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Where Will Homeless Go When Winter Shelter Closes?

Where Will Homeless Go When Winter Shelter Closes?
The City of San Diego's temporary winter homeless shelters will close today. Where will the hundreds of homeless who have used the shelter over the last few months go? We speak to the Bob McElroy, who operates the winter shelter, about the impact it has on the local homeless population.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The San Diego winter shelter for the homeless is shutting down this week. The city of San Diego's tent in the East Village is closing. The veterans' shelter tent in the Midway area is shutting down next week. These are officially called emergency shelters. San Diego is still considering proposals for a permanent homeless shelter which would operate year-round. Joining us now is my guest, Bob McElroy of the Alpha Project that runs the city's downtown shelter. And, Bob, welcome to These Days.

BOB MCELROY (Founder, Alpha Project): Thanks for having us, Maureen. Appreciate it.

CAVANAUGH: Now, first of all, Bob, we just heard that the weather forecast is for rain tonight and tomorrow. When exactly is the city’s shelter shutting down?

MCELROY: Today. In fact, we’re already starting to dismantle the beds. We had breakfast this morning and said our goodbyes, tearful goodbyes, and it closed at noon.

CAVANAUGH: Was there any effort to keep it open just a couple of days longer considering the forecast?

MCELROY: We made phone calls but, unfortunately, city offices aren’t open today and it’s not raining today and our contract says we have to close. So it was out of our hands. We would’ve loved to keep it open but we’re obligated by the contract to close today.

CAVANAUGH: Bob, how many people have come through the shelter since it opened Thanksgiving weekend?

MCELROY: We had over 150 unduplicated men and women. Traditionally, we do about 1,000 in 120 days but we had so many fixed income seniors this year that we had a lot of our ladies, especially, stayed longer. Instead of, you know, trying to transition them out in the first month or so, we wanted to hold onto their checks, their Social Security checks…


MCELROY: …so that they have, you know, three saved and then we have a better opportunity to place people in some kind of housing.

CAVANAUGH: Now explain to us how the shelter works. Do the same people use the shelter all through the winter?

MCELROY: Oh, no. We’ve like – So we do our best every day. We’ve got case managers here, we’ve got collaborations with the County Mental Health Services, we’ve got two medical treatment triage vans that come here, Logan Heights Family Health Centers and St. Vincent’s, and every – all the resources are here. All the housing advocates are here every day. And so our mission every day is to place as many people into programs as we possibly can. And so we’ll be upwards of probably 200 to 250 people that went either – either we gave bus ticket – tokens to to go home in other parts of the United States, people in drug and alcohol treatment programs such as our own, our supportive housing programs and part of our – The whole mission here is to get as many people – solve their issues as we can in that 120 days.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know you’re involved in running the downtown – the City’s downtown winter shelter. I said that the veterans’ shelter tent is going to be closing next week. Do they have basically the same services provided to people at the VA shelter?

MCELROY: I believe so. They’re, you know, geared towards the vets and, you know, a lot of their folks will go into their longterm treatment programs and housing programs. We have 60 or 70 vets here during our run at our facility also. In fact, one of the really heartbreaking things is how many youngsters we have, young men and women who have served one or two or three tours of Iraq and Afghanistan that are now on the streets of San Diego and we’ve been doing outreach with them. So all walks of life, we touch here at the tent.

CAVANAUGH: While a shelter is in operation on a nightly basis, do you have to turn people away?

MCELROY: Oh, sure, every night, uh-huh. We’re contracted to do 200 people and our donors support another additional 20 to 25 beds. We turn no women away and senior citizens. So if we have to find a cot, well, we’ll find one. But there’s usually 50 to 100 people a night outside the gate waiting to see if there’s a empty bed.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Bob McElroy of the Alpha Project. We’re talking about the fact the San Diego winter shelter tent in the East Village is closing and it’s closing today. Now, Bob, where will the people go who use the shelter, where will they go after it closes?

