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How Are City Leaders Addressing Need For Permanent Homeless Shelter?


Will San Diego ever get a permanent shelter for the homeless? We'll look steps the city is taking to make the shelter a reality.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): A community forum at Horton Plaza's Lyceum Theatre Wednesday let the public ask questions about a proposed permanent homeless shelter downtown. In April, a group appointed by the San Diego City Council's Land Use Committee surprised many by recommending a proposal by a nonprofit organization called PATH. It wants to set up a 225-bed facility at the World Trade Center building on 6th Avenue. Many downtown business owners and professionals had a lot of questions about the proposed shelter. KPBS metro reporter Alison St John is here to tell us about the forum. Alison, good morning.

ALISON ST JOHN (KPBS Metro Reporter): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now what was the purpose of the public meeting yesterday?

ST JOHN: Well, this has been a controversial issue, a hot political potato, as some would say, for years almost. You know, how to deal with the homeless population downtown. And even although there has been a recommendation made to the city council, the Land Use and Housing Committee said, look, we’re not going to send this to the city council until people have had a bit more of a chance to look at this recommendation and assess it. So yesterday was just one of several opportunities, I think, for the public to find out more about this proposal which involves an agency that is not one of the agencies we’re familiar with dealing with the homeless downtown.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Give us, if you can, just a little bit of background on the proposal. What is PATH and why was its concept for this permanent homeless shelter the one that was selected?

ST JOHN: Well, PATH—and I believe that we’ll be hearing more from PATH later—but basically one of the reasons that I feel they wanted to try an outside model is because there is a movement crossing the country of trying to tackle homelessness in a different way with a different model, a different approach. And some would say that, you know, the jury is still out on whether this model is working, others would say, look, San Diego’s way behind the curve, it’s about time we caught up with what’s being tried in other communities and working. And so one of the reasons I think was—and there may be many reasons why this particular proposal was chosen—is that PATH is an agency that has tried this model in Los Angeles, in many different communities in Los Angeles, and is having some success with dealing with chronic homelessness there.

CAVANAUGH: And it’s a partnership really…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …of different agencies all in one.

ST JOHN: That’s right. Yeah, there’s Family Health Centers of San Diego, which has several clinics all over the county, and PATH and Affirmed Housing, which is a developer, so they’re the lead three agencies. And I think what’s significant about this is that because there’s a health center involved, health services would be very much integrated into this permanent center.

CAVANAUGH: Now when we say this recommendation was made to select the proposal by PATH, who made the recommendation?

ST JOHN: Well, that’s a good question because when you try to get to the base or the bottom of like, okay, so where did this committee of nine citizens come from and who appointed them, it seems like it was put together loosely by the Housing Commission. Land Use and Housing basically gave the Housing Commission the responsibility to do the research and come up with a recommendation. So it’s nine disparate individuals who come from anything from CCDC, which, of course, is downtown development, and also some of the existing agencies that are dealing with the homeless but it doesn’t seem to be what you would expect for something that the city council is going to be voting on, you know, a committee appointed by members of the city council or, you know, officially here’s where the buck stops. It’s a group of interested individuals who have done some research and thought about the different proposals that were given to them—there were four proposals—and come up with this recommendation.

CAVANAUGH: Now this 225-bed facility was chosen to be recommended over a larger facility that was proposed by Father Joe’s Village. And the PATH site is not in the East Village.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: It’s in the business district. What’s the significance of that?

ST JOHN: Well, as you know, location, location, location. That’s been the source of much of the problems, is where to locate this permanent center for homeless services. So the fact that it’s now – this proposal puts it right in the middle of – close to the Symphony, just a little bit – a couple of blocks north of Horton Plaza, more in the business area rather than the East Village where there’s a lot more residential, means that perhaps there isn’t going to be so much complaints from people who live in the area, residence people who, let’s not forget, vote because they live in that area and they’re registered to vote there. It’s more in the area where there are businesses, restaurants, cultural activities.

CAVANAUGH: So what kind of questions were the business owners asking yesterday at this public forum?

ST JOHN: Well, they’re very concerned about, so, you know, does this mean if we have a center that has only 225 beds as opposed to the 500 beds that was proposed by Father Joe’s – Father Joe Carroll, St. Vincent de Paul Village, that was the second competing proposal—had more beds in it. So, you know, immediately, if you just look at it on the face of things, it’s like, well, how can this be an improvement if there are fewer beds? How are you going to control the homeless population? Are we going to see more people out on the streets or on the sidewalks? Because from businesses’ perspective that—and residents—that is the big issues, is they would rather not have people sleeping on the sidewalk outside of their business. So they were asking how are you going to control the homeless? And they are offering a sort of a neighborhood covenant, which I’m sure they’ll talk more about, which is a way of trying to work with the people who work and live downtown to guarantee that they will try to take care of any incidents like that. Even although they don’t have as many beds, they do have a lot of services to offer.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with KPBS metro reporter Alison St John about a community forum at Horton Plaza’s Lyceum Theatre yesterday that was about the proposed permanent homeless shelter in downtown San Diego. Joining the conversation now is Joel Roberts. He’s CEO of PATH Partners. That is the nonprofit that’s proposing the permanent homeless shelter on 6th Avenue in downtown San Diego. Joel, welcome to the program.

