Leaky windows, broken toilets, rats and bugs: Harsh conditions discovered in city-owned family shelter

Rooms were cold with broken heaters. Toilets didn’t function. Beds had no sheets. Water leaked from broken pipes and a musty smell filled rooms that had little furnishing.

These were the conditions described by people who have been inside Cortez Hill Family Center, a city of San Diego-owned downtown transitional housing shelter.

“It’s beyond unacceptable,” said San Diego City Councilman Chris Ward, co-chair of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless and whose district includes the Cortez Hill shelter. He added that repairs should be made as soon as possible.

Ward learned about the condition of the shelter last week at a meeting with city officials and nonprofits, including the Alpha Project, which in January took over the contract to provide social services at Cortez Hill. The YWCA had held the contract for more than a decade before that.

Bob McElroy, president and CEO of the Alpha Project, said he first walked into the 47-room shelter on Jan. 2 and was appalled at what he saw.

“I was shocked to see the deplorable, disgusting conditions there,” McElroy said. “I was embarrassed that anybody would allow their clients to exist in a facility like that. It’s absolutely unsafe for our residents to be there.”

YWCA of San Diego CEO Heather Finlay on Tuesday saw photos of the shelter shot by Alpha Project staff members and said her organization was not responsible for its condition.

“I can assure you that we did not leave the property in the condition reflected in those photos, nor would we move families into units in that condition,” she wrote in an email.

McElroy insisted the YWCA was operating the shelter in the conditions shown in the photos.

“We hired most of their former staff,” he said. “They can attest to the condition of the facility and their own working conditions.”

Cortez Hill tenants include families who had been homeless and domestic-violence survivors. People typically stay in transitional housing up to 90 days while the program operator provides various services and tries to place them in permanent housing.

McElroy said people who moved in found bunk beds without blankets, windows that leaked in the rain, broken toilets, rats and bugs, leaking pipes, laundry machines that didn’t work, window coverings in shreds, bathroom basins torn apart, broken air conditioners and a musty smell in every room.

“I replaced a couple of refrigerators that were disgustingly putrid,” he said.

McElroy said Alpha Project funds can’t be used to make repairs to the city-owned building, but the nonprofit has made repairs to the heating system and paid for an exterminator, and was reimbursed by the city for the cost.

McElroy said he saw children on the second floor wave to him and enter their unit through a window. A maintenance worker explained that the door to the unit didn’t work, he said.

McElroy also recalled a mother of three who showed him a wound on her finger she got from sharp, broken linoleum on a kitchen sink. Alpha Project staff members, he said, discovered a ceiling fire extinguisher that was dripping water onto electrical plugs two floors below.

“It was hazardous,” he said.

Lisa Jones, senior vice president of homeless housing innovations at the San Diego Housing Commission, said $40,000 has been spent so far to make immediate improvements to the site.

Greg Block, senior press secretary for San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, said the city is looking at Community Development Block Grant funds and other sources to make more improvements.

McElroy said he’s been waiting two months for funding to make repairs, and he’s stopped accepting new clients until they are made.

“I still don’t have confidence that there’s not toxic fumes, mold or whatever, in those rooms,” he said.

There are 30 empty rooms in the building and the waiting list has grown to 63 families, he said.

Joyce Summer lives across the street from Cortez Hill Family Center and was invited by McElroy to tour the building as a member of the Cortez Hill Active Residents Group. Fellow members Nancy Wilson Ramon and group President Ann Murphy also went, along with a staff member from Ward’s office and someone from the Downtown San Diego Partnership.

“We walked into a couple of rooms where the smells were so bad that we had to run out,” Summer said. “We got nauseous. It smelled like rotten eggs.”

Summer said she toured the building in early March after some repairs had been made, but she still saw exposed wires and the need for many other improvements.

“There’s a 2-week old baby there,” she said. “There’s no closets. Clothes are on the floor. The vanities are all broken. The mattresses were dirty. I suppose it’s better than being on the street, but not much.”

On Friday, McElroy received a San Diego Housing Commission email about tests for possible toxic conditions in four rooms. People were moved out of two rooms immediately as directed by the notice. Problems were also found in a third vacant unit and the laundry room, he said.

The city bought the property in 2001 when it was a hotel, and the YWCA began operating programs that year through a contract with the San Diego Housing Commission.

Jones said the YWCA backed away from operating Cortez Hill because the organization felt the work didn’t align with their mission.

It’s unclear whether any inspections of the site had been conducted over the past several years.

San Diego Housing Commission Chief Operating Officer Jeff Davis said the commission had a contract with the YWCA for services, while the city’s Real Estate Assets Department was responsible for the building.

Block said the city’s Real Estate Assets Department does not do regular inspections of city properties, but relies on the operator of the property to notify the city of problems.

“We can’t fix something if we don’t know about it,” he said.

Ward said it would be alarming if the city had never inspected the site.

McElroy said he was open to showing the property to the media, but permission would have to come from the San Diego Housing Commission. The commission declined repeated requests for The San Diego Union-Tribune to access the property. Davis said the request had been passed on to the city, but as of Tuesday he had not heard back.

Dan Shea, a chain restaurant operator and partner at Paradigm Investment Group, LLC., also has visited the site. A philanthropist concerned with helping the homeless, Shea said he had been asked if he would help fund repairs to the building.

“My answer was ‘no’” Shea wrote in an email to The San Diego Union-Tribune. “I have never seen a deplorable facility in such disrepair and I was appalled that the city would allow any organization to house people there, especially one owned by the city with oversight by the city.”

Shea wrote that it was the responsibility of the city, not philanthropists, to keep up the property.

“And although I am told the city is doing everything they can to clean it up right now, the real question is how could it have ever gotten to this state of disrepair?” he wrote. “Ostensibly the city imposes standards on every service provider they contract with, but not for their own property?”

Block said Faulconer also was disappointed to learn of the conditions of the building, and his immediate focus is on making improvements to it.

“His reaction is, ‘Let’s fix it,’” he said. “There will be time to look back and think about what went wrong, but let’s just fix it.”

McElroy said he, too, is more interested in getting the repairs funded than trying to find who was complicit in the condition of the building.

While many rooms appear in need of repair, Jones said, monthly reviews of the YWCA’s programs at the site found they were performing well.

“In the major program areas related to households served, bed utilization, exits to permanent or longer-term housing, they generally performed as well or better against their contract as the other interim shelters,” she wrote in an email.

Reviews found that in the last year and a half, occupancy at the shelter had been as high as 220 in some months, but had dipped to 150 in December 2018, the last month the YWCA operated it.

From 70 percent to 90 percent of tenants left for permanent or longer-term housing most months, exceeding the goal of 65 percent.


Twitter: @GaryWarthUT


Copyright © 2019, The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. All rights reserved.