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More than four years ago, the city bought a shuttered East Village skydiving center with a vision to transform it into a hub linking homeless residents with housing and services.
That controversial vision is essentially reality – at least for now.
The Housing Commission is now directly overseeing the project after the nonprofit initially chosen to operate the facility at 1401 Imperial Ave. exited less than a year after it began serving homeless San Diegans there.
Nearly two years after nonprofit Family Health Centers CEO decried the project as a “public relations undertaking” rather than a needed homelessness response, the former indoor skydiving facility is drawing a constant flow of visitors seeking aid. A Housing Commission executive who led efforts to refine the project after the departure argues it’s proven worthwhile.
In a nearly 14-month period after the building now known as the Homelessness Response Center reopened last May, the Housing Commission reports it has accommodated more than 17,400 visits from people seeking shelter or other aid. That’s the equivalent of nearly 1,245 visits a month.
The center is for now open five days a week, but the Housing Commission said it hopes to resume Saturday hours next month.
The commission also reports 490 homeless residents who had not been receiving support elsewhere have been connected with case managers and housing navigation services at the center. Of those, 108 have moved into permanent or longer-term homes.
Nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless is now the leading provider at the center. Nine other groups including National Alliance on Mental Illness San Diego and county benefits enrollment workers also have a regular presence there.
Yet the project’s future is uncertain. Mayor Todd Gloria has long criticized the former mayoral administration’s skydiving center acquisition.
In more recent months, Gloria spokeswoman Rachel Laing said, the city’s Homelessness Strategies and Solutions Department has been “evaluating the effectiveness of the single service location model and possible changes to the program.”
Laing wrote in an email that the city has also explored whether the building she deemed “a regrettable purchase by the prior administration” could be used as a shelter or affordable housing. She acknowledged that the building’s architecture, coupled with its limited floor space and a remaining pair of 30-foot-tall wind tunnels, limit the city’s prospects to repurpose it.
No decisions have been made yet.
Housing Commission Executive Vice President Lisa Jones said her agency is excited about what it’s accomplished with the facility located in an area long considered the epicenter of the region’s homelessness crisis and hopes to continue work there.
“We have a strong desire to keep it up and running,” Jones said.
For now, a memorandum of understanding between the city and the Housing Commission and an arrangement with PATH will continue through June 2023.
The city bought the former skydiving center in early 2018 for $7 million with the hope that it could help homeless San Diegans navigate the complex system meant to help them move off the street.
Both the purchase and its plan for the building drew lots of skepticism.
The city failed to do its own appraisal of the indoor skydiving building, leading to claims from real estate pros and others that the facility may have been worth far less. The connection a longtime supporter of then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer had to the building only added to those questions. There were also concerns about the concept itself: Could a physical hub really help clear hurdles for homeless residents struggling with a confusing bureaucratic system? How much help could a facility that didn’t itself supply housing or shelter really do for homeless residents?
Gloria, then an assemblyman, was a vocal critic.
“There are many outrageous aspects of this real estate deal but the most frustrating one is that this 26,500-square foot, three-story building will house NO ONE,” Gloria wrote in an August 2019 Facebook post. “Let’s stop doing dumb stuff like this and embrace proven strategies like permanent supportive housing that will solve San Diego’s homelessness crisis.”
The former skydiving center turned navigation center finally opened that December. Walk-in visitors could check in and then meet with Family Health Centers staff to assess and discuss their needs. Then they might learn of potential housing solutions they could seek or be linked with county benefits or other agencies who could assist. To facilitate this, Family Health Centers reached agreements with more than two dozen agencies to provide services at the facility.
Within six months, the city and Family Health Centers were privately discussing how the nonprofit could step away.
The city was considering a new model and Family Health Centers raised a slew of concerns about the building, city requirements, the program model itself and more. The pandemic had also rocked the homeless service sector, including operations at the downtown hub.
By fall 2020, Family Health Centers was out and Housing Commission officials were pitching a plan to change the operation based on lessons learned at the Convention Center shelter, where city housing officials worked with other agencies to house hundreds of homeless San Diegans after the city rapidly moved people out of packed shelters amid COVID concerns.
Housing Commission officials have said the Convention Center operation that helped move 1,465 people into permanent or longer-term housing convinced them of the need for a coordinated shelter intake process and closer monitoring of homeless San Diegans’ progress and roadblocks they face on the path to housing.
They pitched replicating these and other tacks they had piloted at the Convention Center and having the Housing Commission directly operate the program with front-line assistance from PATH, which would help staff the center.
The City Council ultimately approved a memorandum of understanding and a contract with PATH that could be renewed through next June. The city’s budget for this fiscal year calls for nearly $1.6 million to support the homelessness response center project.
Now homeless residents line up outside the building on weekday mornings to seek shelter beds and other services.
Jones said PATH workers also assess the needs of those who come to the center to determine if they may need other assistance such as a case manager to help them navigate the homeless service system.
The goal, Jones said, is to triage and determine whether the person may need assistance to prevent them from losing their housing or may be able to access other aid, including housing subsidies, CalFresh food benefits or shelter.
Last Wednesday around 8:30 a.m., more than a dozen people gathered outside the facility.
Gino Dreyer, 32, was among the majority waiting to find out whether they would qualify for shelter and said he’d been directed there by an officer at the trolley station nearby.
“I have nothing to lose,” Dreyer said.
Donna Gonzales, 60, was returning. She said staff at the homelessness response center recently helped connect her with the Downtown San Diego Partnership’s Family Reunification Program to help cover her bus fare when her mother was on her death bed in Texas.
After the move to Texas didn’t work out, Gonzales said the Housing Commission had agreed to help her with a deposit to secure a new apartment in San Diego.
Last week, Gonzales hoped to snag a shelter bed for herself and her 32-year-old daughter and to learn how the center might be able to help with her housing search.
“I gotta get off of the street,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales later told Voice she learned there weren’t any shelter beds available that met her specifications.
Jahi Veasey, 22, also showed up Wednesday morning hoping for a referral to a shelter bed and a voucher to help him get a new ID.
Veasey said he was jaded following multiple failed shelter stays and repeatedly hearing on previous visits to the response center that no shelter beds were available.
“I’m tired of this cycle. It’s not a good cycle,” Veasey said. “It runs people in circles.”
City and Housing Commission officials have long said combating that frustration is a key goal of the center.
Jones said Housing Commission officials working at the center consistently monitor data points such as the length of time it’s taking homeless residents to connect with housing to try to address roadblocks. She said that tracking has also helped spawn more than 100 sessions between the Housing Commission and shelter providers to try to collectively address challenges for shelter residents who are running into barriers as they try to access housing.
But coordination, bolstered data analysis and the center itself can’t address a regionwide shortage of shelter beds and housing for all who want them, a challenge that experts flagged before the service hub ever opened.
Still, Jones argued having a one-stop shop where homeless residents can be connected to help and resources is valuable. It’s a place where people can start the process to get off the street and there seem to be more people who need help than ever.
“There is a phenomenal amount of need right now, particularly in that area and that corridor,” Jones said.