Residents wait to be helped at the city’s homeless navigation center in East Village. The center is meant to be a “one-stop-shop” linking clients with services and resources. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Residents wait to be helped at the city’s homeless navigation center in East Village. The center is meant to be a “one-stop-shop” linking clients with services and resources. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Family Health Centers of San Diego will move out of the city’s new homeless navigation center less than a year after it began serving clients at the controversial facility.

On Tuesday, the city notified Family Health Centers that it is terminating its lease for the navigation center building at 14th Street and Imperial Avenue and its contract to operate the service hub effective Oct. 29.

For months, the city and the nonprofit that runs health clinics throughout the county have been privately discussing how they could end the contract that had been set to expire at the end of the year. In the process, Family Health Centers has raised a slew of frustrations with city bureaucracy and the program model itself.

Now the city is officially booting the nonprofit and preparing to move Housing Commission staffers into the former skydiving facility that has sparked controversy since the city rushed to purchase it in 2018.

Before the navigation center ever opened, multiple City Council Democrats and homeless advocates questioned whether the project, which aimed to help homeless San Diegans more easily connect with housing and other help, was the best use of city resources to address the homelessness crisis. After all, the center itself doesn’t provide any housing or even shelter beds like navigation centers elsewhere in the state. More recently, federal officials have scrutinized the building purchase.

Family Health Centers CEO Fran Butler-Cohen made her dissatisfaction with the way the contract was handled clear long before notices were delivered Tuesday.

“This contract has been a disappointing experience and one that has required much effort without the expected quality support or commitment from the funders,” Fran Butler-Cohen wrote in a Sept. 8 email to Mayor Kevin Faulconer and other city officials. “During the last year, we have come to understand from reliable sources that the navigation center project was orchestrated more as a public relations undertaking than a needed and important component of a homeless continuum; that was not at all our understanding from the beginning,  and as such, the navigation center as operated by the city and the (San Diego Housing Commission), is not aligned with the service mission and goals of FHCSD.”

Since the facility opened last December, the project has aimed to link homeless San Diegans with housing and services, including those provided by more than two dozen other agencies that signed agreements to assist navigation center clients.

The city now plans to change the operation based on lessons learned at the Convention Center shelter, where city housing officials have worked with other agencies to house hundreds of homeless San Diegans. They have dubbed the effort Operation Shelter to Home.

Ashley Bailey, a Faulconer spokeswoman, said the city remains committed to the navigation center project and believes it can play a key role in moving more homeless San Diegans off the street.

“Through Operation Shelter to Home, the city and Housing Commission have improved the housing navigation process, so we plan to take those lessons learned and apply them going forward,” Bailey wrote in a statement. “Although the facility won’t be managed by the same contractor, there is a strong plan in place to continue the elements of the program that have been successful, while making improvements and expanding services.”

Lisa Jones, the Housing Commission’s senior vice president of homeless housing innovations, said the commission believes the expertise and processes established during the Convention Center operation will help it streamline the process to connect homeless San Diegans with shelter, housing and other services.  The commission had previously overseen the navigation center service contract.

The Housing Commission plans to present more detailed plans to the City Council next month.

As Family Health Center prepares to move out, Jones said, the Housing Commission will ensure a smooth transition for homeless San Diegans the agency is now working with.

“Our focus will be to work with Family Health Centers operational staff to make sure we have a transition plan for every single client that is actively engaging in services,” Jones said.

The plan for the Housing Commission to take over the facility has been in works for months.

Emails and letters obtained by VOSD reveal that Family Health Centers has long tussled with the city over building issues, costs that weren’t covered by the city, exasperation over changing documentation requirements and city processes, and more.

By late spring, both the city and Family Health Centers were ready to part ways, though discussions about it have dragged on for months.

Conversations about ending the contract began in May.

Around that time, Housing Commissioner Mitch Mitchell said Faulconer’s office told him it wanted to move forward with a new model at the navigation center and asked if he could talk to Family Health Centers about whether it would be willing to end its contract. (Disclosure: Mitchell is also a VOSD board member.)