MCELROY: Well, those who are – who we haven’t been able to find a place at the inn for, will go back to the streets. You know, that’s kind of our – you know, that’s always been our argument, you know, what’s better for the community to have 200 people inside a facility or 200 people back out in the neighborhood? And, unfortunately, the NIMBYs continually say that I guess it’s better to have two hundred and twenty more people back in the neighborhood, which is ridiculous but, you know, there’s still hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people, even when the shelter is open, that are still, you know, scattered across the downtown area.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Bob, I know that you’ve run some numbers on how much money you think the shelter actually saves the city instead of costing it.

MCELROY: Yeah, this 120 day run that we had here with 220 people and at 850 served saved the taxpayer about $3.5 million dollars and that’s reduced crime, calls for service to the police, calls for service for paramedics, fire and emergency room visits alone. You know, on opening day we inoculate – we give swine flu shots to everybody. And then a week or two later, we keep everybody up on just the standard flu shots. As I said, we have medical triage vans here three or four days a week to assess people and get people healthy again. We have lots and lots of diabetics out there who, you know, get sick and they use the emergency rooms. So it’s such a tremendous asset to the community. It’s unfortunate we have to fight for it every year.

CAVANAUGH: Bob, I think everybody can tell from the tone of your voice that this is a tough day for you. Talk to us a little bit about that and the kind of emotions you’re going through.

MCELROY: Well, I’m all cried out. It’s the worst day of the year, obviously, for me, and just because so many of these people are sick. I just wish that everyone could have the same relationship that I have, that my staff has, that they have for each other. To know these people as human beings, as grandmas and grandpas, as, you know, people who have life and vitality, who have done great things. As I said, many of our folks over here are just fixed income seniors, you know, they’re simply poor and, you know, they can’t – If they can get $600 a month, $700 a month, you can’t find a place to live in San Diego for that and so they’re – they wind up in a homeless shelter. Other folks are trapped in mental illness, you know, and you see so many people do so many great things to watch out for each other. They’re more – Probably what breaks my heart the most is the fact that they’re all worried about me and my feelings and giving me hugs and – giving me hugs and, you know, making sure that I’m okay, you know, and then they’re going back to the streets tonight. So, it’s tough. It’s a really tough day.

CAVANAUGH: I really appreciate your talking to us during this time for you, Bob. Let me talk about the idea of the city council considering locations for a permanent shelter. What are the biggest challenges we face in getting the idea of this permanent shelter into reality?

MCELROY: Well, politics, number one. It’s whether the politicians have the—‘Bye, honey—have the guts to stand up and say no to the NIMBYs and say, you know, we’re going to do the right thing here. The streets of San Diego are full of disenfranchised people and we need to do something about it. I mean, that’s always what it is. I’ve been on every task force and every mayor’s council and blue-ribbon this, that and the other thing over the past 25 years. There’s been tremendous plans drawn up that could’ve solved this issue 20 years ago and yet they’ve never been implemented because the political will is not there to stand up and own up to it and say we need to do the right thing. And it would save the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. So, it is what it is, I guess.

CAVANAUGH: Well, the thing is – Let me just say a word for the people who are saying that they do not want a permanent shelter for the homeless in their neighborhood because some of them have been on this program and from what I recall, their argument is that, you know, East Village, downtown is taking too much of a burden of a homeless situation, which is countywide. There are people all over the county who are homeless and there should be a staggered idea of where to put shelters for people who don’t have any place to stay in San Diego, not just downtown San Diego. What do you answer to…


CAVANAUGH: What do you say to people who say that?

