As the city tries to pursue a pilot safe campground for homeless seniors, it now appears most focused on a vacant parking lot at 4th Avenue and Beech Street in Cortez Hill. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler
The San Diego Housing Commission is back to the drawing board on its hopes for a safe campground for unsheltered seniors after focusing in recent weeks on a vacant parking lot at 4th Avenue and Beech Street in Cortez Hill. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Downtown advocates rallied behind a seemingly simple concept early this year: Let unsheltered residents set up camp in a sanctioned place with access to services and amenities.  

Getting it done hasn’t been simple. 

Mayor Todd Gloria, downtown City Councilman Stephen Whitburn and Housing Commission Chair Mitch Mitchell say the safe camping project remains in the works as street homelessness and suffering tied to it surge.  

Mitchell is hopeful a downtown pilot lot overseen by the Housing Commission could open by mid-to-late January while Whitburn plans to dig into potential locations for a larger project early next year. 

For now, the city appears most focused on an empty lot at 4th Avenue and Beech Street in Cortez Hill it believes could accommodate up to 40 unsheltered seniors, a potential site identified months ago.  

Gloria’s team and Housing Commission officials say turning a vacant lot into a safe camping site has been more complicated than it seems.  

“The city cannot simply identify a parking lot, sanction it as an allowable use and let people pitch tents and live there without security, access to amenities like restrooms and handwashing, and connections to social workers and housing navigators,” Gloria spokesman Dave Rolland wrote in an email. 

In other words, the city still needs to line up a homeless servicer provider and other contracts to make it happen. 

The city once thought the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a business advocacy group that has lobbied for safe villages, could operate the project.  

The group began pushing the concept in 2021, arguing downtown needed another option for unhoused residents who were uninterested in shelter programs. 

In early 2022, the business organization decided it needed to do more to make the project happen. The group for a time considered overseeing the project itself. The Downtown Partnership visited safe village programs elsewhere and researched potential sites, including the Cortez Hill parking lot. 

“Mama Heather” Bacon sits in her tent in an encampment just outside downtown on Dec. 7, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Months into the Downtown Partnership’s campaign, Gloria agreed to include $200,000 in the city’s budget to back a safe camping pilot for seniors. His team has since reported that the city also secured $300,000 from the county. His team has also engaged with philanthropists about potentially backing the program.  

In August, the Downtown Partnership decided against operating the program and handed over the reins to the Housing Commission.  

“We’ve never done that type of operation and it’s not really core to what we do at the Downtown San Diego Partnership,” said CEO Betsy Brennan, who said the group remains supportive of the concept. 

That same month, the Housing Commission released its third request for qualifications related to the safe villages concept. In July, the Commission asked potential operators and property owners who might have available space to respond. A second callout to service providers went out in August. 

Lisa Jones, a Housing Commission executive vice president, wrote in an email that she could not comment on how many groups responded because “contract awards, if any, have not occurred based on these procurement processes.” 

In a separate statement, Gloria’s office said the agency was continuing to try to secure a service provider to operate the pilot.   

Mitchell acknowledged the process has been challenging.  

“Things have been moving slowly due to challenges with finding a provider, staffing and trying to structure the program so that it can be successful,” Mitchell said. “When it is all said and done, our focus is on having this pilot be a positive addition to the overall structure, but it is taking more work to build than we originally anticipated.” 

Indeed, staffing shortages have made it hard to expand homeless services throughout the state – and safe camping programs many San Diegans once considered unthinkable remain controversial, including in the homeless service sector

Cortez Hill residents, meanwhile, argue the site isn’t ideal and that the city should look elsewhere.  

Joe Ergastolo of the Cortez Hill Active Residents Group said residents question why the city would move forward on a small lot that isn’t completely level and needs restrooms and other amenities likely to be packed there. They are also concerned about the city housing seniors in tents. 

