San Diego Says Homeless Shut Out Of Emergency Shelters Due To ‘Miscommunication’
When a strong Pacific storm pounded San Diego with heavy rain and strong winds Dec. 23, the city kept its emergency homeless shelter closed — even after announcing the shelters would be open.
That led some homeless to show up at one of the shelters, St. Vincent de Paul Village, only to be turned away. Others said they were sick and went to the hospital after enduring harsh conditions on the streets.
The city pays St. Vincent de Paul Village to open its dining hall and take in an additional 250 people during bad weather. It also contracts with another shelter, People Assisting The Homeless, or PATH, for 25 beds.
The city sent out a press release Dec. 22 declaring, “Due to the rain in our forecast this weekend, PATH (People Assisting The Homeless) and St. Vincent de Paul Village have both activated their inclement weather shelters in the Downtown San Diego area through Monday, Dec. 26, 2016.” That contradicted information posted on the free resources site, 211sandiego.org, and distributed by the 211 hotline.
In fact, St. Vincent de Paul Village was only open on Christmas night, and PATH was only open Dec. 23 and 25, according to city spokeswoman Katie Keach. Neither Keach nor Stacie Spector, the new “homeless czar” hired by San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, would do an interview with KPBS. Instead, Keach answered questions by email.
She said the wrong information was sent out due to a miscommunication with the San Diego Housing Commission. The public agency told the city inclement weather beds would be available Dec. 21 and 24, but “there was a misunderstanding that the Housing Commission said Dec. 21. THROUGH Dec. 24 (emphasis hers), and the city distributed a news release to that effect on Dec. 22,” Keach wrote.
“Unfortunately, we did not learn of the discrepancy until KPBS publicly shared it via Twitter and an online story. At that time, the city was able to confirm that Connections Housing was able to make additional beds available; Father Joe’s Villages did not have the necessary staffing to do so. Twitter was used by a city staff member to provide the clarification.”
KPBS spoke with Jose Ysea, another city spokesman, before tweeting or publishing the story about the error. He told KPBS “as far as I know, the shelters are open.”
Keach wrote that according to the San Diego Housing Commission, “the weather conditions in the middle of last week did not trigger the protocol to activate the city’s inclement weather beds. Forecasts of 50 degrees or less and at least a 40 percent chance of rain trigger the inclement shelter protocol.”
But both criteria were met well in advance. The National Weather Service started warning about the storm early in the week, and its data show the downtown San Diego region received more than a half inch of rain overnight on Friday, with winds gusting to 35 miles per hour and temperatures dipping to 47 degrees.
David Ross, known as “the Waterman,” devotes most of his time to helping the homeless. Last Friday night he wasn’t focused on handing out bottles of water — instead he was giving out plastic to keep people dry.
“I personally had two people with cell phones call and they took two women to the hospital who were coughing and were really in bad shape,” he said. “And there were numerous people taken to the hospital because of the conditions they were in.”
Keach wrote, “We are not aware of any issues that arose as a result of exposure to the weather.”
Other homeless people told KPBS they spent the night getting soaked.
“I slept under this bridge, but the water dripped down and got our blankets all wet,” said Charles Noonen.
Kristina Long said she’s now sick from spending the night in the storm.
“It’s an ‘I don’t care’ situation,” said Myron Wiltz. “You freeze, you freeze. You stay dry, you stay dry. The city shouldn’t do that.”
The city, not the shelter, decides when doors will be opened, said Deacon Jim Vargas, the president and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages, which runs St. Vincent de Paul. He said it costs about $5,000 to shelter 250 people for one night, and Father Joe’s gets an annual contract of $25,000 from the city for the inclement weather housing — roughly five days worth of shelter per year.
He added that St. Vincent's was also open on Dec. 24, despite what the city told KPBS.
More rain and cold are expected this weekend. The National Weather Service says temperatures could again dip below 50 degrees and rain is likely.
In advance of the weekend, “the San Diego Housing Commission continues to work with 211 to monitor the weather to determine if inclement weather beds should be activated in the city,” city spokeswoman Keach wrote. “Based on the information received about inclement weather forecasts from 211, SDHC will make a determination in collaboration with the Father Joe’s Villages and Connections Housing Downtown/PATH.”
She said that to ensure bad information isn’t sent out again, “the city will issue no news release or social media posting related to inclement weather shelter availability without confirming specifics with the San Diego Housing Commission. Further, the city is working with the Housing Commission and 211 to determine what other measures may be needed so all stakeholders have consistent and correct information.”