JOEL ROBERTS (CEO, PATH Partners): Thank you, Maureen. It’s a pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: So what – we just talked about a neighborhood covenant. Why don’t you tell us what the neighborhood covenant is that you told the business owners about yesterday.

ROBERTS: Well, when a homeless program comes into a neighborhood, we see success when it’s a win-win for everybody. If it’s a win for people who are living on the streets and they actually get off into permanent housing and it’s a win for the neighborhood if they actually see the number of people living on the streets getting off the streets where we reduce homelessness. And part of doing that is developing a covenant with the neighborhood so that they actually have some sense of control over their own neighborhood. A lot of times people think when a homeless program moves in that the neighborhood doesn’t have control so the covenant is dealing with no loitering, no lines, security, lighting, hours of when programs are open or closed, things like that.

CAVANAUGH: Joel, Alison told us that your planned downtown shelter is part of a new model of how to deal with homelessness in urban settings. What is this new model?

ROBERTS: Cities around the country that have targeted, have developed programs that are actually working with chronic homeless people, people who are living on the streets for a long time, and actually linking them to permanent housing, these cities have actually seen a reduction of people living on the streets in their areas, and that’s what this model is about. We actually surveyed in this core area around the building last week. We had outreach teams working with the San Diego Police Department HOT teams, the Homeless Outreach Teams and we found 300 people living on the streets just within blocks of the building. In fact, 45% are women living on the streets. So we see this as part of the – Our approach is that we figure out who’s on the streets and then we systematically work with them to help them get off.

ST JOHN: And one of the things that you were mentioning, Joel, at the meeting yesterday was that your particular center can’t really solve all the problems of the downtown homeless. You are only guaranteeing to focus on this like 8-block, 12-block, area downtown and then hope to make a success there to serve as an example to spread elsewhere.

ROBERTS: Well, what our goal will be is to reduce the number of people living on the streets in the area just north of Broadway. We will also be providing services and housing for people throughout the downtown San Diego area that we consider are vulnerable, and vulnerable meaning that they have been on the streets for a long time, they may have a chronic disease or a disability and that could actually die on the streets. So we’re going to prioritize vulnerable people throughout the downtown San Diego as well as prioritize the people that are living on the streets around the building.

ST JOHN: So I was just wondering what you would say to people in the East Village, for example, who might say, well, okay, this is good. From our perspective, the center is not on our doorstep but it’s going to be perhaps dealing more with the homeless up in the business district and we’ll still see more homeless now congregating in our area?

ROBERTS: What we have seen when we actually begin to reduce the number of people living on the streets is that other neighborhoods, other cities even in the region, begin to say we want to do the same thing, and that’s what our goal is with this model is to develop a model that shows that we can reduce the number of people living on the streets around the center and in hopes that other cities or other districts or other areas of the region will do the same.

CAVANAUGH: On the line with us now, Jennette Lawrence is director of Government and Community Relations for Family Health Centers in San Diego, part of the partnership involved in the PATH proposal for a permanent homeless shelter in downtown San Diego. Jennette, good morning.

JENNETTE LAWRENCE (Director of Government and Community Relations, Family Health Centers of San Diego): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: What will be the role of Family Health Centers in this proposed downtown shelter?

LAWRENCE: So our role will be relocating our downtown Family Health Center and to be the healthcare partner so that we will be providing comprehensive primary healthcare and mental health services to both residents of the permanent supportive housing units, folks that are accessing the service center and the interim beds as well as local residents in the downtown community.

CAVANAUGH: How vital is it to have that kind of a healthcare presence in a facility like this?

LAWRENCE: It is essential and what they’ve proven in models all around the country is that linking community health centers with permanent supportive housing and Housing First projects is one of the key factors to success. Many people that are living on the streets have critical health needs, whether they’re mental health needs, they perhaps have diabetes, other conditions that they’re really struggling with, and often are a key barrier into getting them into permanent housing. For example, many people on the streets are actually eligible for SSI, which is a monthly income payment because they’re disabled but in order to apply for SSI you need documentation from a physician of your disability. Well, if you’re homeless and uninsured, how do you get that documentation? And so by having the health center on site and really coordinating with the PATH team and other providers there, we can make sure that we’re providing health services to get people back on their feet and helping them become eligible for all the other benefits that are going to lead to them having a permanent place to live.