“The idea of putting seniors on the ground during winter in San Diego and having that be OK doesn’t sit well with me or the (Cortez Hill) board,” Ergastolo said.  “Our thoughts were, ‘You can do better, city of San Diego.’” 

Rolland said the city is prepared to improve the site, including to potentially mitigate flooding. He said Gloria is “supportive of all potentially effective interventions” to aid the city’s growing unsheltered population and that the pilot will be a test. 

“The safe village concept keeps people in tents, which is not shelter,” Rolland wrote in an email. “Additional concerns include public safety and the uncertainty over whether the program would lead to a decrease in encampments elsewhere, as some people may continue to decline offers of services and shelter or refuse to move to such a village. We will reevaluate the effectiveness of this concept through the pilot program we are launching.” 

The city already temporarily ran a safe village in Golden Hill during a 2017 hepatitis A outbreak. A former federal official argued that program didn’t focus enough on moving people into permanent homes. Programs elsewhere have faced similar criticisms.   

Yet some unsheltered residents who didn’t view shelter programs as viable options – perhaps due to shelter rules or concerns about being separated from their pets or street families – moved into the tent village at 20th and B streets in 2017. Over the past year, many homeless residents have told Voice of San Diego they’d consider a safe campground if the city had one to offer. Homeless advocates and even the CEO of the regional group coordinating the countywide response to homelessness have also urged the city to explore the concept.  

Sixty-year-old “Mama Heather” Bacon, who now stays on a sidewalk just outside downtown, has long craved a safe place to set up her tent where she wouldn’t need to worry about police enforcement or other burdens of life on the street. 

But Bacon said the details matter. 

“Mama Heather” Bacon, 60, who now stays on the outskirts of downtown, says she’d welcome a safer place to set up her tent, but she wouldn’t move into a city-sanctioned safe campground without more details, including on who will operate it. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

“It all depends on who’s running it, how it’s run and basically, they have to have the guidelines for the clientele,” Bacon said.  

For example, she’d want to ensure there wasn’t favoritism or that folks couldn’t bring weapons or drugs into the camp. She’d also like to keep the tent she already has, something that wasn’t allowed in 2017. 

Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy, whose group ran the 2017 project, said specifics also matter to his nonprofit. 

McElroy said the success of a safe campground rests on having providers involved in designing the project. McElroy has said the 2017 project came with unique challenges, including the need to closely monitor people staying in tents rather than open-air shelter beds. He came away from the 2017 project unenthused about trying it again. 

But now McElroy says he’s not entirely closed off to the possibility, particularly as more San Diegans fall into homelessness and street homelessness hits new records downtown

“We might be interested in it if all the other stars align, if the political will is there, if the funding’s there and if all of us jointly plan this and lay it out and any other agency [involved] is at the table to help design this,” McElroy said. 

Whitburn, who lives blocks away from the Cortez Hill site, is already trying to line up more options. The councilman told Voice he has identified about a half dozen sites adjacent to downtown he plans to analyze early next year to see if they could house a second, larger safe camping site. 

The sites include an often largely vacant parking lot at Inspiration Point in Balboa Park and the city maintenance yard at 20th and B streets used in 2017. Gloria’s office has said the latter is unavailable and presents challenges including flooding issues.   

“We simply have an obligation to try to get the folks who are currently living on the sidewalks and in the parks and canyons, into a different place,” Whitburn said. “I am really committed to seeing this through and making it work and demonstrating that we can make a real difference for our neighborhoods and businesses and other stakeholders by getting people into a space other than the sidewalks.” 

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

10 Comments

  1. 1) With 1706 unsheltered residents counted just in Downtown SD last month, the idea that 40 “legal” camping spaces downtown is going to reduce the “illegal” tents is fantasy.
    2) If the City, and CM Whitburn particularly, wants to make a real dent in sidewalk tents, USE the City-owned, operational Mission Bay RV Resort w/ 500 spaces for unsheltered San Diego residents to stay in tents or their vehicle, with restrooms, showers, RV hookups, waste disposal already onsite! Also readily secured, no adjacent residences. And campers readily available for contact by social workers for housing placement. EMERGENCY CAMPING in this HOUSING DISASTER must trump tourist camping!

