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Councilman Wants to Ground Plan to Turn Skydiving Building Into a Homelessness Center

City Councilman Chris Ward, who represents downtown, is calling for a holistic homelessness strategy before he’ll back Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s plan to open a housing navigation center in East Village.

1401 Imperial Avenue

Earlier this year, the San Diego City Council voted to purchase this former indoor skydiving facility at 1401 Imperial Ave. in hopes of making it the city’s first homeless navigation center. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s plan to quickly turn a shuttered East Village skydiving center into a service hub for homeless San Diegans has hit a snag.

City Councilman Chris Ward, who represents downtown, says he won’t support moving forward with the housing navigation center project until the city has a broader homelessness strategy to help it set priorities – and establish whether the navigation center project should even be a priority.

“We need a holistic plan,” said Ward, who chairs the City Council’s homelessness committee.

Another City Council Democrat, Barbara Bry, said Tuesday she agrees with Ward.

“I think it’s better at this point to keep (the East Village building) empty than to spend money on something we may not need, or may not be the best use of our money, since we have limited financial resources,” Bry said.

But Faulconer doesn’t want to wait for a plan expected to take months to produce. The mayor had hoped the center might be open by now.

Faulconer’s team is planning a Nov. 13 City Council vote on a contract with Family Health Centers of San Diego, the nonprofit selected to run the East Village facility. A previously scheduled vote was postponed in September, two months after the San Diego Housing Commission approved the contract.

The mayor’s team wants to turn the building at 14th Street and Imperial Avenue into a center where homeless San Diegans often overwhelmed and alienated by a confusing web of services can be guided to those that work best for them.

The City Council unanimously approved the purchase of the building in January in a hurried process for $7 million. Questions have swirled around the project and the purchase ever since. Some advocates and real estate experts have argued the city didn’t get a good deal on the building and should have instead invested the $7 million in housing or other existing programs for homeless San Diegans. Others have emphasized the fact that the project, which aims to help homeless San Diegans more easily navigate to housing and other help, won’t itself deliver needed affordable housing and other resources that are lacking.

More recently, Ward and other City Council Democrats have called for an analysis of projects city leaders rushed to approve as they grappled with a deadly hepatitis A outbreak that disproportionately battered San Diego’s homeless population. They’d like the city to take a more strategic approach.

Bry said in May the city should assess how to best spend its limited cash, and Ward and City Councilwoman Georgette Gómez last month called for an overarching homelessness plan.

As the City Council prepared to approve updated shelter contracts last month, Ward requested that the Housing Commission hire an outside expert to analyze the city’s current homelessness programs and hammer out a strategy to address needs that aren’t being met.

Scott Marshall, a Housing Commission spokesman, said the agency has since begun an informal solicitation process and hopes to ink a contract this fall. The timeline and scope of the plan haven’t been set but the plan itself is unlikely to emerge for months.

That doesn’t jibe with Faulconer’s hope to proceed with a November vote on the navigation center.

Faulconer spokesman Greg Block said the mayor is committed to the project and wants to move forward as soon as possible – without waiting for the plan.

Block said the mayor’s office supports the planning process but wants the navigation center to be incorporated into the outside expert’s analysis rather than be stuck in limbo while it proceeds.

After all, Block said, the full City Council, including Ward, voted to buy the building and transform it into a homeless service center.

“We have talked about this for a long time and we think it’s the right thing to do for our city’s homelessness efforts,” Block said.

Ward and Bry don’t think the city should be so wedded to the project. Both council members said they’re not convinced the eventual homelessness plan will prioritize a navigation center and said the city may want to consider selling the East Village building or using it for another purpose.

Bry suggested the city may also want to consider other ways to address the needs it sought to fill with the navigation center such as incorporating the service hub concept into the three bridge shelter tents that have gone up since the navigation center project was initially conceived.

Ward and Bry, the City Council’s budget chair, don’t want the city to rush to invest the planned-for $1.5 million in annual operation costs without further analysis.

“My gut is priorities are probably going to need to be placed elsewhere,” Ward said.

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