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How Downtown San Diego's East Village Became The 'Homeless Ghetto'

San Diego police cars with flashing lights roll up on 17th Street to clear the homeless and their tents from the sidewalks in the East Village, June 27, 2016.
Susan Murphy
San Diego police cars with flashing lights roll up on 17th Street to clear the homeless and their tents from the sidewalks in the East Village, June 27, 2016.

How Downtown San Diego's East Village Became The 'Homeless Ghetto'
How The East Village Became The "Homeless Ghetto"GUEST:Lisa Halverstadt, reporter, Voice of San Diego

According to the Voice of San Diego's Lisa Halverstadt East Village is the front line of the homeless crisis. She joins me now. Welcome to the program. Thanks for having me. How much is homelessness increasing in the East Village? Street homelessness is up nearly 80% in East Village since last summer. When I say street homelessness that means the people that are living on the street, there are many people moving into shelters. This number is also nearly triple what it was in 2013. Both of those numbers, the nearly 80% rise and the near tripling of the population are based on monthly counts that the Downtown San Diego Partnership of business group conduct's. I should note, there have been a number of increased tent settlements that we are seeing in East Village, which potentially inflate the number. Anyone that you talk to in East Village would tell you overall, it's very clear there is a significant increase this on the streets. In your articles you describe what homelessness in the East Village looks like. For anyone who has not been down there, can you describe it? You walk along certain blocks and you will see there are tent lined up along the sidewalks, shopping carts are packed with people's items that they own. It's especially packed near Father Joe's Village's campus and the Neil good days center where homeless can access services and get mail. When it starts to get dark and on the weekends, there are more often large feedings happening, sometimes folks lineup for long lines to get a meal. The encampments get larger and sprout up at night. How did this happen in the East Village? There are many things that play -- at play. History is part of the story. Back in the 80s and 90s, as the city was trying to revitalize the gaslamp district they decided and had concerns the homeless population downtown would impact those revitalization goals. They decided that they should have homeless serving nonprofits moved to East Village. At the time this was a warehouse district, lots of empty lots, not really a place the city was envisioning much development for. The city said, if you'd like to develop you can get a conditional use permit which allows them to operate and serve their clients in East Village. The thought was, other neighborhoods might not accept this and there was a large population that needed help. Now today, we have a from a nominal -- phenomenon where there are homeless-based services there including city-based one, not all of the folks that live on the street are going into programs and staying in shelters, they have the ability to access more resources there. They can get more free meals, there are showers, the Neil good day center which I referred to. There's a phenomenon where there is word on the street that East Village is a place where there are more services available. Now the area is changed, there are new condo developments, what's the interaction like between the new residence in the homeless? There is tension. I've heard stories of folks saying they have been chased by homeless men or women. They are dealing more with panhandling, some of the homeless folks have told me sometimes they feel uncomfortable. I've had conversations with folks who talked about how there is discomfort that even the homeless have about radar visibility. They are being pushed around as various condo developments end of the things go up whether used to be lots where they might be able to settle at night and be less out in the open. Not only are they being pushed around by development, they are being pushed around by encampments sweeps that force homeless to move every week while the city workers clean up the area. A voice has reported on efforts to route the homeless from areas near Petco Park. Is it the services that keep people continuing to settle in East Village? It's a complicated thing. The folks I talked to live on the streets in East Village, they are open about the fact that they don't always feel safe and it's not always a very calm double place to be. The message has become if you are homeless, East Village is a place where there are resources and services. I had a gentleman tell me, this goes beyond the services, you can access meals. If you aren't in East Village you will miss out on meals that you might get if you were there. There's a sense that, this is a place where, not that it's never easy to be homeless. It's easier to survive year. What kind of effort, if any is being made to diversify service organizations around the city or the county? There are been quite a few discussions over the years, often pushed by residents of East Village and other neighborhoods nearby, there should be services spread throughout the city. Historically, these have not gained much traction. People are concerned about having services in their neighborhood worried that it might lead to greater homeless populations in their areas. There are often still very large gatherings of homeless folks who live in some of these neighborhoods. Mission Valley for example, is a place where there are literally hundreds that live along the river bed areas but there are no services. There have been efforts and projects that have come up, Connections Housing, Veterans Village are now in other parts of downtown. We still have a phenomenon where the concentration of services is in East Village. I've been speaking with Lisa Halverstadt. Or two-part series on the homeless in East Village is at Voice of San Diego.

More than 30 years ago, the man who would become San Diego’s first homeless services coordinator feared city decisions could turn East Village into the city’s own skid row.

And he said so.

City leaders wanted to revitalize the Gaslamp Quarter. They wanted downtown homeless residents to move to East Village, and they decided pushing the city’s homeless providers to East Village would make that easier.

Tom Leslie, then assistant director at San Diego Rescue Mission, recalls openly opposing the idea at a public meeting.

“I said, ‘You’re setting up the homeless ghetto,’” Leslie said last week.

The city proceeded. Homeless-serving nonprofits were told they could get conditional use permits, zoning exceptions that would allow them to serve their clients in East Village. Leslie described those permits as “the hammer” the city used to drive them to the neighborhood.

A former city official confirmed this.

“We looked at relocations and just sort of forced everybody down there,” said Mike Stepner, then an assistant director in the city’s planning department.

Downtown had a significant homeless population, including in East Village, and city leaders didn’t believe other neighborhoods would welcome nonprofits that served them, Stepner said.

“We wanted to relocate them and bring new facilities and no other neighborhood would even consider that,” Stepner said.

The San Diego Rescue Mission, St. Vincent de Paul Village and Catholic Charities eventually moved to the East Village, supplying dozens of shelter beds and services.

So solidified East Village’s position as the regional hub for homeless providers, a reality that’s helped make it San Diego’s most visible, concentrated homeless population.