MCELROY: Well, unfortunately, they don’t know their history. I, you know, I said, I’ve been doing this 24 years, almost 25, and, you know, all the missions and the social services were located in the Gaslamp on Fifth Avenue at one time. And when they did the – passed the plan to build Horton Plaza and build out the Gaslamp, all of the agencies were relocated to the vast – the easternmost margins of downtown, which East Village at that time was referred to as the warehouse district. Okay, and it was all fine and good. And back in those days we actually had some panels and social service, all the providers got together for months and months and months with city staff and funders to come up with plans to mitigate this issue 20 years ago because before East Village gentrified into a, you know, a condo and family-living facility – you know, area, and – but nothing was ever implemented. So now there’s this complaining when this problem existed 20 – you know, it’s always – In every metropolitan (sic) there’s always homeless issues because that’s where the providers are. But we could’ve solved this problem 20 years ago, the political will was not there to implement the plans and the strategies that we worked so hard on, and so we find ourselves today, the neighborhoods have grown out here now to East Village and the homeless are still here.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I was looking at the plans that the city council – I was reading about the plans the city council has for a permanent shelter and they are considering two alternative locations right now. There are estimates, however, there are 4,000 homeless people in the streets of downtown San Diego and this permanent homeless housing facility only has 200 beds. I’m wondering how you see that making a substantive…


CAVANAUGH: …difference?

MCELROY: ...well, and I’m an advocate for anything right now that provides a day of service to poor people but it won’t. And this is – I’m glad you – I’m so glad you brought that up because people are – The meetings that I go to and the rhetoric that I hear is, well, we’re going to get this permanent shelter and all of our problem’s going to be solved. Okay, we’ve got 220 in here, the vets have 150, there’s 370 right there without me taking my shoes off and counting my toes.


MCELROY: And it still doesn’t make a dent in the streets. So even to spend these tens of millions of dollars to build another building, the problem is still going to be masses of people all over the streets. We proposed, and our idea was thrown out, to put three tents on the block that we’re on right now, take a thousand people off the streets right now for the period of three years and if we don’t solve the problem then get out of town.


MCELROY: You see, if there’s a bed for you to go to and the services, then you need to go get the services. And if you don’t want to get the services, then you’re going to get a ticket or a bus ticket out of town. I’m an advocate for that. I don’t want to see anybody on the streets. But that idea at no cost to the taxpayers, wasn’t even a consideration.


MCELROY: Now you’re going to get me on my soapbox. See that?

CAVANAUGH: It sounds…

MCELROY: You’ve got me all worked up…

CAVANAUGH: It sounds like you’re standing on your soapbox, yeah. Let me ask you a question about the permanent shelter that is being considered now. Do you think there is political will at least to put up this new building with the 200 beds? Do you think that we’re going to be seeing that happen?

MCELROY: Yes. Kevin Faulconer realized – I mean, he has stood up and said, yes, we’ll do our fair share. And, ideally, every community that has a pocket of homeless people should do their fair share. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. But, you know, something is obviously better than nothing. But I just hope people who have a burden for this or have an issue with homelessness or care about it at all, good or bad, understand the fact that this is not going to solve homelessness in downtown San Diego.


MCELROY: You know, it’s going to make a small, miniscule dent in the overall population.

CAVANAUGH: If, indeed, the city council approves a location, etcetera, for a permanent homeless housing facility, do you think – is there any chance that it might be up and running so that we don’t have to have an emergency shelter next year?

MCELROY: Oh, no, it’s going to take – from what I understand, it’ll be, you know, a year and a half to two years to get something up and running and that’s, I think, that’s pretty optimistic. I mean, you know, how long has this process been going on and, you know, there was supposed to be a provider chosen six months ago or so. So, you know…

CAVANAUGH: So you’re going to be doing this next year.

MCELROY: Well, I’ll do it every day, you know, and no charge to the city but they won’t let me so – You know, like I said, something’s better than nothing. This is home for everybody that’s here throughout the run, the duration of the shelter. That’s probably the hardest thing today, the tears, the thank-yous, the hugs, the appreciation from folks that they did have a brief respite from the streets and that whole environment. And, you know, it may look Spartan to some but it’s home to others, and it’s very appreciated.

CAVANAUGH: Bob, thanks so much for talking with us today.

MCELROY: Thanks for having us, hon.

CAVANAUGH: Bob McElroy of the Alpha Project. Alpha Project runs the city’s downtown winter shelter which is closing up today. If you’d like to comment, go online, Coming up, what the 2010 census can do for San Diego. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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