  2. This quote jumped out at me “[f]or example, she’d want to ensure there wasn’t favoritism or that folks couldn’t bring weapons or drugs into the camp.” I’m fine providing housing and supportive services for those who have been knocked down and want to improve themselves. However, having a homeless person say “I will only move off of the street to a guarded lot with facilities for me to wash and feed myself if it is a social utopia, I can bring a knife/gun/club, I can get high whenever I want, and I get to keep my pet” is really hard to see as reasonable/fair.

    1. I agree. It also seems like the person quoted in saying that doesn’t want to live in a permanent home. She talks about her tent as though that is her permanent home. Moreover, there ought to be favoritism towards people that understand that this is only temporary so that they have a safe, temporary place until they get permanent housing. I don’t know how else we could incentivize the behaviors needed to get off the street and we certainly shouldn’t be enabling “life on the street”.

  3. Ye gads, 40 tents! We have that many on numerous blocks all over the East Village. That is so absurdly ridiculous I can’t imagine how poor Dave Rolland could even talk about it with a straight face. Councilman Whitburn on the other hand has always seemed to be out of touch and unrealistic about our homeless crisis so he won’t be helpful. Particularly if he thinks 40 tents isn’t a sad joke!

  4. What an absurd idea. These junkies don’t want your tents, did Gloria and Whitburn need to read the quotes here to figure that out? For someone who lives “blocks” away, dude is remarkably out of touch.

  5. When will San diego have a safe place for the people that WORK and live amongst Homeless drug addicted violent criminals occupying the streets, parks, beaches and sidewalks? It’s not a rhetorical question Mr. Mayor.

  6. Bottom line: The street is not a home. This simply becomes a festering site which never closes and does nothing whatsoever to even put a dent on reducing homelessness.

  7. Ironically, this lot used to be a place where Centers for Employment Opportunities launched its work crews from–men and women who had been homeless or jailed and wanted to make their lives better. They started by picking up trash along the freeway, meanwhile getting skills and saving money.

    I don’t know why it stopped but that’s what this site needs to be used for: Getting people employment–whatever it might be–to get them out of their situation. Those who can work are actually bigger in number you realize, but you’ve got to give them a helping hand to do so, and earn that dignity for themselves. The amount of money spent on this could be spent actually employing people, meanwhile helping them every step of the way to stay employed and get a better job.

  8. “The group began pushing the concept in 2021, arguing downtown needed another option for unhoused residents who were uninterested in shelter programs. ”

    That’s the part that really confused me. If someone is uninterested in a shelter program, then why would we want them to camp out in our city? Have you seen pictures of the tent cities in other places? They are filthy. I’m sorry I don’t have a magic potion to solve the issue, but I can tell you one thing. Affirming and accepting anything that people want to do or don’t want to do won’t solve anything. We need to be rejecting homelessness and stop enabling a lifestyle of homelessness. Now once someone has a tent in one of these tent cities, what is the incentive for that person to ever leave? Yes, there should be services for helping people, but not for enabling chronic homelessness and drug addiction. Last time I checked heroin and fentanyl are illegal and yet the government seems more interested in providing clean needles then it is in stopping the flow of drugs or holding people accountable for illegal behavior. When did the courts establish a right to use drugs in public? In my mind, people caught using illegal drugs in public should be prosecuted or given the option of a rehab program.

  9. The CHARGE board doesn’t represent all of Cortez Hill. As a person who has attended the meetings I can say that they are less concerned with how the homeless will sleep and rather that it’s in their neighborhood. The president of the board is an attorney who also acts as the board attorney. The board only has their interests not those of the neighborhood.

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.