Amid Homeless Crisis, Police-Run Shelter Beds Sit Empty
Some shelter beds offered by San Diego Police officers are often vacant even despite weeks-long waits to get into other programs. The beds have a built-in Catch 22: Those who need them are often wary of any help being offered by the police.
Weeks-long wait lists are a constant reality for homeless people seeking shelter in San Diego yet some of the beds reserved for San Diego police to offer homeless people they encounter sit empty.
Reports to the city revealed just a 73 percent occupancy rate for the 50 shelter beds operated by the San Diego Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team last year.
That’s far below the more than 95 percent occupancy reported by the two other city-funded shelter programs for single adults, including one run out of the same East Village campus that’s operated by Father Joe’s Villages rather than the HOT team.
Stories about homeless people rejecting police offers of shelter beds and other services are regularly mentioned in conversations about San Diego’s struggle to address a growing homelessness crisis. Last year, police say just 14 percent of homeless San Diegans who interacted with the HOT team were placed into shelter or treatment – an increase from the previous year.
For many, those stories are proof many living on the street aren’t interested in help.
Homeless San Diegans, city officials and the lieutenant who leads the HOT team say the reality is more complicated.
As street homelessness surges, not everyone’s being offered the HOT team beds. The route to one can be based on chance. Many homeless people – including some who’ve spent weeks in the shelter – are overwhelmed by the packed St. Vincent de Paul shelter where those HOT beds reside as well as its rules and past experiences there. They’d rather not abandon belongings or their companions to give it a try.
There’s also fundamental tension at work when it comes to the shelter beds being offered by police. Police say they offer an open shelter bed before citing a homeless person, and a court settlement requires they make that offer before writing a citation for illegal lodging. But because the police do cite people, homeless people are often wary of any help that’s being offered by an officer.
Gerald Gilbreath, a homeless veteran, recently called the HOT team repeatedly in hopes of getting a bed. He’s since questioned whether police will help or make his life more difficult.
He had feared for his safety and called the HOT team line several times, hoping a shelter stay could offer a bridge to another program.
Gilbreath, who’s had phone issues, never heard back from police. A friend later tried calling too.
But Gilbreath was hesitant to approach the HOT team when they recently visited the area he’s settled in. He worried a police encounter might lead to jail time.
Reluctance toward police and their offers of shelter are common, Gilbreath said, because many homeless people have warrants, unpaid tickets or past run-ins with police that didn’t end well.
“I think that’s why a lot of people refuse it,” Gilbreath said.
For years, police worked with homeless-serving nonprofits to try to ensure several beds were available each night for homeless San Diegans they encountered who were in immediate need of a place to stay.
The beds not only served as an option for the most vulnerable but also helped pave the way for police enforcement following a legal settlement requiring police to offer an open bed before citing someone for pitching a tent downtown.
In 2014, Mayor Kevin Faulconer expanded and formalized the program when he added $150,000 to his annual budget for 25 so-called triage beds at Father Joe’s St. Vincent de Paul campus.
The idea, Housing Commission Vice President Melissa Peterman said, was to give the HOT team something to offer homeless San Diegans and hopefully, help them transition more off the street.
The number of beds assigned to the program has since doubled. The HOT team, which consists of nine full-time police officers working different shifts and three county workers, decides who is offered one.
The system has a built-in Catch 22. The Police Department’s access to the shelter beds provides an opening for what they describe as compassionate enforcement – offering services before giving citations. But the fact that police do enforcement means fewer homeless San Diegans are willing to take those beds.
While the HOT team focuses on connecting people with services rather than citations, some homeless San Diegans and those who advocate for them believe the city’s keeping a certain number of beds open each night to facilitate enforcement.
Lt. Carole Beason, who supervises the HOT team, and other city officials said that’s not true.
“If we could fill all 50 of those beds, they’d be filled,” Beason said.
She said police often try to find a place at another shelter if a person isn’t comfortable in a HOT bed. Indeed, downtown PATH Connections Housing, which runs another city-funded shelter, reports police bring in an average of 10 clients to their facility each month.
