The first city-sanctioned homeless encampment is scheduled to open Monday in a public works yard near Balboa Park with tents, security, food, showers, restrooms and social services for more than 200 people, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and other officials announced Wednesday.
Speaking at the city operations yard that will be used for the camp area, Faulconer said the site will be short-lived, with a plan to begin moving people out after the first of three large industrial tents to temporarily house homeless people opens later this year.
“These are extraordinary times and it requires extraordinary actions,” Faulconer said.
San Diego has has had a large unsheltered homeless population for years, with this year’s count finding 3,231 people on the street or other places. Of those, 1,276 were downtown.
Countywide, there were 9,116 homeless, both sheltered and unsheltered.
Besides the high numbers, the homeless situation also has been considered a crisis in recent months as a deadly hepatitis A outbreak spread, county Supervisor Ron Roberts noted.“As of yesterday, we identified another 20 cases, which brings us to 481 total cases in San Diego,” he said, adding that there have 337 hospitalizations, up 22 from last week, and 17 deaths.
The outbreak has largely targeted the homeless population and heavy drug users, and moving people off the streets and into a more sanitary site with restrooms and hand-washing stations is one of the steps being taking to stop the outbreak.
“This is what unsheltered San Diegans need,” he said. “This is what our city needs. Homelessness is our number-one social service issue right now.”
The Alpha Project, which provides various social services, outreach and housing, will operate the camp site while the County of San Diego will provide personnel and social services.
Bpb McElroy, president and CEO of the Alpha Project, said the plan is to have zero impact on the surrounding community.
“My message to the guys living up on the side of the hill up here, don’t walk up to this facility because you will not get in,” he said, explaining that the Alpha Project will shuttle homeless people to and from the site.
“We will come and get you and transport you to medical appointments and any other needs you may have in the downtown area,” he said. “We have a commitment not only to the homeless but also to the community.”
The campsite will be on about one and a half acres of a large parking lot accessed from an entrance on 20th and B streets and through a back entrance near Pershing Drive and 26th Street by the Balboa Park Golf Course.
The Alpha Project has bought 200 four-person tents for about $50 each, and stripes will be painted on the parking lot to identify 13-foot by 13-foot spaces that will each have a tent and trash receptacle.
McElroy said the Alpha Project still is identifying who will stay in the encampment, and priority is being given to seniors, disabled people, women and children.
No one will be allowed to use drugs or drink alcohol at the site, but people will not be turned away if they are intoxicated but still can make their way to their tent, he said.
Pets also will be allowed on the site, and people will have to be checked in nightly before an 8 p.m. curfew, McElroy said.
The encampment is a sort of bridge to another bridge, as it will be a temporary site until the opening of large industrial tents, which can hold about 250 people each and also are considered a temporary answer until permanent housing is found.
McElroy said he expects the first industrial tent, which will be run by the Alpha Project, should open before Thanksgiving at 16th Street and Newton Avenue.
Father Joe’s Village will operate a similar structure at 14th and Commercial streets in East Village and Veterans Village of San Diego will operate a third in the 2700 block of Sports Arena Boulevard behind a Goodwill store in the Midway District. The city plans to open more industrial tents in other areas not-yet identified.
City Councilman Chris Ward, also at the Wednesday announcement, said the parking lots at the Valley View Casino Center Sports Arena and SDCCU Stadium also could be used as city-sanctioned encampments similar to the one at 20th and B streets, and he urged other cities in the county to consider opening their own sites.
“My call is to our partners across the counties, for the leadership in El Cajon and Escondido and San Marcos and Chula Vista,” he said. “Forty percent of our region’s homeless are outside of the city of San Diego, and we need you to step up, too. We need you to look within, and look at parcels and opportunity sites within your jurisdictions because this is going to take all of us coming together, looking at creative solutions.”
McElroy vowed that the camp area would set an example for other cities to follow.
“This is going to be a model,” he said. “We’re going to make this place bullet-proof so other communities will say, ‘You know what, we want to put one of those in our neighborhood and address the issues we have.’”
Ward, vice chair of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless and chair of the City Select Committee on Homelessness, said all options and locations need to be on the table.
“San Diegans, we cannot say ‘No,’” he said. “There will always be an obstacle. And our job as public officials is to figure out how to get to ‘Yes.’”
Ward said other options for homeless housing include Golden Hall but not the old San Diego Library, because refurbishing it is estimated to cost $5 million.
In another approach, Ward said City Councilman Chris Cate has proposed four places in Clairemont and Kearny Mesa for safe-parking areas to serve homeless people who sleep in their cars.
San Diego Padres managing partner Peter Seidler, who along with businessman Dan Shea pushed for the city to install the industrial tents, also was at Wednesday’s announcement.
“I would say in 18 months or so, other cities around this country are going to look at San Diego as a model of best-in-class cities on the issue of homelessness,” he said.
Seidler and others also stressed that neither the encampment at 20th and B streets nor the industrial tents are a solution to homelessness, which they said requires actual housing. Still, he saw the planned homeless encampment as a significant accomplishment.
“To me, this is a really impressive and impactful step that’s being taken,” he said. “I really credit what the politicians are doing here.
“After a lot of analysis, which is important, there’s a need to take action,” he continued. “To see Kevin and Chris and Ron Roberts, as well as (San Diego Housing Commission President and CEO) Rick Gentry collaborating, that’s really significant. Strategizing together is one thing, but now we’re acting on it. Action is following words.
“San Diego, we’re making it happen,” he said. “There’s a lot more to happen, but today is a big day.”
Other city-sanctioned campsites for the homeless already exist in Seattle and Tacoma, Wash.