Leslie said he is convinced decisions in the 1980s contributed to the neighborhood taking on more than its fair share of the problem.

Leslie recently visited East Village. He admits he was stunned by the volume of homelessness there but not surprised by where it had grown.

“It is all directly attributable to the actions the city took back then,” Leslie said.

“The city designated East Village because it was broken-down warehouses,” recalls Father Joe Carroll, the now-retired CEO of Father Joe’s Villages. “It was never gonna be developed.”

At the time, East Village looked like this.

An aerial view of East Village in the 1980s.
San Diego Padres
An aerial view of East Village in the 1980s.

But plans for East Village changed. The former urban wasteland is now a gentrifying neighborhood that looks more like this.

An aerial view of downtown, including Petco Park.
San Diego Padres
An aerial view of downtown, including Petco Park.

It’s also home to Petco Park.

And it’s a neighborhood where, according to a business group’s latest count, 866 people live on the streets.

They’re more visible than ever as condo developments and businesses pop up around them, forcing folks who might’ve once nestled in abandoned buildings into the streets. The homeless population has spiked nearly 80 percent in the past year by one count – leading to more conflicts between the residents and businesses that have moved in and the homeless who also call the area home.

Decades after the nonprofits moved downtown, the draw remains. This year, about three-quarters of city funding for direct homeless services is set to support programs in East Village. It’s a place where a homeless person can seek a shelter bed, a shower or a free meal – resources that are harder to come by in other areas. Those resources are limited even in East Village, but there are more of them in one place than in other parts of the region.

“Most people want to stay in East Village because they have resources that are accessible and within walking range,” said Anne Rios, who leads homeless advocacy nonprofit Think Dignity, which operates a city-funded storage center for homeless people in the neighborhood.

That doesn’t mean East Village is always a comfortable place if you’re homeless.

Homeless people who live there acknowledge they sometimes feel unsafe. Some are concerned about growing violence and crime in their neighborhood – and the others moving in.

There’s also frustration about weekly encampment sweeps which force the homeless to move for sidewalk cleanups.

Yet it’s where the services are, and where many church groups go to deliver meals to those who live on the streets.

“It’s easier to survive here,” Oceanside native Shawn Avery Watkins told me earlier this year.

Watkins moved to East Village three years ago in hopes of getting into a program at Father Joe’s Villages. He got in but fell back into homelessness. When I last talked to him, Watkins told me he regularly visited the Neil Good Day Center, run by Father Joe’s Villages. He often ate meals and picked up clothing at nearby nonprofit God’s Extended Hand.

Life would be even more difficult in another neighborhood or city, he said.

Indeed, repeated pushes to further disperse homeless services across the city have largely fallen flat.

Leslie, the former San Diego Rescue Mission official, was involved in some of those conversations, too.

He became the city’s first homeless services coordinator in 1991.

In that position, Leslie heard neighborhood complaints about what East Village had become. Leslie, who was once homeless himself, didn’t blame residents for their frustration.

“It was like everything was being funneled and squeezed toward that direction,” he said.

At the time, a task force produced an eight-point plan to address the city’s homeless problem. The Los Angeles Times reported that the 1992 plan “urged citizens to see homelessness as a citywide problem, and called for emergency shelters in areas outside downtown.”

A few years later, the City Council approved a comprehensive policy that, among other tacks, called for homeless services to be further spread throughout the city.

It didn’t spur major action.

Stepner said he wishes the city would have pursued those suggestions, including greater resources for the homeless elsewhere.

“I look back at some of the decisions about a lot of things that we did,” the former planning official said. “If we had just taken that extra step, the problems may not be as great as they are today.”

Services have opened up elsewhere in the city, though.

Connections Housing, sometimes dubbed a model for potential projects in other neighborhoods took over the old World Trade Center building on Sixth Avenue in 2013. Veterans Village of San Diego, which serves homeless veterans, opened in the Midway area in 1991.

And the Rescue Mission, pushed again due to the development of Petco Park, moved from East Village to Banker’s Hill in 2001.

Leaders in other parts of the region are working to assemble more year-round assistance for the homeless in their communities, too. Escondido opened a year-round shelter this winter and an Oceanside nonprofit is trying to pull together funds for one.

Yet the pull to East Village remains. Residents and business owners there are demanding that the city do something. They’d like to see more homeless services elsewhere.

The East Village Residents Group has met with local leaders to push an action plan that emphasizes providing shelter and help for homeless people across the region – rather than simply their neighborhood.

“We don’t want it concentrated in one area,” said Joan Wojcik, the group’s president.

City Councilman Todd Gloria, who represents the area and chairs a regional group that oversees initiatives to reduce homelessness locally, is sympathetic to residents’ concerns.

“We ought to have facilities throughout the region for which anyone can go and get services,” he said, noting that there are homeless people across the county need help, including large populations in Mission Valley and beach communities.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who as a councilman represented downtown neighborhoods, agreed.

“It is not just an East Village solution. It can’t be,” Faulconer said. “It has to be every neighborhood helping out and that’s our commitment.”

But no new permanent shelters or services in other San Diego neighborhoods seem to be in the works despite more visible street homelessness in other parts of the city, too.

Thus far, there’s been a lack of political will and funding to open them.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, a major source of homeless funding, has prioritized bankrolling new programs for temporary rental subsidies and permanent housing rather than the types of shelters and services that populate East Village.

Cities across the region also have limited cash for shelters or day centers, making significant private investment crucial.

The nonprofit Alpha Project has informally pitched a 600-bed central intake facility just outside downtown in hopes of addressing rising street homelessness in East Village. It’s not clear where the money would come from to support it – or whether residents would accept it.

For the foreseeable future, East Village is likely to remain the San Diego hub for homeless services.