San Diego City Council approves scaled-down homeless storage center

The San Diego City Council on Tuesday approved a 500-bin storage center for homeless people to use in Sherman Heights, a scaled down version of the 1,000-bin facility proposed by Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

During a four-hour hearing on what the city has called a transitional storage center, residents of Sherman Heights and Logan Heights told council members their neighborhood already has a large homeless population and is experiencing many issues affecting their quality of life, which they said would get worse if the center opened.

The council voted 8-1 in favor of the center, with Councilman David Alvarez opposed. The plan approved Tuesday addressed several issues raised by community members.

Testimony from residents Tuesday often was emotional, especially from children who attend Our Lady’s School, a Catholic school within 15 feet of the facility planned for 116 S. 20th. St.

The school’s playground has been closed for three years because of activity from homeless people nearby, and some children said they were afraid to play outside.

One girl broke down in tears and returned to her seat after she began to talk about conditions in her neighborhood.

Faulconer had announced plans for the storage facility at his January State of the City address, and on Tuesday called it a big step toward helping homeless people work toward self-sufficiency and permanent housing.

During his January address, however, he did not say where the planned center would be located, and Sherman Heights residents said they were blindsided to learn it would be in their neighborhood.

Faulconer told council members Tuesday that his office had been working with the community to address their concerns.

“We can all agree there’s no ideal location for a facility such as this,” he said.

New additions to the plan presented shortly before the council meeting include the creation of a neighborhood advisory committee to work with the city on the center’s operation and the lifting of a requirement that people who use the facility must check in every week.

Residents had expressed concerns that the requirement would mean up to 1,000 homeless people would be walking through their neighborhood each week.

Clients of the center still will have to check in at least every 90 days.

Additional revisions were proposed by Councilman Chris Ward.

Those revisions included reducing the number of bins from 1,000 to 500 and a requirement that in the center’s first 90 days of operation, clients must be referred by a service provider, or city staff or the Police Department, or they must already be on the waiting list for the city’s only other homeless storage facility, a 400-bin center operated downtown by the nonprofit Think Dignity.

The center also cannot open until after June 12, the last day of class for Our Lady’s School.

Ward’s amendments also calls for the San Diego Housing Commission, which will oversee the facility, to evaluate the feasibility of allowing the center’s clients to use restrooms in the building.

Councilwoman Georgette Gomez added another requirement that Mental Health Systems, which will operate the center, will be responsible for cleaning a half-mile radius around the building rather than a block as originally proposed.

She also suggested the city work with the community to bring more lights and trees to the neighborhood.

Alvarez cast the only vote against opening the center, which he said continued a long history of neglect of the neighborhood and its large Latino population.

“The worst part of this decision was the lack of respect for the community,” he said. “It’s actually the definition of institutionalized racism.”

Even council members who support the center suggested the city could have done a better job in planning it.

“The city failed you in the process,” said Councilwoman Barbara Bry, who vowed that the community would be more involved as the plan proceeded.

Many residents at the hearing complained of homeless people who are aggressive, use drugs and relieve themselves in public.

“This discussion is really heart-breaking,” Gomez said. “We’ve put an under-served community against another under-served community.”

Several residents stressed they support efforts to help the homeless, but believe the center should be in another place and said other communities should also have storage centers.

Alpha Project Chief Operating Officer Amy Gonyeau and Veterans Village of San Diego CEO Kim Mitchell were among several people who spoke of the need for the facility.

The organizations operate two of the city’s three large tented homeless shelters, and Gonyeau and Mitchell said they have seen homeless people decline shelter services because they have no place to keep their possessions.

Faulconer said the storage center will allow homeless people to go to job interviews, school or doctor’s appointments without worry of losing all their possessions.

Tuesday’s vote included the approval of $1.4 million to start up and operate the building in its first year. Two one-year extensions would bring the three-year cost to $3.8 million, and the annual lease on the building is about $65,000.

gary.warth@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @GaryWarthUT

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