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Alpha Project Proposes Plan To House 800 San Diego Homeless

The homeless live in tents and makeshift shelters created out of tarps that line the sidewalks on 17th Street in downtown San Diego, June 28, 2016.
Susan Murphy
The homeless live in tents and makeshift shelters created out of tarps that line the sidewalks on 17th Street in downtown San Diego, June 28, 2016.
Alpha Project Proposes Plan To House 800 San Diego Homeless
Alpha Project Proposes Plan To House 800 San Diego Homeless
The soaring homeless street population has reached a crisis level, so Bob McElroy of the Alpha Project is proposing a plan to take as many as 800 people off the streets.

A San Diego homeless advocate is proposing a new homeless facility near downtown to house as many as 800 people, and says he has the backing of city leaders and funding from local businesses.

Bob McElroy, founder and CEO of the Alpha Project, a homeless outreach nonprofit, is calling the new “dormitory-style” project a Central Intake Center.

The soaring homeless population has reached a crisis level, he said. Nearly 5,000 homeless people across San Diego County sleep on the streets, according to an annual census. More than 1,400 are hunkered down on sidewalks in the East Village — twice as many as two years ago.

Many who wander the streets pushing their overloaded carts suffer from mental illness, drug addictions or economic hardship. Shelter workers say emergency beds are full, waiting lists are months-long.

“There’s not an alternative to being homeless right now,” McElroy said. He hopes the Central Intake Center will be “a place for people to go and start the process of recovery.”

It would be for men, women and families, and would allow people to pitch tents if they aren’t ready to acclimate into a communal setting, he said. They can also bring their pets and all of their belongings.

Most importantly, they’ll be safe and cared for, he said.

McElroy's plan includes an on-site medical clinic, addiction and rehabilitation services, Veterans Administration, Social Security, culinary classes, meals and more.

“All the services will be provided in one spot,” he said, “while we wait for those permanent housing and supportive housing programs to open up.”

The center would likely be located on city-owned land near downtown. “Acres-big,” he said.

Some downtown businesses and community members are willing to help fund the project because they’re overwhelmed by homeless living at their front doors, McElroy said. He’s been talking to neighborhood committees about his proposal.

“The people that would be so appreciative of the fact that we’re actually doing something comprehensive,” he said.

Bob McElroy, president and CEO of the Alpha Project, searches for homeless people in need along the San Diego River in Mission Valley on January 8, 2014.
Katie Schoolov
Bob McElroy, president and CEO of the Alpha Project, searches for homeless people in need along the San Diego River in Mission Valley on January 8, 2014.

He also has strong backing from city leaders, he said, though he’s not ready to name names. Spokesmen for Mayor Kevin Faulconer did not respond to a request for comment.

But not everyone likes the idea.

“Sinking a ton of money into this mega-shelter that other communities are moving away from is like shooting ourselves in the foot,” said homeless advocate Michael McConnell. “It’s almost unbelievable that we’re still stuck in the past in San Diego. It’s really sad.”

McConnell said permanent supportive housing is the only proven solution.

“We already have 1,566 emergency shelter beds in San Diego,” he said. “If that was the solution, then we would have been solving homelessness a long time ago.”

Convincing some of the homeless to go into a large shelter could be a challenge. Many have survived the streets for years and they’re comfortable with their lifestyle. KPBS recently talked to people living on 17th street in the East Village about why they decline shelters.

“I don’t really like living indoors, it’s a lot healthier out here,” said Catherine M., who has been homeless for a year after moving to the region from Oklahoma.

“Honestly, I’m doing my own program and it’s working for me,” said Steven Hillard, who has been homeless for 15 years.

“I despise bed bugs. They irk me. When I know they there, I can’t sleep,” said Brother Shine, who has lived on 17th Street and the surrounding blocks in the East Village for 10 years.

Bob McElroy, founder and CEO of the Alpha Project, talks to KPBS about his plan to house as many as 800 people who are living on the streets, Sept. 26, 2016.
Matthew Bowler
Bob McElroy, founder and CEO of the Alpha Project, talks to KPBS about his plan to house as many as 800 people who are living on the streets, Sept. 26, 2016.

McElroy said the homeless will come to the center because they know him and trust him. For nearly two decades, he ran the city’s winter tent program that housed 225 people for five months of the year.

"Seventy women and the rest men," he said. "Separated by a 3/8ths piece of plywood, and we never had an issue. We had on average 20 to 30 to 40 cats and dogs, and we all lived there in peace and dignity."

In 2015, the city replaced the tent program with a permanent, year-round facility at St. Vincent de Paul. The same year, McElroy’s organization opened up Alpha Square, a 200-unit apartment building in the East Village that provides permanent housing for former homeless.

His proposed Central Intake Center would house four times as many people. He hopes to open the doors within a few months.

“If the powers that be say, ‘Bob let’s go do it,’ we’re gonna go do it,” he said. "The providers are on board, the community is on board, the residents of downtown, the businesses of downtown are on board, and certainly the folks that we reach out to every day they’re on board.”

He agrees more permanent housing is needed, but building the inventory will take years, he said.

“They need help now,” he said. “Is it fair to let these folks just die in the streets? I don’t think that’s fair at all.”

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