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Moving San Diego Homeless From Tents To Permanent Housing Slow But Steady

Bunk beds line a

Photo by Susan Murphy

Above: Bunk beds line a "Bridge Shelter" near downtown San Diego, which is providing a home for 324 people, Feb. 23, 2018.

It’s just after breakfast on a recent Wednesday. Joseph Lemaster, wearing jeans and a black sweatshirt, strolls down a long center aisle inside a sprawling homeless tent. He passes row after row of metal-framed bunk beds draped in a medley of blankets, with bins of belongings tucked beneath on the paved ground.

Lemaster is greeted with nods and gazes as he passes some of his 323 new roommates and their 100 companion pets. He cuts left and makes a quick right through a maze of mostly-friendly faces, arriving near the back canvas wall to his bottom bunk: bed number 194.

“This is my little bunk here, which is better than no bunk at all," Lemaster chuckles, sitting down on his neatly-made bed.

RELATED: San Diego Homeless People To Earn Minimum Wage Cleaning Trash, Graffiti

It’s about the first time in 20 years he’s had the comfort of a mattress and a daily shower.

Lemaster, like most living under the big gray dome on 16th Street and Newton Avenue in Barrio Logan, comes from years of surviving on the streets, lugging belongings in overstuffed bags and carts, and eating in soup kitchens.

A majority of his bunkmates struggle with mental illness, disabilities and despair. Most are over the age of 50, but nearly a dozen are college students. There are also five dozen veterans and a handful who hold full-time jobs.

While residents come from different walks of life, they all seemed to share a spirit of gratitude for a warm bed and offerings of much-needed services, including medical care, addiction treatment and counseling.

“They feed you here, they take care of you here,” Lemaster said. “They make sure nobody bullies you.”

For Lemaster, who grew up in the foster care system, life’s about to get even better. He’s moving into permanent supportive housing.

“I believe this is like winning the lottery,” he said, choking back tears. “Because I’ve been out there for a long long time.”

Lemaster is one of the lucky ones. Of the 720 people who have stayed at the shelter in the three months since it opened, just 42 have moved into permanent housing.

“When I first heard about it I did the happy dance, and it made me feel like crying, to tell you the truth,” he said.

The temporary structure is one of three funded by the city of San Diego. The other two bridge shelters — one for veterans in the Midway District and one for families in the East Village — are also working to find people permanent housing. As of January 31, three people have received keys to their own place.

RELATED: More Than 70 Homeless Children Moving Into San Diego’s Third Bridge Shelter

Reaching the top of the very long waiting list for permanent housing takes a high score on a vulnerability survey.

“These are the folks that have been the most infirmed, the most at-risk, the most vulnerable,” said Bob McElroy, Alpha Project CEO who oversees operations at the tent.

City officials were pressured to act by an outbreak of hepatitis A that killed 20 people and sickened hundreds, as well as a growing homeless street population that had taken over some city sidewalks with makeshift shelters and trash.

“Our people live here in peace and dignity and are so grateful to be inside,” Mcelroy said.

The idea of the bridge shelter is to provide a 3-to-4 month gateway for a majority of people to get into permanent housing, the agreed upon solution to end homelessness. The subsidized living spaces are usually single rooms or converted motel units with onsite services running $500 to $1,000 per month.

“This is another heartbreaker because everyone’s asking — their expectation is to get housed,” McElroy said. “Everyone here. They can’t wait. ‘Bob when am I gonna get my house, Bob when am I gonna get my house?’”

It’s a question he can’t answer, he said.

“There isn’t enough,” McElroy said. “And everybody knows that. So we have to be flexible enough to say that the expectation is that we’re not going to be able to house everyone so what do we do next?”

Whenever possible, McElroy said people are reunited with family, and those with enough income receive temporary rental assistance.

Joseph Lemaster, 49, sits on his assigned bed in a homeless tent shelter near downtown San Diego, Feb. 21, 2018.

People without income, and who are on the list for permanent housing, may have an extended stay in the tent, McElroy explained.

“They want something better, but this is way better than the brick. So everybody’s kind of in a holding pattern,” he said.

There are also many who will likely never escape homelessness, he said.

“There’s a whole segment of this population that are so shot out,” he said. “They need assisted living which does not exist. They’re so mentally ill and so violent.”

He talked about people who had spackled feces on their walls and intentionally flooded their rooms because they couldn’t comprehend consequences.

But his team never gives up trying to help, he added.

“It’s cool to be able to sit down with some of these people to see where they’re coming from and what they’re going through,” said Kyle Biggs, an Alpha Project housing navigator who works with a team inside the tent to strategically match people to service providers or landlords when a permanent unit become available.

“We also don’t want to just place them in housing and have it not work out,” Biggs said. “We don’t want to enter that revolving door cycle.”

Clients with histories of evictions, bad credit, or a prior criminal offense can be a challenge, he said.

“Everybody goes through tough times,” Biggs said. “So it’s really cool to be able to give a hand up and help out.”

Biggs said each housing navigator works with a list of ten people at a time in the long and rigorous process. He said he works hard to keep people’s hope alive during the wait.

“I try to keep them motivated, I try to keep them busy,” he said.

Joseph Lemaster is having a hard time realizing he’ll soon have a place of his own.

“I know it’s going to happen. But I don’t think I’ll believe it until I can be there, on the floor and spinning around in circles,” Lemaster said.

He plans to do everything he can to make his new home an entry door to a new beginning.

Moving San Diego Homeless From Tents To Permanent Housing Slow But Steady


Bob McElroy, CEO, Alpha Project



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