How East Village Became the ‘Homeless Ghetto’ - Voice of San Diego

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How East Village Became the ‘Homeless Ghetto’

In the effort to revitalize the Gaslamp Quarter, city leaders made a concerted push to move services for the homeless into East Village.

More than 30 years ago, the man who would become San Diego’s first homeless services coordinator feared city decisions could turn East Village into the city’s own skid row.

And he said so.

City leaders wanted to revitalize the Gaslamp Quarter. They wanted downtown homeless residents to move to East Village, and they decided pushing the city’s homeless providers to East Village would make that easier.

Tom Leslie, then assistant director at San Diego Rescue Mission, recalls openly opposing the idea at a public meeting.

“I said, ‘You’re setting up the homeless ghetto,’” Leslie said last week.

The city proceeded. Homeless-serving nonprofits were told they could get conditional use permits, zoning exceptions that would allow them to serve their clients in East Village. Leslie described those permits as the tool as “the hammer” the city used to drive them to the neighborhood.

A former city official confirmed this.

“We looked at relocations and just sort of forced everybody down there,” said Mike Stepner, then an assistant director in the city’s planning department.

Downtown had a significant homeless population, including in East Village, and city leaders didn’t believe other neighborhoods would welcome nonprofits that served them, Stepner said.

“We wanted to relocate them and bring new facilities and no other neighborhood would even consider that,” Stepner said.

The San Diego Rescue Mission, St. Vincent de Paul Village and Catholic Charities eventually moved to the East Village, supplying dozens of shelter beds and services.

So solidified East Village’s position as the regional hub for homeless providers, a reality that’s helped make it San Diego’s most visible, concentrated homeless population.

Leslie said he is convinced decisions in the 1980s contributed to the neighborhood taking on more than its fair share of the problem.

Leslie recently visited East Village. He admits he was stunned by the volume of homelessness there but not surprised by where it had grown.

“It is all directly attributable to the actions the city took back then,” Leslie said.

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“The city designated East Village because it was broken-down warehouses,” recalls Father Joe Carroll, the now-retired CEO of Father Joe’s Villages. “It was never gonna be developed.”

At the time, East Village looked like this.

Photo courtesy of the San Diego Padres
Photo courtesy of the San Diego Padres

But plans for East Village changed. The former urban wasteland is now a gentrifying neighborhood that looks more like this. It’s also home to Petco Park.

Photo courtesy of the San Diego Padres.
Photo courtesy of the San Diego Padres

And it’s a neighborhood where, according to a business group’s latest count, 866 people live on the streets.

They’re more visible than ever as condo developments and businesses pop up around them, forcing folks who might’ve once nestled in abandoned buildings into the streets. The homeless population has spiked nearly 80 percent in the past year by one count – leading to more conflicts between the residents and businesses that have moved in and the homeless who also call the area home.

Photo by Dustin Michelson
Photo by Dustin Michelson

Decades after the nonprofits moved downtown, the draw remains. This year, about three-quarters of city funding for direct homeless services is set to support programs in East Village. It’s a place where a homeless person can seek a shelter bed, a shower or a free meal – resources that are harder to come by in other areas. Those resources are limited even in East Village, but there are more of them in one place than in other parts of the region.

“Most people want to stay in East Village because they have resources that are accessible and within walking range,” said Anne Rios, who leads homeless advocacy nonprofit Think Dignity, which operates a city-funded storage center for homeless people in the neighborhood.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

That doesn’t mean East Village is always a comfortable place if you’re homeless.

Homeless people who live there acknowledge they sometimes feel unsafe.  Some are concerned about growing violence and crime in their neighborhood – and the others moving in.

There’s also frustration about weekly encampment sweeps, which force the homeless to move for sidewalk clean-ups.

Yet it’s where the services are, and where many church groups go to deliver meals to those who live on the streets.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

“It’s easier to survive here,” Oceanside native Shawn Avery Watkins told me earlier this year.

Watkins moved to East Village three years ago in hopes of getting into a program at Father Joe’s Villages. He got in but fell back into homelessness. When I last talked to him, Watkins told me he regularly visited the Neil Good Day Center, run by Father Joe’s Villages. He often ate meals and picked up clothing at nearby nonprofit God’s Extended Hand.

Life would be even more difficult in another neighborhood or city, he said.

Indeed, repeated pushes to further disperse homeless services across the city have largely fallen flat.

Leslie, the former San Diego Rescue Mission official, was involved in some of those conversations, too.

He became the city’s first homeless services coordinator in 1991.

In that position, Leslie heard neighborhood complaints about what East Village had become. Leslie, who was once homeless himself, didn’t blame residents for their frustration.

“It was like everything was being funneled and squeezed toward that direction,” he said.

At the time, a task force produced an eight-point plan to address the city’s homeless problem. The Los Angeles Times reported that the 1992 plan “urged citizens to see homelessness as a citywide problem, and called for emergency shelters in areas outside downtown.”

A few years later, the City Council approved a comprehensive policy that, among other tacks, called for homeless services to be further spread throughout the city.

It didn’t spur major action.

Stepner said he wishes the city would have pursued those suggestions, including greater resources for the homeless elsewhere.

“I look back at some of the decisions about a lot of things that we did,” the former planning official said. “If we had just taken that extra step, the problems may not be as great as they are today.”

Services have opened up elsewhere in the city, though.

Connections Housing, sometimes dubbed a model for potential projects in other neighborhoods, took over the old World Trade Center building on Sixth Avenue in 2013. Veterans Village of San Diego, which serves homeless veterans, opened in the Midway area in 1991.

And the Rescue Mission, pushed again due to the development of Petco Park, moved from East Village to Banker’s Hill in 2001.

Leaders in other parts of the region are working to assemble more year-round assistance for the homeless in their communities, too. Escondido opened a year-round shelter this winter and an Oceanside nonprofit is trying to pull together funds for one.

Yet the pull to East Village remains. Residents and business owners there are demanding that the city do something. They’d like to see more homeless services elsewhere.

The East Village Residents Group has met with local leaders to push an action plan that emphasizes providing shelter and help for homeless people across the region – rather than simply their neighborhood.

“We don’t want it concentrated in one area,” said Joan Wojcik, the group’s president.

City Councilman Todd Gloria, who represents the area and chairs a regional group that oversees initiatives to reduce homelessness locally, is sympathetic to residents’ concerns.

“We ought to have facilities throughout the region for which anyone can go and get services,” he said, noting that there are homeless people across the county need help, including large populations in Mission Valley and beach communities.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who as a councilman represented downtown neighborhoods, agreed.

“It is not just an East Village solution. It can’t be,” Faulconer said. “It has to be every neighborhood helping out and that’s our commitment.”

But no new permanent shelters or services in other San Diego neighborhoods seem to be in the works despite more visible street homelessness in other parts of the city, too.

Thus far, there’s been a lack of political will and funding to open them.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, a major source of homeless funding, has prioritized bankrolling new programs for temporary rental subsidies and permanent housing rather than the types of shelters and services that populate East Village.

Cities across the region also have limited cash for shelters or day centers, making significant private investment crucial.

The nonprofit Alpha Project has informally pitched a 600-bed central intake facility just outside downtown in hopes of addressing rising street homelessness in East Village. It’s not clear where the money would come from to support it – or whether residents would accept it.

For the foreseeable future, East Village is likely to remain the San Diego hub for homeless services.

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