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

The Housing Commission is back to the drawing board on its hopes for a safe campground for unsheltered seniors. 

Officials wanted to move forward this month with a pilot to allow about 40 unhoused San Diegans to camp in a downtown parking lot with access to service and amenities. 

Those plans are now off. Nonprofit Alpha Project last week walked away from negotiations with the city, sending the Housing Commission back to its search for a service provider and locations beyond a small Cortez Hill parking lot it had been most focused on. 

Housing Commission Chairman Mitch Mitchell said the city agency remains committed to the model – and now expects to also eye larger sites. 

“We are not giving up in our efforts to find a site and provider, but for now we are back in research mode and hope to present something for the full commission to approve in the near future,” Mitchell said. 

Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy, whose agency operated a temporary safe campground during a 2017 hepatitis A outbreak, previously said his organization was reluctant to pursue such a project again without the right amenities and staffing. 

Ultimately, McElroy said Friday, Alpha Project decided the planned budget for the pilot project wouldn’t support the staffing his nonprofit felt was necessary.  

“They tried their best and so did we,” McElroy said.  

The safe campground concept has garnered support from San Diegans who view it as a common-sense solution to a homelessness crisis that is booming downtown.  

Indeed, the latest homeless census by the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a downtown business group that has been the foremost champion of what it deemed safe villages, documented a record 1,839 unsheltered residents staying downtown and in its outskirts.  

And some unhoused residents who have concerns about city homeless shelters have said they’d try a safe campground – and many did in 2017. 

Yet city officials and homeless service providers have cautioned that opening a safe campground is more complicated than it seems. The concept is also controversial in the homeless service sector

“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,” Dave Rolland, a spokesman for Mayor Todd Gloria, wrote in an email last month. 

Gloria’s office declined to comment on the status of the safe village pilot on Friday. 

The safe campground concept has been limping along since 2021 when downtown power brokers and others began rallying behind the approach the city tried a few years earlier in a city operations yard at 20th and B streets.  

After a media campaign by the Downtown Partnership last year, Gloria agreed to include $200,000 in the city’s budget to back a small safe camping pilot for seniors. His team reported in December that the city had also secured another $300,000 from the county and engaged with philanthropists about potentially backing the program.  

For a time, the Downtown San Diego Partnership considered operating the safe village program. It later decided against taking the lead and handed the project to the city last summer. The Housing Commission has since struggled to sign on a service provider in a time of widespread staffing shortages in the homeless service sector.  

In more recent weeks, the Housing Commission has been in talks with Alpha Project about operating the pilot. 

But they couldn’t make it work.  

“We acknowledge that having the right staffing plan in place for the model was important and we attempted to work with Alpha while keeping the budget elements in mind, and unfortunately, it didn’t work out as we had hoped,” Mitchell said.  

Now, Mitchell said, the Housing Commission is refocusing.  

“We are beginning to have discussions about other sites that would allow us to launch this pilot and we are looking at the model overall and enhancements that can be added so we are providing the highest level of service possible to people in need,” Mitchell said. 

Mitchell said the Housing Commission also shares downtown City Councilman Stephen Whitburn’s interest in a larger tent village. Mitchell said he’d now like the housing agency to work to find a larger location for a pilot – or to perhaps concurrently pursue both a pilot and a larger project. 

Whitburn, who has also been supportive of the pilot, said last month that he had identified a half dozen sites adjacent to downtown he planned to analyze in early 2023 to see if they could house a larger safe camping site. The sites included an often largely vacant parking lot at Inspiration Point in Balboa Park and the city maintenance yard used in 2017. 

As the number of people living on city streets rises, Mitchell said he is hopeful that the Housing Commission can move swiftly to deliver a safe campground despite the series of setbacks it’s faced. 

“Moving quickly is the only option and providing support for this growing population is the most important focus,” Mitchell said. 

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...

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4 Comments

  1. Whitburn wants a “larger downtown tent village” and is up for re-election in 2024. Does he want to see what happens if people vote this time?

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