Peterman and Jonathan Herrera, the mayor’s senior adviser on homelessness coordination, acknowledged the conundrum the city faces with having police officers lead the city’s most significant homeless outreach efforts.
“I think there’s consensus amongst people working in homeless services that individuals on the street are more likely to accept help from [a non-uniformed] social worker than an officer but right now most of our outreach comes from the HOT team,” Peterman said. “So that’s (why we’re) trying to find ways to give them better tools so that they can help people that are on the street while we’re still trying to boost up the amount of street outreach that exists that is not from law enforcement.”
Those tools include the shelter beds, more regular outreach partnerships with nonprofit providers and a $300,000 Housing Commission budget allocation to help the countywide group overseeing homelessness efforts to a hire coordinator to develop a plan to better connect those living on the street with help.
The City Council’s new select committee on homelessness has also begun discussing expanded outreach options that don’t involve police.
For now, Beason said the HOT teams tend to target areas where lots of homeless people stay so they can offer help to as many people as possible. They also respond to complaints from the public or requests from other officers.
But the path to a police-run shelter bed isn’t clear to everyone living on the streets, particularly those who are newly homeless. People who interact with the police are more likely to get offered a bed. Some homeless San Diegans also describe instances where they or someone they knew approached a HOT team vehicle to ask for help.
“They come grazing around and if you happen to be there when they are, then you are,” said Michael Sanders, who stays near Fault Line Park in East Village.
Like many others, Sanders isn’t interested in one of the police-run shelter beds. It’d require getting rid of belongings he wants to keep.
Steve Durham, who’s settled near the San Diego Police Department headquarters, agreed to take a HOT bed earlier this year.
Durham, who had been waiting for a bed at PATH, said he was eager for bed when police offered it early one February morning. Despite months on the street, he didn’t know police had that resource to offer.
That day, Durham moved into a top bunk in a room he said was filled with dozens of other men. Close to 30 days later, he learned he’d need to move out soon. He’d only been allotted 30 days in the shelter. During the four weeks he stayed there, Durham recalls just one meeting with a counselor.
“They tried to be helpful but they really weren’t all that helpful to me,” said Durham, who’s now sleeping on the sidewalk again.
HOT clients like Durham are served differently than others staying at Father Joe’s Villages.
The San Diego Housing Commission’s contract with Father Joe’s Villages emphasizes the need to quickly move HOT clients into more permanent housing. But the nonprofit only supplies shelter, meals and on-site services to HOT clients, not the housing help or case management they give to other shelter clients.
Beason, Peterman and a spokesman for Father Joe’s Villages said two county Health and Human Services workers assigned to the HOT team instead work with clients to try to link them with housing or other services. Beason said the county workers meet weekly with clients to try to connect them to another opportunity, whether that means a rehab program or a single-room occupancy unit. She said the nature of the program means clients often seek options other than permanent housing.
Yet county officials told me the two county workers assigned to the team are primarily focused on determining whether those clients are eligible for the county’s safety-net programs – not formal case management or housing outcomes. They may provide referrals to other services but aren’t contractually obligated to do that.
Beason said the two county workers regularly “go above and beyond to try to help people.”
As a result of their work, 81 homeless San Diegans moved from the HOT shelter beds to permanent housing last year – the equivalent of 15 percent who stayed in the shelter last year. By comparison, data from the Regional Task Force on the Homeless showed 28 percent of those exiting shelters countywide during the same period landed in permanent housing.
Herrera said the city’s focused on increasing permanent housing placements from the HOT team beds, as it is at other city-funded shelters.
“It’s definitely an area that we can improve but it’s something we’re aware of and making substantive efforts to address,” Herrera said.
He and Peterman pointed to a recent analysis of city-funded shelters that suggested ways to improve outcomes and a toolkit the Housing Commission’s created to facilitate that.
Beason said police realize the resources they’re offering aren’t always ideal for clients. She admitted she’d be reluctant to go into the HOT shelter if she couldn’t bring her husband or her dog – two common barriers for homeless San Diegans who turn down offers of a bed.
But she said the HOT team will keep offering the options it does have for homeless San Diegans.
“Every person that they contact, they’ll offer their services,” Beason said.