Family homelessness: Hinton
Domonique and Stanley Hinton and their two young children have spent nights on the street amid their struggle to find shelter during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Lisa Halverstadt

Though San Diego officials have scrambled to provide shelter to homeless residents amid the coronavirus pandemic and even moved nearly 1,300 people into the city’s Convention Center, homeless families are finding there is actually less shelter space to accommodate them.

Three of the city’s largest homeless service providers have recently been forced to dial back their efforts to serve families newly in need of shelter during a pandemic that has left many more desperate. The San Diego Rescue Mission in March temporarily shuttered its nightly emergency shelter amid coronavirus concerns and city officials decided Father Joe’s Villages, which had served families at its Golden Hall shelter, should not take in families at its Convention Center shelter due to concerns about social distancing protocols. More than 50 families who had been staying at Golden Hall were moved to county-funded hotel rooms.

Adding to the crunch, the Alpha Project-run Cortez Hill Family Center downtown shut down earlier this year, removing yet another option for homeless families. Families that had been staying there moved to hotel rooms. City officials have since been mulling what to do with the facility, which needs $8 million to $10 million in repairs that could take up to two years to complete.

The closures have left homeless families who were not in shelters before pandemic restrictions took effect with fewer options in a system already insufficient to meet the need.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced Tuesday that the city plans to shelter homeless families during the pandemic in a motel the city purchased in 2017 to temporarily house misdemeanor offenders.

“The need is there and to get those families and kids inside is going to be a welcome game-changer,” Faulconer said.

Faulconer said Tuesday the city and nonprofit Alpha Project, which has agreed to operate the former motel, hope to open the 42-room facility as soon as possible. He did not specify how soon that could happen, just that “we’re working on it right away.”

Told of the news Tuesday, Stanley and Domonique Hinton, who have recently been forced to sleep on the street with their 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son, said they hoped to be among the first to get in.

Hours later, San Diego activists who have raised money to temporarily shelter homeless San Diegans during the pandemic moved the Hintons into a hotel room after learning of their struggles to access shelter from VOSD and advocate Michael McConnell. The group, known as Hotel Vouchers 4 All, reports it has temporarily housed 63 adults and 17 children during the pandemic.

The city purchased a shuttered Super 8 motel in Egger Highlands in 2017 to house participants in a program for misdemeanor offenders. Now it plans to use the facility to house homeless families amid the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The Hintons said they left Father Joe’s shelter program at Golden Hall just before the city moved families out of the facility. The Hintons later secured temporary county assistance that allowed them to stay in a hotel for 16 nights.

In the weeks that followed, the Hintons said they poured their monthly Social Security disability income into hotel room stays until their money ran out. They managed to stay in a hotel for much of April but ran out of funds earlier this month. They have since spent their days and nights on the street.

The family lived in constant fear that their children could be targeted.

“I don’t sleep,” Stanley Hinton, 30, said.

Every Monday morning, 34-year-old Domonique Hinton said the family has checked in at Father Joe’s Villages’ East Village campus to see if they can secure beds in the nonprofit’s transitional housing program for families. Father Joe’s reports it typically has 60 families on its waiting list.

The Hintons said they have also inquired about multiple apartments and homes, and another program they learned about in Orange County. They had also put their names on the waiting list for the now-shuttered Cortez Hill interim housing program.

On multiple occasions, the couple said police officers asked if they would like to check into the Convention Center shelter only to later learn that families are not accepted there.

“It seems like families are getting the short end of the stick,” Stanley Hinton said last week as his family sat in a grassy promenade across the street from the Convention Center.

In the months before the pandemic, the City Council signed off on Faulconer’s proposal to expand the number of shelter beds for families and homeless youth at the Golden Hall shelter to try to accommodate more families in need. Then the pandemic hit.

Since Father Joe’s has no longer been able to accept families in its shelter program at the Convention Center, city and Housing Commission officials say they have tried to connect families who show up there with other resources.

“The families that we have encountered in need so far, we’ve been able to connect with resources,” said Keely Halsey, the city’s chief of homelessness strategies.

In some cases, Housing Commission senior vice president Lisa Jones said families can be quickly linked with housing aid that ends their homelessness or connected with family members who can take them in. Jones said some families have also been referred to other facilities or providers.

