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Mayor Todd Gloria says he has identified funding to keep the Convention Center shelter open and will next month ask the City Council to sign off on continued operations through March despite a spike in coronavirus cases at the shelter.
Gloria plans to use dollars previously budgeted for shelter operations over the last two months that have gone unspent and state grants for homeless programs and services to fund the shelter through next month. Gloria said his proposal also shaves about $700,000 off the steep $5.7 million monthly cost of operating the shelter, savings achieved by renegotiating some contracts and making other adjustments to create more efficiencies.
Gloria told Voice of San Diego he expects to provide more details on his proposal, including more funding details, and a plan to ramp down the Convention Center shelter in a January presentation to the City Council.
Despite an outbreak at the shelter that has grown to 163 residents and staff, Gloria said he believes the Convention Center remains the best option to shelter homeless San Diegans during the pandemic.
“When this effort was conceived back in the springtime, it was understood to be a partnership between the city, the county, providers and others, and as we’ve discussed, in light of the information that we have most recent, there is still a consensus that maintaining the approach that we have now is the right way to go,” Gloria said.
The city has reported that more than 3,500 people have stayed in the shelter since it opened in April. As of Friday, 667 people were staying at the shelter following dozens of temporary moves to county-backed hotels after positive coronavirus tests and others into new permanent homes at two hotels the city purchased with the help of state Project Homekey funds. At any given time since the shelter opened in April, as many as 1,300 people have slept at the Convention Center each night and hundreds have since moved into permanent or longer-term housing.
The city has more recently stopped taking in new clients at the Convention Center amid the increase in coronavirus cases at the shelter and countywide.
Until December, just 27 residents, staff and volunteers had tested positive for coronavirus but as cases boomed countywide this month, dozens more Convention Center residents and staff have tested positive.
Gloria said Friday that there were no new positive cases to report Friday and that this week’s test results showed a 5 percent positivity rate.
By comparison, the county has reported an 8.7 percent positivity rate for tests given to the larger population countywide over the last two weeks.
Gloria said the latest numbers give him confidence that the continued operation can properly serve homeless San Diegans particularly vulnerable to health issues including coronavirus.
“When you’re looking at the Convention Center operation in its totality, obviously we had a good run of very few positive tests. The last couple of weeks have been unacceptable,” Gloria said. “Staff and the providers know that, and I think this recent batch of testing indicates that we’re doing our best to get this under control, to protect the health of those who residing at the Convention Center.”
Advocates and experts, including doctors whose research focuses on the homeless population, have argued that the city and the county should move more homeless San Diegans into hotel rooms where they can safely adhere to stay at home orders.
The county has amassed hundreds of hotel rooms during the pandemic as part of its public health response but has mostly focused its efforts on temporary housing people who have tested positive or been exposed to coronavirus, including more than 1,700 homeless San Diegans. Activists and attorneys have argued the county and city should be putting up more homeless San Diegans who could be particularly at risk if they get coronavirus.
Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said at a Wednesday press conference that the county is exploring how it might move more homeless San Diegans who are considered high risk into hotel rooms but stood by the Convention Center operation and protocols to protect those staying there.
Gloria said Friday that staffing challenges that homeless service providers have faced during the coronavirus pandemic convinced him that the Convention Center operation is worth sustaining, particularly because it allows residents to receive more intensive services than they might receive if they were staying in temporary hotel rooms.
As Gloria prepares to propose continued operations at the Convention Center, he said city officials are also working on plans to ramp down the operation this spring and ensure those now staying at the Convention Center can move back to the city’s shelter tents, Golden Hall and longer-term housing. Gloria said he is hopeful that the city may be able to increase capacity at those other shelters – and perhaps to secure additional permanent housing options – before the shelter closes.