Beds inside the Alpha Project bridge shelter in downtown San Diego in 2019. / Photo by Megan Wood
As of Monday, Alpha Project’s bridge shelter at 16th Street and Newton Avenue in Barrio Logan was temporarily housing 18 migrants. The nonprofit is now aiding 45 migrants at three of its shelters. / File photo by Megan Wood

Our reporting relies on your support. Contribute today! 

Help us reach our goal of $250,000. The countdown is on!

Dozens of migrants are staying in city-funded homeless shelters amid a spike in border arrivals who cannot quickly connect with support systems elsewhere. 

Nonprofit Alpha Project reported Tuesday it was temporarily housing 45 mostly Venezuelan migrants at three of its shelters while Father Joe’s Villages said late Monday it was sheltering 20 asylum seekers. 

The flow of migrants into city shelters follows a surge of crossings along the southwestern border, including by some who previously moved into bustling San Diego migrant shelters that could only keep them for 30 days. 

As an unknown number of migrants without contacts elsewhere in the United States depart dedicated shelters or decline to stay in them, some are ending up in city homeless shelters. 

Now longtime homeless service providers are grappling with how to aid migrants without Social Security numbers or access to other resources they typically tap to connect homeless San Diegans with permanent homes. Shelter providers are already unable to accommodate all homeless San Diegans seeking beds. 

“The reality is I do not know what to do,” Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy said. “This is way outside our field of expertise. I’m looking for somebody to give us some clear direction on what we’re supposed to do here.” 

In a statement, Father Joe’s Villages CEO Deacon Jim Vargas said the nonprofit was looking to the city and the San Diego Housing Commission for guidance on “the process asylum seekers will go through in the city’s shelter system.” 

“Since Father Joe’s Villages is not a dedicated migrant or asylum-seeker shelter, we cannot accurately tell you whether these individuals will be reunited with friends or family down the line,” Vargas wrote in response to questions from Voice of San Diego. “This question is better suited for immigration providers who routinely work with migrants and asylum seekers.” 

The city’s foremost shelter and outreach providers Alpha Project, Father Joe’s Villages and PATH are now set to meet with Housing Commission officials to discuss the situation.  

Lisa Jones, the agency’s executive vice president of strategic initiatives, said the Housing Commission hopes to hear providers’ recent experiences, the needs of the refugee population and the support the nonprofits need. 

A PATH spokesman said Monday the agency had yet to house any migrants at its downtown shelter. 

Dave Rolland, a spokesman for Mayor Todd Gloria, said Monday the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs was assembling a toolkit to share with shelter providers about asylum seekers and has asked the Housing Commission to connect the office with asylum seekers who want aid. 

“The Mayor’s Office has for weeks been in regular contact with service providers and county, state and federal officials on the impact that an influx of asylum seekers has on city homelessness resources,” Rolland wrote in an email.  “Because we do not ask shelter residents about their immigration status, the city does not treat them any differently than anyone else.” 

The Housing Commission, which oversees most city shelters and intakes, said the migrants are being assessed via the coordinated intake system that the city uses to assess needs and refer homeless San Diegans to shelter beds. That system prioritizes the most vulnerable unhoused residents and links them with shelter beds that best fit their needs. 

Jones said the intake process does not “include any preferential treatment or prioritization for asylum seekers, refugees or migrants” over homeless residents. 

McElroy was skeptical that the city was following its usual assessment process. He said many of the migrants in his shelters were single adults in their 20s and 30s who appear healthier than clients with disabilities, behavioral health conditions and other challenges who are typically prioritized. He said the influx of young migrants had spurred questions from other clients staying in his shelters, particularly in two shelters designed to serve people with behavioral health conditions. 

The Alpha Project bridge shelter in 2019. / File photo by Megan Wood

“The standard has always been the most at risk, the most infirmed, the longest homeless, the aged, the veterans – those have always been the benchmarks,” McElroy said. “Those have been the criteria so what happened to that?” 

Still, McElroy said, his shelters would continue to serve migrants referred into them.  

Father Joe’s, meanwhile, said it believes the Housing Commission is following its usual standards. 

… 

The spike in migrants at city shelters comes months after county supervisors voted to identify county property that could be used to shelter migrants to try to avoid what’s now happening. 

