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Clairemont Homeless Project Could Foreshadow the Battles and Compromises to Come

Clairemont residents revolted against a plan to build a 52-unit supportive housing project. Mayor Kevin Faulconer and other city leaders are increasingly saying they need to do whatever they can to push those projects forward anyway.

5858 Mt. Alifan Drive
5858 Mt. Alifan Drive is an office complex in Clairemont that is set to be converted into a permanent supportive housing facility. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In his most recent State of the City address, Mayor Kevin Faulconer highlighted what he saw as perhaps the biggest challenge to tackling the city’s most intractable problem: “Everybody wants more homeless services, but nobody wants homeless services in their neighborhood.”

The latest example of that dilemma has played out in Clairemont, where frustrated residents revolted against a plan to build a 52-unit supportive housing project. They built a website, handed out fliers and showed up in droves at community meetings.

A group that dubbed itself Clairemont Cares has taken a more subdued stance in recent weeks as the developer has detailed its plans and agreed to only house homeless seniors.

But the neighborhood’s intense response could foreshadow future battles.

The dramatic reaction in Clairemont has played out as city leaders grapple with how to produce more permanent supportive housing, units that come with services meant to accommodate the most vulnerable homeless San Diegans. These are permanent homes rather than temporary shelter beds but often initially elicit many of the same fears from nearby residents.

Faulconer and other city leaders are increasingly saying they need to do whatever they can to push those projects forward anyway.

“You’re always gonna have some neighborhood folks that will not like whether it’s X, Y or Z, but what’s the flip side of that, if you don’t do anything?” Faulconer said.

Last week, the City Council’s homelessness committee voted to forward a resolution to the full City Council that would commit each of the city’s nine Council districts to try to welcome at least 140 new supportive housing units by January 2021.

Most of the city’s homeless advocates and federal housing officials agree that permanent supportive housing development is essential to dramatically reduce homelessness in the city.

The San Diego region has the fourth largest homeless population in the nation but a recent benchmark analysis by the San Francisco Controller’s Office found San Diego had the lowest number of supportive housing units per capita of the 18 large metros it reviewed.

“If we don’t have the courage to develop these supportive housing units around the city and the county the problem is just going to get worse so we’ll all lose,” said Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH, one of the nonprofits pushing the project in Clairemont.

Roberts, who has been at the center of the Clairemont debate, said it offers lessons for the city and developers: They’ll need to educate and involve residents to succeed.

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The movement against the project in Clairemont began in March with a post on social networking website Nextdoor.

Freelance reporter Julie Stalmer announced she wanted to interview residents who lived near Balboa and Genesee avenues about a new homeless housing project.

“I am working on a feature article about homeless housing in Clairemont,” Stalmer wrote.

The post set off dozens of Clairemont residents unaware of any coming housing projects.

Panic set in. What could Clairemont residents do? What exactly was being proposed? Why were developers focused on a spot close to several schools? Residents prepared for the worst.

Some basic details emerged: Affordable-housing developer Wakeland Housing and Development Corp. planned to team with homeless-serving nonprofit PATH to convert a light blue office building on Mt. Alifan Drive into a 52-unit facility for homeless San Diegans.

A conceptual rendering depicts a planned permanent supportive housing facility in Clairemont. / Rendering courtesy of Wakeland Housing and Development Corp.

Clairemont residents Juliet Hong, Julie Wilds and Robyn Cristofani began exchanging messages and seeking more information about the project. Wilds also looped in fellow resident Eddie Bradford.

Hong and Wilds soon put out the word that they’d be hosting a meeting. On April 4, about two dozen people gathered to assemble questions they had and compare notes. They weren’t getting the answers they sought from City Councilman Chris Cate or the developer.

Then they learned that Wakeland and PATH would host an open house the following Wednesday. A flier circulated about the meeting said that the Mt. Alifan apartments would provide permanent supportive housing for “our most vulnerable neighbors,” a sort of facility many in Clairemont were unfamiliar with.

Many residents equated the setup with a homeless shelter, a temporary place where people drop in and out frequently. Many also assumed it would attract blight, crime and drug use.

More than 200 residents showed up at SDG&E’s Energy Innovation Center on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard to seek answers at the April 11 open house.

The meeting quickly devolved into chaos.

Fox 5 news footage shows Roberts, whose nonprofit PATH operates 26 homeless-serving facilities across the state, trying to speak into a microphone as Clairemont resident Mark Bromley waved his arms, riling the surrounding crowd.

“This is a bunch of B.S.,” Bromley yelled.

Bromley and others felt their community was being overburdened. County supervisors had also recently voted to eventually turn the now-shuttered Sheriff’s Department crime lab on nearby Mt. Etna Drive into an affordable housing project. Those plans had also flown under the radar and now spurred concerns.

Wakeland and PATH acknowledge they couldn’t answer many questions residents posed about their project on Mt. Alifan Drive at the April 11 meeting. They had anticipated getting feedback and questions from a smaller group of residents.

“That was really our mistake,” said Rebecca Louie, Wakeland’s COO.

Instead, the massive crowd forced SDG&E to shut down the meeting. They were violating the fire code.

The frustrated crowd spilled outside.

Louie decided her team needed to hammer out details on the project and come back to residents as soon as they could.

During and after the meeting, Clairemont residents also demanded answers from Cate.

Cate, who attended the meeting, tried to clarify that he and the city played no role in selecting the site and that it was part of a private land deal. Later, the group seized on the news that Cate had met with the developer before it purchased the property.

