temporary bridge shelter
A bridge shelter tent like the one the Lucky Duck Foundation provided Chula Vista is still in operation in Barrio Logan. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Chula Vista will return a homeless shelter tent that a prominent nonprofit foundation last year agreed to allow the city to use free of charge.

Last May, then-San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas announced the Lucky Duck Foundation would let the city of Chula Vista use the ten. The nonprofit had previously loaned the tent to the city of San Diego to house a now-shuttered Midway District shelter for veterans.

“This is an incredible opportunity to acquire this structure,” Salas said at the May 2020 press conference.

Nearly a year and a half later, the sprung structure tent sits unused at a public works facility.

A city spokeswoman said Chula Vista officials in mid-July told the Lucky Duck Foundation the city decided against using its tent.

“There were a number of conditions placed on the city by the nonprofit that did not fit our model and approach,” city spokeswoman Anne Steinberger wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego.

Now the city is planning to pursue another shelter concept set to be presented to the City Council later this month.

Representatives from the Lucky Duck Foundation have a different take on how things went down.

They wanted some say over how the costly asset would be used and to ensure it was used sooner rather than later.

“They said they didn’t want an outside group suggesting to them how it be operated or providing certain requirements,” Lucky Duck Executive Director Drew Moser said. “Our requirements were pretty minimal – let’s put a reasonable amount of beds in there and let’s get it operational as soon as possible.”

Now it’s clear the Lucky Duck tent will never go up in Chula Vista.

In the years before the coronavirus pandemic hit, regional homeless censuses annually tallied more than 200 people sleeping outside or in vehicles in the South Bay city. For years, the city and the South Bay had just a few dozen emergency shelter beds.

During the pandemic, city officials including Salas said they wanted the city to do more. The City Council voted to accept federal emergency agency trailers it handed off to nonprofit South Bay Community Services to use to shelter homeless residents. The city also  ramped up a hotel voucher program. Both programs have helped the city shelter more homeless residents during the pandemic.

By all accounts, the plan to move the tent to the city of Chula Vista came together quickly last year.

Faulconer welcomed Salas and Padres chairman Peter Seidler, a Lucky Duck Foundation board member, to San Diego City Hall in May 2020 to announce that the foundation would allow the city of Chula Vista to use the tent. The city of San Diego was preparing to take down the Midway tent that had been vacated when people moved into the Convention Center.

At the time, Faulconer, Salas and Seidler cheered the expansion of the bridge shelter model outside San Diego. Seidler and the Lucky Duck Foundation had supplied tents that helped jumpstart the city bridge shelter program that Faulconer has touted, and now one of the nonprofit’s tents would spread the model elsewhere.

The week after the press conference, the Chula Vista City Council signed off on  the shelter plan.

Steinberger said the city planned to use more than $6 million in state and federal funds to support operation costs and capital improvements tied to the new shelter.

City officials emphasized that the city would save cash with the donation of the tent deemed to be worth about $800,000.

That June, the city received the shelter tent. It had to get environmental clearance from the California State Coastal Conservancy to proceed at Broadway and Faivre Street.

Around this time, Lucky Duck representatives requested a loan agreement with the city.

The foundation wanted the shelter open by Dec. 1, 2020 and suggested a $6,000 a day charge for each day the city hadn’t begun welcoming homeless residents.

Chula Vista officials balked at the proposed charge.

Dan Shea of the Lucky Duck Foundation said the nonprofit ultimately backed down.

“We relented and agreed not to have any penalty,” Shea said. “The point of it was to make sure they knew we were serious, and we wanted it open sooner rather than later. They accepted those terms.”

Steinberger said the city planned to open the shelter by December 2020 but was unable to install required infrastructure or to clear environmental hurdles by then.

The city and the Lucky Duck Foundation agreed to stick to their plans – and not charge the city – after the deadline passed.

Yet Steinberger said the city was also troubled by the Lucky Duck Foundation’s apparent “requirement to provide capacity of 250 despite the ongoing pandemic and risk of exposure by housing so many people together.”

Moser and Shea said that’s not true.

“Saying that Lucky Duck commanded them to have 250 beds during the time of pandemic is absolutely not correct,” Shea said. “What was stated is that the tent was made to hold 250. We understood that adjustments had to be made.”

Steinberger declined to respond to a follow-up question.

Steinberger also noted that the city was concerned about costs and had limited funds available to support the shelter. Increased shelter occupancy would also increase costs.

Now the tent remains in storage while Chula Vista officials work on other plans and the Lucky Duck Foundation gauges other cities’ interest.

Shea said the foundation’s experience with Chula Vista underscores why the group doesn’t hand over its two tent structures to cities without strings attached.

“We will deploy these assets in the region for the life of the asset, which is 40-plus years,” Shea said. “That is why we don’t give them to government. They don’t feel like they need to maintain them, not lose them or always deploy them for the highest and best use.”

Steinberger, meanwhile, said Chula Vista expects to unveil a new shelter concept at the Oct. 26 City Council meeting.

“The city’s goal is to implement a shelter program that works for the city and provides the best options for meeting the needs of unsheltered individuals,” Steinberger wrote.

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.