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Tenting the Homeless and Bleaching the Streets: How San Diego Is Fighting a Hepatitis Outbreak

Hundreds of homeless people living on the street will find shelter in three large industrial tents with beds, showers, restrooms and hand-washing stations by the end of the year under a plan announced Wednesday by San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

By Gary Warth

Hundreds of homeless people living on the street will find shelter in three large industrial tents with beds, showers, restrooms and hand-washing stations by the end of the year under a plan announced Wednesday by San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

"We are in a crisis that calls for action," Faulconer said in a morning news conference in a parking lot at 14th and Commercial streets downtown, one of the three tent sites.

The tents can hold at least 100 people and up to 250. A second downtown tent operated by the Alpha Project is planned for a vacated street at 16th Street and Newton Avenue, and a third tent run by Veterans Village of San Diego is planned for the 2700 block of Sports Arena Boulevard, behind a Goodwill store.

The two organizations previously had run winter shelter programs with similar tents at those sites for the site.

Besides providing temporary shelter for hundreds of people sleeping in storefronts, canyons and on sidewalk encampments, Faulconer said the plan could help stem a hepatitis A outbreak that has left 16 people dead and hospitalized almost 300.

Health officials believe the disease has spread in the homeless community because of a lack of restrooms and hand-washing stations.

San Diego Padres Managing Partner Peter Seidler and chain restaurant operator Dan Shea have been pushing the city to use industrial tents for homeless shelters for months. On Wednesday, Faulconer announced the two had committed $1.5 million for the tents.

Faulconer said at least one tent will be up and running by December, but he didn't know which of the three would be first. He also said the plans calls for adding more tents in other locations, but he could not say how many the city ultimately would erect.

Councilman David Alvarez did not attend the news conference but later issued a statement saying the city should find faster solutions to helping people on the street.

"Three months is too long to wait," he said. "San Diego is facing the deadliest outbreak of hepatitis A in the country. The city must act now to stop it. We must end street camping by bringing the homeless indoors to public buildings such as the old downtown library, Golden Hall and the old County Courthouse."

Earlier this month, Alvarez called on the mayor to declare a state of emergency on homelessness, which he said would allow the city to bypass certain code restrictions and allow for the immediate use of the old downtown library and Golden Hall as shelters.

While the first tent is a few months away, Faulconer said there are more immediate steps the city is taking to address the hepatitis outbreak. More restrooms are planned at Tailgate Park, he said, and restrooms at Balboa Park will be open 24 hours. The city also begun power-washing downtown sideways with bleach and chlorine this week to stop the disease's spread.

It was unclear Wednesday how much of the first three tents would cost. Shea and Seidler said in a July press conference that the tents would cost $800,000 each to buy and erect, and Faulconer said the city would cover the difference of whatever the $1.5 million does not cover.

The city had operated winter shelter programs run by the Alpha Project and Veterans Village of San Diego for years, and the program expanded to year-round under then-Mayor Bob Filner.

The tent program ended in 2015 and was replaced with an indoor program at Father Joe's Villages as the city shifted its efforts to permanent supportive housing and a housing-first model.

While in theory the plan provided an equal number of beds and worked to transition people out of homelessness, it also left hundreds of people out on the street.

A January count of homeless people in San Diego found the population had reached 9,116, a 5 percent increase from last year. Of those, 5,621 were unsheltered, an increase of 14 percent.

In downtown San Diego alone, the number of unsheltered had reached 1,276, an increase of 27 percent from last year, and the number of tents and hand-built structures in the neighborhood was up 64 percent.

Seider and Shea have acknowledged that there likely would be opposition to the tents in many neighborhoods, but Faulconer said the plan will go forward thoughtfully. Other council members have been cooperative in suggesting possible sites for tents in their districts. Councilmember Lorie Zapf's district includes the Midway area where the Veterans Village tent will be installed, and she appeared at the Wednesday news conference to show her support.

In a surprise emotional moment at the event, Zapf also revealed that her mother had been homeless and an alcoholic. She died at 44 and her body was found alongside a freeway, Zapf said, adding that she had never told the story publicly before.

"This is more personal to me than a lot of people realize," she said.

Faulconer also was joined at the press conference by Alpha Project President and CEO Bob McElroy, who said he had been waiting for such an announcement for two years.

McElroy said he expected to serve more than 200 people in the Alpha Project tent at 16th and Newton, where the nonprofit had operated a tent for nine years in the city's previous program.

"It's a starting point for our folks to literally detox from survival mode, from being on the streets in fear and danger and squalor every day, to being in a healthy, safe, supporting environment," he said, adding that 17 organizations will provide support services to help people with various issues. "It's a supportive facility where people can regain their humanity."

Councilman Chris Ward, chair of the city's Select Committee on Homeless, stressed that the tents would be a bridge to permanent supportive for the homeless and not a long-term solution.

"Downtown has reached a dangerous tipping point," he said about the urgency for a temporary step.

The tent planned at 14th and Commercial streets is expected to last only a year, said Father Joe Village's President and CEO Deacon Jim Vargas, because the nonprofit plans to begin construction of a 16-story, 448-unit facility for veterans, families and chronic homeless people on the site in September 2018.

The plan to use industrial tents in various locations had been criticized by artist and investment banker George Mullen, who had proposed a similar but alternative plan called Sunbreak Ranch in Otay Mesa. Mullen said having several tents on one site would meet less resistance than having several tents in various sits.

Homeless advocate Michael McConnell, a former vice president of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, has been critical of using temporary shelters rather than permanent housing but said Wednesday that the tent plan made sense.

"What do you do?" he said after watching the announcement. "We've failed to provide real solutions. Is this necessary in this moment? Yeah. We have to have everything on the table."

McConnell said the hepatitis A outbreak has created a sense of urgency in helping the homeless, but added that the city has to be cautious in looking ahead.

"There has to be real solutions," he said. "We have to be careful about not going backwards."

Also on Wednesday, the city's Select Committee on Homelessness met and discussed several other ideas about helping homeless people.

The committee had sent a memo to Faulconer's office in July asking about the feasibility of several proposals, including using city parking lots for people who live in their vehicles, using Golden Hall as a shelter and setting aside public land for homeless people to live in "tiny houses."

The mayor's office responded that those and several other ideas are still on the table.

"The Mayor's Office is fully supportive of the 'bridge housing' model and have been conducting an array of site feasibility analyses which included city assets such as; Golden Hall, the Stadium, the city yard at 20th & B, the Old Central Library and 16th & Newton, in order to determine a location that could facilitate the rapid and cost effective placement of an emergency bridge shelter," the response read.

The mayor's office also said the city is open to discuss how to use funds to expand or replicate the "Dreams for Change" nonprofit program that operates two parking lots for homeless people with cars.

The response also said the office in talks with members of the mayor's Pastoral Advisory Committee and the Interfaith Shelter Network to create 100 more shelter beds at various congregations throughout San Diego.

The mayor's office also is open to improving the Neil Good Day Center at 299 17th Street and making it more compatible with the surrounding communities. Hundreds of homeless people congregate and have tents and other makeshift shelters around the facility.

Responding to a request to consider more storage space for the home, the mayor's office said that a site and operator of a facility will be announced soon and should be open by winter.

(c)2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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