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Homeless residents were cleared from a dirt footpath in Oceanside on May 12, 2021, before the city placed boulders at the location. / Photo by Joe Orellana

Cities across San Diego County are paving the way for new shelters to serve their growing homeless populations. 

Chula Vista, National City, Oceanside and Vista have made moves in recent weeks to welcome new services.  

Progress is less certain in East County, though the County Board of Supervisors, at the urging of the supervisor representing the area, last month told staff to return early next year with a plan to deliver new options. 

Homeless advocates say the push toward increased shelter offerings reflect an increased recognition of the region’s homelessness crisis and public pressure to do something about it – plus increased funding from the state, federal government and philanthropists. 

“I think there have been a number of levers that have been able to be switched on that give city councils, city managers and mayors the support that they need to tackle this real challenge for their most vulnerable populations,” said Tamera Kohler, who leads the regional group coordinating the countywide response to homelessness. 

Stay-at-home orders issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom and county health officials early in the COVID-19 pandemic also illustrated the vulnerability of homeless San Diegans who found those orders virtually impossible to follow – and the lack of options outside the city of San Diego for homeless residents who wanted shelter. 

The shelter plans outside the city of San Diego represent a growing acknowledgement that cities across the region must offer solutions to their homeless populations rather than rely on services long concentrated in the county’s largest city – and that short-term shelters are crucial components of cities’ homelessness response in addition to longer-term housing. 

Here’s a look at shelter plans moving forward in Chula Vista, National City, Oceanside and Vista – and a status update on conversations about shelter additions in East County. 

Alpha Project’s Cliff Morris talks to Brad Buckley, who is homeless in Oceanside, on June 28, 2016. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Alpha Project’s Cliff Morris talks to Brad Buckley, who is homeless in Oceanside, on June 28, 2016. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Oceanside

Oceanside has one of largest homeless populations in North County and advocates have long called for more options to serve those residents. 

The Oceanside City Council this summer voted to have nonprofit San Diego Rescue Mission, which operates a large shelter and transitional housing facility in the city of San Diego, run a year-round 50-bed shelter at the former Ocean Shores High School. The Rescue Mission is dubbing the project a navigation center where homeless residents can stay for up to 30 days, ideally then moving onto other facilities or housing. 

Last week, the City Council approved a three-year property use agreement with the Rescue Mission to open the facility, allowing the city and nonprofit to move forward with a nearly $4.1 million construction and renovation plan for the school. The Rescue Mission will cover operating costs for the facility, a commitment bolstered by a $1 million donation from the nonprofit Lucky Duck Foundation.  

City officials hope construction can begin in early 2022 and that the shelter can open in late spring or early summer. 

Chula Vista

The Chula Vista City Council earlier this month approved an agreement to acquire 66 prefabricated housing structures that may eventually accommodate as many as 138 people.  

The city last month called for service providers to submit bids to operate the shelter village at an industrial site south of Main Street and Broadway. The city could select an operator and open the shelter by early next year. 

The new shelter model differs from the city’s initial plans. Last year, Mayor Mary Casillas Salas and others cheered the news that the city could use a sprung structure tent that had for years temporarily housed veterans in the city of San Diego free of charge. 

About a year later, the city decided to return the structure that the nonprofit Lucky Duck Foundation loaned it free of charge. 

One of the bridge shelter tents that the Lucky Duck Foundation donated is still in operation in the city of San Diego. Chula Vista returned the structure to the nonprofit about a year ago. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Salas said the city ultimately decided another model worked best for a homeless population the city believes numbers nearly 800. 

“When we first agreed to get that big, humongous tent it seemed like that was the only option at that time and I went to that tent on a number of occasions to look at it and I thought, ‘Well, this is better than nothing, but it still didn’t afford people that individuality, that privacy, that dignity that they needed,’” Salas said at the Nov. 9 council meeting.  

National City

Conversations about a new shelter in National City kicked off after Dee of the Rescue Mission toured a former school in the city that he decided was ideal for a navigation center like the one the nonprofit is planning in Oceanside. 

After all, National City has for years been home to dozens of unsheltered residents but has been without a shelter.  

Erin Miraz Bernier doodles on a piece paper. She is one of several homeless residents who were removed from an encampment on 16th Street in National City overlooking the 805 freeway on May 28, 2021. The group now stays on a nearby overpass. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Now the property once used by South Bay Community Church is in escrow while the Rescue Mission seeks a permit to convert the facility into shelter. 

Earlier this month, the city’s planning commission approved the 160-bed navigation center offering shelter to homeless residents for up to 30 days. 

The City Council is set to vote on the permit at its Dec. 7 meeting. 

Dee said Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis and other city officials thus far been supportive. 

“We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for how involved they had been,” Dee said.  

If the City Council signs off, Dee said the nonprofit will purchase the property and begin renovations expected to take four to five months. The goal is to open the facility in 2022. 

Vista

The Vista City Council late last month took an initial step to deliver its own city-funded shelter by directing city staff to draft a request for proposals from potential developers and operators. 

A city spokeswoman wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego that officials are now working on a draft request they expect to present to the City Council in January. Once the City Council reviews the draft, staff will release the request and then have the City Council weigh in on next steps in spring 2022. 

Multiple City Councilmembers said before the October vote that they are interested in a shelter with 50 to 60 beds and ideally at least some private rooms. 

Last year, the city budgeted funds to reserve 10 beds at two shelters in Escondido and Carlsbad for homeless people who had been staying in Vista.  

Deputy Mayor Joe Green argued that the city should move forward with its own shelter before the state forces it to. 

“We have to do something. What we’ve been doing hasn’t been working,” Green said.” That’s why (homelessness) has increased.” 

East County

Conversations about new shelters in East County aren’t moving as rapidly though the most recent point-in-time census tallied more than 500 people living on the streets in the region.  

While El Cajon-based East County Transitional Living Center recently added 110 beds for single adults, other cities in the eastern reaches of the county haven’t lined up to open new shelters. 

The lack of new options – and the fact that so much of the region is unincorporated and thus controlled by the county – led County Supervisor Joel Anderson, who represents East County, to last month submit a board letter urging the county to find shelter locations and plan a path forward.  

“We feel that it’s really important that we give people a path just like everywhere else in the county,” Anderson said at the Oct. 19 Board of Supervisors meeting. 

Anderson and the rest of the board later extended the search to the whole county. 

County staff are now expected to return to the Board in February. 

County spokeswoman Sarah Sweeney wrote in an email that county officials are “preparing to engage several communities directly to get additional feedback on specific locations.”  

Sweeney did not specify those locations but said East County communities have been engaged.

Bonnie Baranoff and Pastor Rolland Slade of the East County Homeless Task Force, a group pushing for homelessness solutions in the area, said they are hopeful new homeless services will materialize. 

“If you can’t do it now, I don’t know when you can do it,” Baranoff said. 

Slade is also working to deliver new options on his church’s property. 

For more than a year, the pastor of Meridian Baptist Church has worked with nonprofit Amikas on a City Council-approved plan to erect several emergency sleeping cabins on the church’s property. A 2020 City Council vote allowed shelter villages at 13 community-serving properties, including Meridian. One cabin has already been built on the property as part of a demonstration project. 

It’s been a long slog but Slade said the team behind his church’s project is working to finalize their city building permit so they can welcome homeless residents next year. 

“I’m hoping that we’ll be ready for folks to move in late March, early April,” Slade said. 

The hope is that others will follow their lead. 

Lisa Halverstadt

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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