Cate is on paternity leave so he was unable to discuss the project last week but Dan Manley, a Cate staffer who’s monitored the process, said the councilman had requested that Wakeland and PATH host an event to detail their plans. The councilman has since said Wakeland’s April meeting was misguided because they didn’t have adequate details to share.

“It was definitely not thought all the way through – the rollout of this,” Cate told the San Diego Union-Tribune in April.

Hong, Wilds, Cristofani and Bradford resolved to step up their efforts after the April meeting.

“That night is when Clairemont Cares really became a thing,” Cristofani said.

After the meeting, Hong sent a long list of questions to Wakeland and spent hours researching permanent supportive housing and the region’s coordinated entry system, which nonprofits use to connect homeless clients with services and housing.

She said many of her initial questions to Wakeland went unanswered.

“It was a one-way street in the communication,” Hong said. “Nobody was getting any feedback and everyone was being given the runaround.”

Hong came away convinced that the project would serve chronically homeless San Diegans with challenges such as addiction and mental illness, and that they could pose a risk to students enrolled in nearby schools.

Wakeland has said that while supportive housing does serve people who have lived on the street for years or who are suffering from health conditions, residents usually acclimate well to their new homes and don’t spark the safety concerns Clairemont residents fear.

Cristofani created a website sharing Hong’s research and other updates within days.

Wilds and others stood on street corners passing out fliers and holding signs to ensure residents were aware of opportunities to speak out or learn more.

Indeed, residents poured into an April 17 Clairemont Community Planning Group meeting, though the Mt. Alifan project wasn’t on the agenda.

The Clairemont Cares group also began questioning the whole rationale behind the proposed project, a model known as housing first. It’s an approach favored by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and asserts that homeless people should be moved into permanent housing rather than receiving services and treatment in transitional housing.

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Meanwhile, another group emerged.

Fellow Clairemont residents Emily Cottrell and Brian Gruters founded the Clairemont Coalition on Homelessness, a group backing the housing project. Both had attended an April Clairemont Cares meeting and felt compelled to show some Clairemont residents supported the project.

“It had already been broadcast that Clairemont did not want this thing, so we wanted to send a counter message as soon as possible,” Gruters said.

They put together a website with details on San Diego’s homeless population and links to more information, and worked with fellow backers on a May letter to the Clairemont Community Planning Group to share their support.

As residents spoke out, Wakeland and PATH continued to work on their plans.

On May 31, Wakeland announced it was renaming the project Ivy Senior Apartments and that it would only house homeless San Diegans over 55.

The Clairemont Cares group cheered the news. They saw it as evidence their efforts were working.

Wakeland and PATH say the decision to focus on seniors wasn’t solely based on public pressure. Recent homeless point-in-time counts have shown an uptick in senior homelessness and many homeless seniors qualify for permanent supportive housing due to both the years they have spent on the street and chronic health conditions. Wakeland knew it could find funding to serve that population.

Wakeland has also seen success with Talmadge Gateway, a year-old Mid-City supportive housing facility that’s home to 59 formerly homeless seniors.

Last month, Wakeland and PATH hosted a community forum at Madison High School that drew about 150 people. This time, they shared renderings and details on the population they aim to serve, as well as initial plans for on-site security and property management. They also promised the project wouldn’t be open to sex offenders or those who have a history of drug dealing or violent crime, as some residents had feared.

They also emphasized the project is likely years off. Construction is unlikely to finish until at least mid-2021 and Wakeland plans to present its project to the Clairemont Community Planning Group and the city Planning Commission before moving forward.

This time, Louie said, the project got a better reception.

Some residents spoke in favor, saying they believed Clairemont should welcome it. A few who spoke up were homeless or formerly homeless themselves, Louie said.

Others continued to voice concerns.

One was Clairemont resident Michael Doering.

“We don’t want to become the capital of homelessness in San Diego,” Doering told NBC 7 San Diego that night. “What’s going to happen when they go outside the facility, into our community, into our neighborhood with mental issues?”

Wakeland and PATH have said permanent supportive housing clients, including those with mental illnesses, thrive once they move into homes – and that such facilities reduce homelessness in a community rather than draw in a larger population. After all, once someone moves into a home, he or she is by definition no longer homeless.

Since Talmadge Gateway opened last year, Wakeland reports all but two of its 59 residents have enrolled in supportive services and the retention rate has been almost perfect. The developer says the only tenant no longer living there passed away while living at the Mid-City project.

And PATH said about 90 percent of residents in its housing programs, including its downtown Connections Housing project, remain in their homes over the long haul. Another 5 percent typically move onto housing with less supportive services.

Bradford and other members of the Clairemont Cares group remain skeptical and want more information on residents’ long-term outcomes. For example, they want to know whether the formerly homeless San Diegans use drugs or get jobs after moving in.

Roberts emphasized that success looks different for each tenant but argued that ending a person’s homelessness and helping them stabilize in housing should be the most crucial goals.

Roberts, Louie and Rep. Scott Peters, who has weighed in on the project on Twitter, said they understand residents’ questions and concerns about supportive housing projects in neighborhoods that haven’t seen them before.

They agree that building them will require leadership that helps residents understand why they’re needed and how they can add to – rather than hurt – a neighborhood.

“We’re short on these units. We have to figure out how to build them,” Peters told VOSD. “We have to partner with the community to do that.”

Leaders of Clairemont Cares believe they helped ensure residents had a say on the project and promise to closely monitor Wakeland and PATH’s next steps.

“It’s gonna be a better project because the community was involved,” Bradford said.

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