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Higher Costs, Unmet Expectations Overshadow Tent Shelter Vote

The entrance to the temporary tent shelter for homeless individuals at 14th and Commercial is seen here, Sept. 17, 2018.
Andrew Bowen
The entrance to the temporary tent shelter for homeless individuals at 14th and Commercial is seen here, Sept. 17, 2018.

San Diego City Council members Tuesday will be asked to divert an additional $8.5 million previously earmarked for low- and moderate-income housing to the three homeless tent shelters championed by Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

The money would keep the three tents, officially called "temporary bridge shelters," open for an additional nine months, through the end of June 2019. Their overall cost in the current fiscal year is expected to be $14 million — about $1 million higher than what the council approved earlier this year. The rising costs are mostly due to plans for recruiting staff with more expertise in housing and case management.

The tents were erected in the wake of the deadly hepatitis A outbreak. They were billed as an emergency response to the unsanitary conditions that allowed the virus to spread quickly throughout the homeless community. They provide residents with beds, meals, showers, laundry services and "housing navigators" meant to steer them toward stable housing situations.


But the rising cost of the tents, and their relatively poor performance at getting people out of homelessness and into permanent housing, have raised concerns among some council members. The city has also failed to find a permanent, sustainable funding source for the shelters, meaning they are still operating with dollars previously earmarked for more permanent solutions such as new low-income housing construction and rental subsidies.

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The tent at 14th and Commercial, operated by Father Joe's Villages, shelters 150 single women and families with children. The nonprofit's CEO, Deacon Jim Vargas, said he was sensitive to the criticism that the tents are a mere Band-Aid fix to a far greater problem.

"When I hear that dollars are being taken from the affordable housing pot ... and transferred here for shelters, that concerns me," he said. "The reality is that we need funding for both because they both have a place in the array of services and in getting people off the streets."

Father Joe's is also somewhat caught in the middle of the funding debate: The nonprofit is still short millions of dollars for its 14-story, 407-unit apartment complex it plans to construct on the site of its tent shelter. Those apartments will be permanent supportive housing units — considered the gold standard for ending chronic homelessness.


Still, Vargas said the council could not simply defund the tents without finding a place for the residents to go.

"The answer isn't, 'Let's close these shelters down and put these people back on the street,' because how is that helping?" he asked. "What we need to do is as a community come together creatively and realize what do we need to do on a short-term basis, as well as on a long-term basis, in order to really be impactful."

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Michael McConnell, an advocate for the homeless and a frequent critic of the mayor's approach to the issue, said the council had given itself no good options.

"They're up against the wall here," he said. "I realize they have a lot of folks now in these jumbo shelter tents, but they're not getting a lot of people out of homelessness."

Out of all the residents exiting the shelters since their opening, only 13 percent have managed to find placement in permanent housing. That is far short of the shelters' original goal of 65 percent.

In addition to the funding extension, council members Tuesday are also being asked to lower the target rate for exits to permanent housing to 30 percent, which officials say is more realistic. And they are being asked to broaden the definition of a "successful exit" to include "longer term housing," which may not be as stable as permanent housing.

McConnell pointed to recent counts of downtown homelessness, conducted monthly by the Downtown San Diego Partnership, which have found an increase since the first of the tents opened in January.

"They've failed to reduce homelessness on the streets of downtown, and they're eating up a lot of money that could be used for permanent solutions," he said. "How does this get wound down? Does it ever get wound down, or does it just keep absorbing tens of millions of dollars that are for permanent housing?"

VIDEO: Higher Costs, Unmet Expectations Overshadow Tent Shelter Vote
Higher Costs, Unmet Expectations Overshadow Tent Shelter Vote
San Diego City Council members are being asked to extend the funding for three tent shelters for the homelessness. The shelters have failed to meet their own goals, and their price tag is rising.