But homeless families’ experiences accessing aid can come down to how savvy and connected the aid workers helping them might be, and other fluctuating factors. Service workers with access and knowledge of available options may be able to provide immediate help such as a hotel stay or voucher. Others may simply tell families that there aren’t beds for them at the Convention Center, information that would deter families from showing up there in the first place.

Service providers that shelter homeless families said that immediate offerings have long fallen short – even before the pandemic.

“Put simply, the demand far outpaces the supply of shelter for families,” said Interfaith Community Services CEO Greg Anglea, whose Escondido-based nonprofit has four apartments to temporarily shelter homeless families.

For that reason, Marisol Alvarado, interim CEO at the Monarch School, which serves homeless families, said the school’s nonprofit arm scrambled to aid families immediately after the state announced the stay-at-home order in mid-March, knowing they were unlikely to find shelter on their own.

The nonprofit has since paid for 12 families to temporarily shelter in place at a motel, including four who have since transitioned to other housing or programs.

“There just wasn’t a resource,” Alvarado said. “The shelters were full.”

Cherrie Dosio, who last month moved three of her kids and their two dogs out of their Encanto home and into her family’s truck, said she has grappled with that reality.

The 33-year-old cobbled together money for a hotel room for just over two weeks last month. Dosio said she called nearly two dozen homeless service providers trying to find a shelter that could accept her children – ages 8, 12 and 13 – plus their two pit bulls as those funds ran out.

No shelter could accommodate her family. Some said they couldn’t take her dogs.

“The majority of them didn’t turn me down,” Dosio said. “They just said there was a waiting list because they were full.”

She has tried to keep the faith during the pandemic despite suffering from colon cancer, ovarian cancer, epilepsy, a brain aneurism and asthma.

Dosio, who has a colostomy bag, said she and her children have struggled to live comfortably in their vehicle.

“My kids are tired of being in the car,” Dosio said.

Dosio got good news after a graduating San Diego State journalism student wrote a Medium post about her recent struggles. Her family now has a Section 8 voucher and Dosio is hoping to quickly find a place to use it.

More than a half dozen homeless service providers and school officials told VOSD they expect to see more families trying to access resources once eviction moratoriums enacted in recent months are lifted. Family homelessness also rose during and after the financial crisis a decade ago.

Most providers including Father Joe’s Villages and the Salvation Army, which have transitional programs for families in the city, said they have yet to see a dramatic increase in shelter need.

But Andrea Landis, a spokeswoman for South Bay Community Services, said the Chula Vista-based nonprofit has seen an uptick in newly homeless families. Landis said many are worried about entering a packed shelter during the pandemic. The nonprofit has also heard of more instances of domestic violence, forced displacement and moves out of homes where families were previously allowed to stay.

“Some families that were previously staying at the homes of family members and friends are being asked to leave due to both current health concerns and other tensions, like no longer being able to contribute to household expenses due to loss of employment,” Landis wrote in an email.

As of last week, Landis said that South Bay Community Services had moved 35 families into hotels temporarily during the pandemic. The nonprofit plans in coming weeks to open up 10 RVs provided by the state to augment the 12 apartments that now comprise its shelter primarily for families affected by domestic violence.

Anglea said his nonprofit has yet to see an increase in families falling into homelessness but has heard from many who fear they could lose their homes following job losses or other challenges tied to the pandemic. Anglea said Interfaith Community Services has linked more families with assistance to help them avoid losing their housing, a resource increasingly available throughout the county to try to keep families on the brink from becoming homeless.

Last week alone, Interfaith provided $500 allocations to more than 20 families. Anglea worries that amount won’t be enough.

“The problem is we just don’t have enough resources,” Anglea said. “The amount we’re able to help with is not enough to help a family who’s behind multiple months’ rent.”

Rescue Mission CEO Donnie Dee, whose organization decided to close its 60-bed Bankers Hill shelter for women and children in March amid concerns that nightly shelter intakes could pose risks, said he is eager to begin welcoming families again. The facility’s other programs have remained open and Dee said the nonprofit has upgraded its bathrooms during the closure to better serve families when they can return.

Dee said the Rescue Mission’s shelter waiting list has continued to grow during the closure – and he expects the need to balloon in the months to come.

“I think we’re gonna see a dramatic rise in people living on the streets, unfortunately,” Dee said.

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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