The city purchased a shuttered Super 8 motel in Egger Highlands to eventually house people enrolled in its San Diego Misdemeanants At-Risk Track program. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The city is preparing to temporarily house misdemeanor offenders enrolled in a diversion program that comes with addiction treatment in a South Bay hotel it acquired nearly four years ago for that purpose. Doing so will require moving out homeless families it moved in during the pandemic.

The City Council voted in July 2017 to spend about $11.2 million to buy and rehabilitate a Super 8 Motel just outside Imperial Beach. The project was soon hit with a lawsuit that for years derailed the city’s vision for the state-backed San Diego Misdemeanants At-Risk Track program. Then came a pandemic that led the city to convert the property into a shelter for homeless families.

Now, as the region emerges from the health crisis and grapples with rising substance abuse challenges, city officials say they are setting the stage to move the roughly 40 homeless families now staying at the former Palm Avenue motel into more permanent housing and to ramp up the misdemeanor diversion program.

Since it first debuted in late 2016, the S.M.A.R.T. program has aimed to connect people who have a string of misdemeanor arrests with addiction treatment and stable housing. Thus far, officials report that all clients who have enrolled in the program have been homeless.

The program itself has also had its share of struggles: The city attorney’s office reports just nine of the 135 people who have enrolled in the program have graduated from it, an outcome that City Attorney Mara Elliott has said reflects the struggles of a particularly vulnerable population often left behind by other programs.

Mayor Todd Gloria has proposed that the city commit $1.25 million to expand the S.M.A.R.T. program in the new fiscal year that begins in July, following the expiration of a state grant that funded the program. The grant money materialized after California voters passed Proposition 47, which reduced many drug charges to misdemeanors and directed some associated state savings to behavioral health and diversion programs.

The city and county expect to run out of Board of State and Community Corrections funds by the end of June. City officials said they may seek additional state funds when the agency again makes grant money available but expect to at least initially rely on city funds to support the program.

Nonprofit Family Health Centers of San Diego, which provided outpatient substance use treatment and mental health care to S.M.A.R.T. participants via a county contract and helped place them in independent living homes, reports that it stopped enrolling new clients earlier this year. As of last month, only two people remained in the program.

At its height, S.M.A.R.T. had 44 beds in homes operated by provider Rooted Life. During the pandemic, the city attorney’s office said the program dwindled down to 10 beds and 10 clients, in part due to social distancing requirements tied to COVID-19.

Now the city and the county are discussing how to proceed with securing a contractor to operate the program. The city previously estimated the former Super 8 facility could house 81 clients. The city attorney’s office said it has also plans to eye whether the motel could house some participants in its Prosecution and Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Services program, which seeks to divert low-level drug offenders from jail.

The city predicts the transition of the Palm Avenue hotel from family shelter to S.M.A.R.T. facility could take up to four months, Gloria spokesman Dave Rolland wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego.

Homeless-serving nonprofit Alpha Project has operated the family shelter since last summer, after shelter offerings for families diminished amid the pandemic.

Keely Halsey, the city’s chief of homelessness strategies, said the city will be focused on aiding the families now staying at the motel before it begins serving S.M.A.R.T. clients there.

“Families will not be returned to an unsheltered environment,” Halsey said. “Every family currently served there will be offered an appropriate housing option or continued appropriate shelter.”

Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy said he walked away from a Tuesday meeting with Gloria confident that the city would accommodate the 42 families who now call Palm Avenue home.

“I’ve been assured that we’re gonna do a seamless transition with housing that’s appropriate, with individual units,” McElroy said.

But there are no specific plans to replace the beds that will no longer be available for families later this year. Gloria has proposed that the city spend $6.3 million to expand the city’s shelter offerings.

Rolland wrote in a statement that the city is working with other partners to assess the shelter needs of populations including families, young adults and people with substance abuse needs as it looks at expansions included in the mayor’s budget. He also noted that the city earlier this year began housing families at the Golden Hall shelter operated by Father Joe’s Villages.

“Ensuring there is adequate shelter for families is critical, and these decisions will be made with that in mind,” Rolland wrote.

As recently as last month, plans for the Palm Avenue motel were uncertain.

