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.
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.
“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.
“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.”