ROBERTS: And, in fact…

CAVANAUGH: Go ahead, Joel. I’m sorry.

ROBERTS: In fact, when we surveyed around the building, 66% of the people just living on the streets around the building had serious physical health conditions. In fact, we even asked them how many times have you visited the hospital or the emergency room and we calculated just in the past year the hospitals have spent about a half a million dollars just on the people around that building. So we see linking healthcare with housing and homeless services as very vital.

CAVANAUGH: And finally, Jennette, I’m just wondering why Family Health Centers supports this plan for the downtown shelter as opposed to one in the East Village perhaps over the Father Joe plan? What was it about this one that you wanted to support?

LAWRENCE: We think it’s a great partnership. It’s taking a national best practice model, it’s partnering with two other great organizations, PATH that has an incredible reputation for running excellent programs, as well as Affirmed Housing, which is a local San Diego affordable housing developer that has a very successful track record in building great projects. And in a partnership that we think is sustainable, and that was something that was very important to Family Health Centers, that when we make a commitment to the community that we’re going to serve that we’re in it for the long haul and we want to run one of the most effective and professional programs we can. And I think that’s our reputation after being part of San Diego’s healthcare safety net for 40 years and we really feel like this is the project that can deliver.

CAVANAUGH: Jennette, thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate it.

LAWRENCE: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: Jennette Lawrence, director of Government and Community Relations for Family Health Centers of San Diego. My remaining guests are Alison St John and Joel Roberts, CEO of PATH Partners. Ernest is on the line joining us from Lakeside. And good morning, Ernest. Welcome to These Days.

ERNEST (Caller, Lakeside): Thank you very much. Yeah, Mr. Roberts, I was at the forum yesterday and I was very – it was very interesting and I thought it was a worthy project. There were two areas that I felt weren’t covered as much and I was hoping maybe you could expand on them a little bit now. Number one was the issue of – Well, I’ll get to the first, the most important issue, it seemed to me, was security. I think the number one problem that most people have with homelessness for all the compassion that might exist is really one of security. It’s the question…


ERNEST: …of loitering, it’s a question of panhandling and that sort of thing. And you made a comment about your program up in LA that I thought was interesting. You said that when your communities were formed that you can force yourselves a lot of the issues of like people sleeping in doorways and getting them to leave and that kind of thing without necessarily having to bother the police. And that struck me as interesting because I don’t understand how a non-law enforcement agency could, you know, forcibly remove someone who refused to go or could tell someone, you know…

CAVANAUGH: Right, but…

ERNEST: …get out of the way.


CAVANAUGH: …let’s take that as the first question.

ROBERTS: First of all, we, as a non-law enforcement agency cannot force anybody to move off the streets but what happens is when you link street outreach, which is outreach workers on the streets every day, developing relationships with people living on the streets, you link that with housing and services, people begin to start developing a trust and start saying yes, I do need help. The – typically, the first responders to homelessness on the streets is law enforcement. So the first thing we do is we develop a relationship with law enforcement and it becomes actually a partnership on the streets where we work with people living on the streets. San Diego Police Department has an excellent team of police officers called the HOT team, Homeless Outreach Teams, and they’re already doing some of this in downtown San Diego. And so we’re – we want to link it with our outreach teams and then link that with housing.

CAVANAUGH: And, Ernest, you had a second question? Is…?

ERNEST: Yeah, thank you for the answer to the first one.


ERNEST: The second one is really more just in general. The model you’re using here, as I said, I was impressed by it, I think it’s great. Do you anticipate this being expanded out into the county of San Diego? Because homelessness is a, you know, is a huge problem throughout the county. I realize it’s probably more – most intense in the area that you’re talking about but there are so many pockets of the city and county where homelessness is just rampant. Pacific Beach is an example and then you can go out, places like Lakeside, you know, El Cajon, I mean, there are just so many areas…

ROBERTS: Umm-hmm. Yes.

ERNEST: …where it’s such a deep, you know, seems like a deep problem and, again, it, you know, in all aspects it just…


ERNEST: …from panhandling…


ERNEST: …to the, you know, the human suffering, all that.


ROBERTS: You know, ev…

CAVANAUGH: …thank you.

ROBERTS: ...every metropolis around the country, every region has homelessness spread out all over. And rather than develop a solution that covers the whole area, our approach is to develop a solution that covers a local area or a neighborhood. And when that neighborhood starts having a reduction in homelessness other parts of the region say we want to do the same thing. And we’ve seen this in Long Beach. We’ve reduced homelessness in the downtown area by 21%. In New York City, another agency called Common Ground had a great program near – in Times Square where they reduced the number of homeless people to one person. So it definitely works. And then what happened is other communities who are hit hard with homelessness say we want to do the same thing.