“If adequate shelter space is not made available swiftly, migrant families may have no choice but to seek accommodations at homeless shelters or on our streets. This would put an undue burden on already stressed unsheltered shelter providers,” county board Vice Chair Nora Vargas and Chair Nathan Fletcher wrote in an April board letter

At the time, Vargas and Fletcher were flagging the issue ahead of the expected uptick in arriving migrants as the U.S. prepared to end Title 42, a pandemic policy that halted U.S. efforts to process asylum seekers seeking protection at the U.S.-Mexico border. A court order later changed the Biden administration’s plans. 

County spokesman Michael Workman said the county later offered the state one of its properties and more recently identified both a hotel and another agency that could help run a new shelter. He did not provide specifics on either property, the non-governmental agency or when the county gave those recommendations to the state. 

“So far the state has not moved ahead on either opportunity,” Workman wrote in an email. 

A spokesman for the state Department of Social Services has not responded to Voice’s inquiry about why the state hasn’t moved forward, but said the state last year set up three Testing, Vaccination, and Resource Center shelters in San Diego and Imperial County that have since served more than 221,000 migrants after they were processed and released by federal authorities. The shelters are backed with state and federal funds. 

Unauthorized crossings along the southwest border have skyrocketed over the past year and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in San Diego have increasingly taken in busloads of migrants from other states to be processed in San Diego. 

Last month, Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke told inewsource that the San Diego sector was receiving four to seven buses a day filled with about 50 people each from Yuma so they could be processed. He also said the sector was “receiving a flight a day out of El Paso, Texas, because they are inundated as well.” 

That’s meant federal agents have recently been dropping off 300 to 500 migrants a day at Catholic Charities’ Mission Valley migrant shelter alone, Catholic Charities San Diego CEO Appaswamy “Vino” Pajanor said. 

Those large drop-offs have put increasing pressure on local migrant shelters. Late last month, shelters run by Catholic Charities and Jewish Family Service hit capacity, leaving the two nonprofits temporarily unable to take in newcomers. Both agencies have since resumed intakes. 

A surge in Venezuelan migrants without connections elsewhere in the U.S. further challenged Catholic Charities – and a 30-day limit on migrant shelter stays dictated by federal funding. 

Until September, Pajanor said nearly all the migrants flowing into Catholic Charities’ migrant shelter had a contact elsewhere in the U.S. and most departed San Diego within a couple days.  

That has changed in recent weeks amid a deluge of Venezuelan migrants without sponsors who are fleeing economic and government turmoil that has also inspired federal action to stem the flow of unauthorized Venezuelan migrants at the border.  

Pajanor, who described staff recently moving beds into office space at its Mission Valley shelter, said the influx of migrants without connections elsewhere has left Catholic Charities scrambling to keep up. 

“If people are not moving out, it backs up,” Pajanor said. 

The backup has also meant more migrants are ending up in the city’s homeless shelters as migrant shelter staff hustle to ensure they have beds for others arriving in San Diego. 

Pajanor said 10 migrants were placed in city homeless shelters last month after Catholic Charities staff took them downtown to be assessed for potential placements. He could not say how many migrants who had previously stayed in Catholic Charities’ shelter have been placed in city homeless shelters so far this month. 

Pajanor said he was shocked to learn Monday that more than 60 migrants were now staying in homeless shelters though he and other Catholic Charities leaders across the country warned Congressional leaders in a letter last month of the need for urgent action and additional support to aid migrants without sponsors. 

“We’re telling the federal government, please wake up,” Pajanor said. “We predicted this in early September, that this is coming down the pike. We warned them this was going to happen.” 

For now, Jones of the Housing Commission said the city’s goal is to connect migrants in city shelters with permanent or longer-term housing options, just as it would other populations. 

She noted that Housing Commission interim CEO Jeff Davis in April sent a letter to San Diego’s Congressional delegation urging the creation of a two-year, time-limited housing voucher program to help Ukrainian and Afghan refugees find homes in cities like San Diego with tight housing markets, a tack she said could potentially aid immigrants from other countries too.  

“This type of assistance is essential to prevent homelessness among newly arriving refugees in communities across the country already experiencing a homelessness crisis,” Davis wrote in the April letter. 

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...

Join the Conversation

3 Comments

  1. I have a problem with this. We have people on the streets because the shelters are supposedly full. And now they suddenly found room for 60 migrants?

    What is going on?

    1. Couldn’t find another way to help migrants without displacing homeless citizens from homeless shelters?

Leave a comment

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.