Ian Wiggill, 42, snacks on fruit in his upper bunk at the Golden Hall men’s shelter area on April 8, 2022. San Diego’s homeless shelters present a variety of opportunities for people experiencing homelessness, and an equal number of restrictions for residents there. The pandemic, rising housing costs, and competition for low-income housing all conspire to put the focus on how to house the growing number of people who fall through the cracks. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego
Ian Wiggill, 42, snacks on fruit in his upper bunk at the Golden Hall men’s shelter operated by Father Joe's Villages on April 8, 2022. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

San Diego doesn’t have enough shelter beds for all the homeless residents in the city seeking them.

Just 37 percent of the 6,620 referrals by outreach workers and police officers ultimately resulted in a homeless resident shelter being placed in shelter during a nearly six-month period that ended in mid-September, a Voice of San Diego analysis of shelter referrals routed through the San Diego Housing Commission reveals

That means nearly two thirds of referrals in an average week didn’t lead to someone who wanted shelter moving into a bed, despite the push to add hundreds of city-funded shelter beds over the last year.

Bunk beds in the family shelter area of Golden Hall are small havens of colorful children’s toys, backpacks and clothing. Family units are kept together, a rare situation for local shelters; where both parents are able to stay together with the children, rather than having only the mother stay with children and the father staying in a men’s dorm. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego
Bunk beds in the family shelter at Golden Hall are adorned by colorful children’s toys, backpacks and clothing. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

The leading cause of referrals going unfulfilled was simply that there weren’t enough of them, said Lisa Jones, the Housing Commission’s executive vice president of strategic initiatives. That includes when there wasn’t a bed that met specific needs, such as bottom bunks for seniors.

“The data indicate that the need for shelter currently exceeds the available inventory,” Jones wrote in an email.

The evidence of that need is clear on weekday mornings outside the city’s Homelessness Response Center in East Village, where homeless residents line up to see if they can get a bed. During the week of Sept. 12, records show the center made 90 referrals. Nineteen led to a shelter placement.

Service providers, police officers and workers at the Homelessness Response Center refer people to shelter through a coordinated process. Outreach workers and others share details on folks who want a shelter bed, and the program identifies an option that best meets the person’s needs.

Kassandra Martinez, 19, and her son Adrian Martinez, 6 months, share a bunk in the family shelter area of Golden Hall in the downtown San Diego Civic Center Concourse on April 8, 2022. Her two female cousins and their children are also at the shelter. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego
Kassandra Martinez, 19, and her son Adrian Martinez, 6 months, share a bunk in the family shelter area of Golden Hall in the downtown San Diego Civic Center Concourse on April 8, 2022. Her two female cousins and their children are also at the shelter. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

A shortage of suitable beds isn’t the sole reason referrals can go unfulfilled, though it is the most common one.

Jones said other reasons include being unable to find the person who has requested a shelter bed, the person changing their mind after a referral, failure to show up at the shelter they are matched to and temporary suspension from a shelter program.

There’s a core math problem behind the prime reason for unfulfilled requests.

The city now has 1,742 shelter beds, including about 300 it’s added this year alone. Those 1,742 beds can’t fully accommodate the nearly 2,500 homeless residents documented living outdoors in the city during the region’s most recent point-in-time count, a total widely considered an undercount. Many people also remain in shelters for months as they seek a longer-term or permanent home, meaning their beds aren’t available for others.

Homeless residents, outreach workers, police officers and advocates have long bemoaned the lack of openings for people who want to move inside. Those concerns have grown louder during the pandemic and amid increasing homelessness among seniors and other medically vulnerable people.

Staff and resident volunteers regularly keep the entire bridge shelter residential and communal areas clean at the Temporary Bridge Shelter Program run by the Alpha Project for the Homeless in San Diego's Barrio Logan neighborhood.
Staff and resident volunteers regularly clean residential and communal areas clean at at Alpha Project’s bridge shelter at 16th Street and Newton Avenue. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

City and Housing Commission officials are frank about the need for more shelter beds.

Hafsa Kaka, who leads the city’s Homelessness Strategies and Solutions Department, told the City Council last month that officials expect to add nearly 250 more beds this fall to reach a total of nearly 2,000 beds. Kaka said the new beds will include options that provide private spaces for seniors and families. Previous additions this year include non-congregate beds for seniors at a South Bay hotel, a 40-bed shelter for homeless women and two shelters with stepped-up services for people with behavioral health challenges.

Kaka noted that the city’s 2019 homelessness plan, which was written before the pandemic increased housing instability, projected the need for another 200 beds on top of what the city’s already on track to deliver.

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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  1. If you only ask people on the receiving end of taxpayer $ if the $ is being spent well, what do you expect they will say? Actually this is a waste of time and you should eliminate my position? Where is the data showing the #1 reason is lack of shelter space? Why didn’t you call the city and county and ask what the occupancy rate is on weekday morning (the timeframe the person you quoted referenced)?

    Non profits are trying to herd cats and they can’t. Some of these people are doing the same thing for 40 years seeing the same outcome 100 out of 100 times. You often quote and reference a man who rails against homeless ODs in tents on the street but when the government gets them off the street he buys them new tents to OD in. These are people you want to take advice from? Yikes

  2. I have never heard – in 30 years of paying attention – that there was sufficient shelter space. What “myth” is she referring to? I also listened to the PolitiFest on this issue and there’s lots of sympathy, especially by VSD for the unhoused, but little sympathy or reporting for how many of them are able to work for living. It’s also difficult to listen to any of the push for more housing when little to none will be accessible for the unhoused. Builders will not overbuild to reduce prices NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU INCREASE the zoning. Please report more on what % of the unhoused are: mentally ill, drug addicted, new on the streets due to other reasons, disabled, “chosen” to live on the streets, able to work.

  3. Any one who thinks the homeless/street people crisis can be solved or even marginally improved by jobs and affordable housing is apparently unaware of the conditions of most of these poor souls living on our sidewalks. The majority have critical mental and physical disabilities that make them largely unemployable. Many have arrest records that would make them unemployable. Of course there are some who choose to live on the streets but we should not count them as being “homeless”.
    They are street people who make their own choice where to live and they make a conscious decision to live on the street.
    If you just read Lisa Halverstad’s story on the lack of shelter beds how in the world can you expect these people to pack up, move right into affordable housing and get a job? Get real!

  4. Agree with the comments. Nobody is arguing or denying the “humanity” of homeless. In fact, such filth is inhumane for everyone affected. These stories prove that some homeless are mental and need a medical facility. It also shows how different types of homeless are being grouped together. Mostly it highlights the mediocracy of the Housing Commission and Local and State government leaders. For starters, I would like to see some “data” as in “where” were the homeless “prior”. For example, someone coming out of jail is not “falling to” homelessness.

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