Mitchell said the city’s decision to pivot wasn’t surprising. Amid pushback from City Council members about the project, the mayor’s team had promised to try out the model and make changes as needed.

“There were questions (about the navigation center) from the moment this was announced but everybody understood that it was going to be tested to see if indeed if it was the best approach, and if it wasn’t, the city would change and find a new model, a new way to affect the lives of those struggling with homelessness,” Mitchell said. “We all knew going in that this was not etched in stone that this is the forever model.”

Butler-Cohen raised a series of concerns about her dealings with the city in emails and calls in the months that followed.

More recently, Butler-Cohen began demanding an update from the city on the nonprofit’s planned exit and next steps, including on $227,537 in costs that she hoped the city would cover.

On Sept. 13, the city’s homelessness policy chief, Keely Halsey, wrote in an email to Butler-Cohen that while the city disputed many of her characterizations of missteps she claimed the city has madeon the navigation center, she agreed it would be best to quickly end the contract.

“It seems to be in the best interest of all parties, most important, the clients, to resolve outstanding issues and provide for an orderly separation and transition so as not to disrupt client care,” Halsey wrote in an email obtained by VOSD.

The next notification from the city came Tuesday, when it sent notices to Family Health Centers that its contract and lease would end effective next month, said Anthony White, Family Health Centers’ director of community and government relations.

In an email to VOSD, Bailey wrote that the Housing Commission plans to cover a portion of the nearly $228,000 in costs that Family Health Centers has asked the city to cover as it closes out its contract.

“The Housing Commission has reviewed the list of requests and identified a portion that may be reimbursable, and will reimburse what is allowable per the contract and for which proper documentation has been received,” Bailey wrote.

The decision to end the contract with Family Health Centers and to move the Housing Commission in comes about two months before a new mayor will take office – and it’s likely the new mayor could direct city officials to make more significant changes. Both City Councilwoman Barbara Bry and state Assemblyman Todd Gloria have both been critical of the navigation center and may suggest the city abandon the building altogether.

The revelation that the city has dumped the nonprofit selected to execute Faulconer’s mission is the latest setback to face the project, which opened almost two years after the city purchased the facility. The mayor first pledged to pursue the concept during his 2017 State of the City address, saying he wanted to create “a central hub where any man or woman on the street can go to start the path to a better life.”

In an early September letter to Faulconer obtained by VOSD, Butler-Cohen wrote that the concerns raised early on about whether the navigation center was equipped to solve system-wide homeless service challenges rang true once the center opened.

“The concept of a housing navigation center is still a worthwhile one, but not when absent the continuum to ensure its success and absent an adequate inventory of affordable housing. A one month look at the (navigation center) data showed 85 percent of those who began the laborious process of becoming ‘document-ready’ for housing were already known and registered in existing systems,” Butler-Cohen wrote. “The churning of clients from one agency to another and the lack of will needed to stop this Sisyphean exercise is beyond frustrating.”

Through July, the Housing Commission and Family Health Centers reported that the navigation center had served 1,360 homeless San Diegans since the facility opened, both onsite and through the nonprofit’s outreach services. Of those who accessed services onsite since last December, Family Health Centers reported 61 people had moved into permanent or longer-term housing and 61 into shelter beds.

City officials say they believe they can deliver improved outcomes with their expanded Housing Commission-run program.

Amid the rush to shelter homeless San Diegans early in the region’s coronavirus response, Bailey and others have said city and regional officials looked at ways to rework and improve the city’s homelessness system based on their experiences during the pandemic, including the navigation center.

The pandemic hit as the navigation center itself was continuing to ramp up.

Further complicating matters, White said the nonprofit’s navigation center services weren’t incorporated into the temporary shelter that opened last spring, leaving the nonprofit feeling boxed out of the effort. Instead, the Housing Commission and Regional Task Force on the Homeless provided those services.

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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