Elliott spokeswoman Hilary Nemchik told VOSD in May that the city attorney’s office was unsure if the building would eventually house S.M.A.R.T. clients. Elliott’s office has long made the case that the motel could dramatically increase program capacity.

“The city attorney’s office believed that a full-service residential facility would make the program more successful and more attractive to the target population,” Nemchik wrote in an email. “It took great pains to make Smart on Palm a reality, only to have two events throw it off track.”

The events Nemchik referenced were a lawsuit alleging failures to conduct proper environmental reviews and seek a coastal development permit that dragged on for years before the city received a favorable appellate court ruling, and Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s decision to make the motel a homeless shelter. Elliott’s office had expected the motel would begin taking in S.M.A.R.T. clients last summer around the time homeless families moved in.

Elliott has championed the S.M.A.R.T. program since taking office in late 2016, months after predecessor Jan Goldsmith first unveiled it. At the time, San Diego law enforcement officials decried a spike in misdemeanor cases and difficulties they said they faced trying to compel low-level offenders to seek addiction treatment two years after Prop. 47 passed.

Goldsmith’s pitch at the time was to offer people who had been repeatedly arrested for drug and quality-of-life offenses such as trespassing or public urination both treatment and transitional housing for up to two years, typically in lieu of jail time. If clients fell out of S.M.A.R.T., they could end up in jail. If they graduated from the program, charges against them could be expunged.

After state officials invited cities and counties to apply for grants to support treatment and diversion plans post-Prop. 47, San Diego city and county leaders submitted an application that scored first in the state’s initial funding round. They were collectively awarded $6 million over a few years for initiatives including the S.M.A.R.T. program.

The program has faced a series of challenges ever since as it tries to serve a particularly vulnerable population.

The city attorney’s office reports just nine clients who have enrolled in S.M.A.R.T. have graduated, which the program defines as completing substance use treatment and moving into permanent housing.

S.M.A.R.T. has also struggled to retain participants. Data provided to VOSD in 2019 revealed that 37 of the 53 clients who had been enrolled between September 2017 and mid-March 2019 had exited the program at least once.

At the time, UCLA psychologist and professor Steve Shoptaw, who for years operated a housing program for people grappling with addiction, mental illness and HIV/AIDs, commended S.M.A.R.T.’s initial outcomes. Shoptaw, who reviewed data on the program at VOSD’s request in 2019, said it was notable that those who stuck with the program typically spent almost six months in treatment, a significant time period for S.M.A.R.T.’s vulnerable target population.

The city attorney’s office and Family Health Centers have said that the program’s outcomes reflect the challenges of serving a population that has often been rejected by or failed in other programs. They have argued that the program has been life-changing for those it has helped, including some who may not have graduated.

“The city attorney’s office created the S.M.A.R.T. program to help a population of San Diegans that is among the hardest to serve in our criminal-justice system: individuals whose drug addiction keeps them in a revolving door of minor crimes, arrest, and release, and who generally live unsheltered,” Nemchik wrote.

But Nemchik said Elliott’s office has been pleased with recidivism rates associated with the program.

An August 2019 evaluation by SANDAG found that only three of the 43 S.M.A.R.T. clients who had exited the program through March 2019 had been arrested or booked in jail, and only one client had a new conviction. SANDAG is set to complete another analysis of the program by the end of the year. Nemchik said the attorney’s office is confident that recidivism has remained low.

Tara Buesig, a former Family Health Centers substance use counselor who now leads the Harm Reduction Coalition of San Diego County, said the transition for the program presents an opportunity to make improvements that could bolster its outcomes and to get past participants’ feedback on potential changes.

Buesig advocated a consistent, multi-faceted curriculum to better educate clients on topics from more successfully navigating relationships to overdose prevention, and an approach in the program and at the Palm Avenue motel that accepts the struggles clients will have as they try to stabilize.

While the city and Family Health Centers have said the program follows a so-called harm reduction model that doesn’t boot clients when they struggle, Buesig said there is room for improvement in the program’s housing component. Stringent rules such as strict curfews that disregard clients’ challenges as they transition off the street can lead participants to drop out, she said.

“You can’t expect someone to go from using, unhoused, experiencing trauma to being housed and abstinent and no longer using substances to just get it together and just show up the way they are supposed to, the way that people think they are supposed to,” Buesig 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...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.