for their coronavirus responses, including Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements.
The Chula Vista City Council voted last week to accept a donated shelter tent. But even that likely won’t be open for months as city officials settle on a location and a provider to operate it.
The City Council also voted to accept 10 FEMA trailers provided by the state – but those too won’t open immediately. South Bay Community Services, the nonprofit that will serve families in the trailers, expects it will take a month to set up plumbing, electricity and other services.
Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas said she wants to offer more shelter as quickly as possible but acknowledged multiple steps are necessary to deliver it.
“We have not lost our commitment to help those less fortunate,” Salas said.
The El Cajon City Council voted last week to allocate some of the nearly $803,000 it received in block grant funds to bolster shelter availability at the East County Transitional Living Center and allow nonprofit Home Start to provide hotel vouchers to homeless residents.
East County Transitional Living Center CEO Harold Brown said that money would allow the nonprofit to start taking in people who walk up to the facility – which it had been unable to do for weeks unless they were referred by police or other providers – and eventually add more beds.
And Home Start CEO Laura Tancredi-Baese said she hoped her organization could finalize a contract with the city to quickly offer hotel vouchers and rental and utility assistance to those in need.
“They want to see this happen fast and so do we,” Tancredi-Baese said .
El Cajon City Manager Graham Mitchell said he was also eager to see the federal funds go out – and wished they had come sooner.
“If we had been allocated whatever amount of money, it would have been out on the streets within weeks,” Mitchell said.
It’s unclear what smaller cities with smaller homeless populations – including San Marcos and Santee – may do to fund additional shelter opportunities. The La Mesa City Council last week discussed the possibility of prioritizing homelessness resources when doling out block grant funding later this month, while Lemon Grove officials have decided to use that funding to address food needs instead.
For Jones and other homeless San Diegans around the county, the aid couldn’t come fast enough.
The day after the El Cajon City Council vote, Jones called Alpha Project, one of three providers at the San Diego Convention Center. Jones checked in on Thursday.
Kohler said moves like the one Jones made, while understandable for those in need, are not ideal for public health reasons. She noted that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discourages efforts to move homeless people away from the areas where they are already staying.
“We want to be able to get to people the resources they need and get them to the closest and most sufficient housing, and if not housing resources, shelter resources knowing that they were limited resources prior to a pandemic,” Kohler said.