ST JOHN: So, Joel, I guess the big question is resources and, you know, how much will this cost and will it be a matter of taking the funding that used to go into the winter shelter and the Neil Good Day Center, which the city is subsidizing, putting that into the program that you’re proposing, which is only taking care of, as you say, this neighborhood. You’re really trying to solve the problem in that small area and then have other centers like yours built elsewhere. But what about the fact that the current situation, you know, is a bigger area and people not in your neighborhood won’t be covered?

ROBERTS: I think during this time there’s a lot of negotiations in terms of the budget and I think that it is important to keep other services going, so I don’t know if it’s simply let’s shut down existing services and put it all into this building. I think there’s going to be some negotiation to say we can’t do that. In terms of what or how much or – I don’t know exactly the answer to that.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both, Joel and Alison, if I may, if, indeed, this project is approved and we have a

225-bed permanent facility at the World Trade Center building, we have a winter shelter that has about 350 beds in it, so we’re actually, if we don’t have a temporary winter shelter, we’re actually losing about a hundred beds or so. Has anybody addressed that issue, Joel?

ROBERTS: Well, first of all, the winter shelter beds are only four months out of the year and this 225 is year round. And I do know that there is, again, negotiations to keep some beds open or replacing those winter shelter beds with something else like housing vouchers to get out – get people actually in apartments. But, again, I think there’s some negotiation going with that.

ST JOHN: There was also some information from CCDC at the forum yesterday that they also have plans to build 500 units of affordable housing downtown, although whether those would be within reach – just a small proportion of those would be within reach perhaps of some of this population, and provide more vouchers if the cap is lifted off their tax increment funding, which, of course, is an open question right now but…

ROBERTS: And, again, permanent housing is the main solution to addressing homelessness. It’s not simply just building more shelter beds. That’s a temporary solution. But the permanent solution’s building more permanent housing that is linked to support services. And every city around the country that does that, they reduce the number of people living on the streets.

ST JOHN: And then there’s one other question I think a lot of people have in their minds which is that in Los Angeles providing permanent housing allowed them to shift the balance on a lawsuit. Right now, the City of San Diego is not able to – the police are not able to issue tickets for people who are…

ROBERTS: Yes, yeah.

ST JOHN: …sleeping on the street. And that’s an ongoing lawsuit, and so there’s some concern that if the city sets up a permanent housing center like your own, which doesn’t actually cover everybody, but would mean that the lawsuit would then allow ticketing again. Do you see that as one of the motivations for having a permanent center? Even although it doesn’t cover all the homeless downtown.

ROBERTS: I can’t – I don’t know what people’s motivations are so I don’t – I can’t comment on that. However, I do know that in Los Angeles, the lawsuit was lifted in LA when there was a commitment to permanent housing and not to building more shelter. Again, because they saw that cities that invest in permanent housing actually reduce the number of people on the streets.

CAVANAUGH: Joel, my final question, you talked – you started talking to us about the neighborhood covenant that you would like to build in that area. What other kinds of outreach are you planning to the area, the downtown area, to let people become familiar with your planned permanent homeless shelter?

ROBERTS: Well, we’ve had an open house at the building. We’ve mailed out to 2,000 people within a quarter mile of the building, both tenants as well as property owners. We’re meeting with every group in the area that we can meet with. We’re open to meeting with more people. We want to explain to them how we can actually reduce the number of people living on the streets because we know that becomes the win for everybody, that we’re not – that we are a good neighbor, that we are helping people get off the streets but we’re also helping the neighborhood increase its quality of life.

CAVANAUGH: And, Alison, for – when we talk in terms of process with the city council, what is the next step? When will the city council take this matter up again?

ST JOHN: Well, it’s due to come before Land Use and Housing in July and you will notice that that is after the June primary election and we do have some city council members up for election in June. So it’s worth noting that it’s going to come up in the summer and it’s unknown as to whether it would actually reach the city council as a whole in perhaps August.

CAVANAUGH: And from my – from what I’ve been reading, the idea is if this follows the right course, it may go before voters in 2012?

ST JOHN: That is looking further ahead than I can say.

CAVANAUGH: All right then, fair enough. KPBS metro reporter Alison St John, thank you so much.

ST JOHN: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: And thank you so much Joel Roberts, CEO of PATH Partners.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: If you would like to comment on anything that you’ve heard here, you can go online, Coming up, it’s the Weekend Preview here on KPBS.

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