Police-Controlled Shelter Beds Sat Empty During Storm | Voice of San Diego

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Police-Controlled Shelter Beds Sat Empty During Storm

As a storm hit on Monday, nearly three dozen city-funded shelter beds controlled by San Diego police sat empty following a City Hall directive to increase police access to shelter beds. City officials won’t clarify why.

Beds inside of the Alpha Project Bridge Shelter in Barrio Logan in 2019. / Photo by Megan Wood

As a rain storm hit San Diego Monday, nearly three dozen city-funded shelter beds set aside for placements by San Diego police sat empty. 

The beds at Alpha Project’s Barrio Logan shelter ironically remained empty following a City Hall directive to give police more access to shelter beds. 

Last week, Mayor Todd Gloria’s administration ordered that the police be added to the city’s centralized system for connecting homeless residents to shelters run by different service providers. The process requires outreach workers to check in with the San Diego Housing Commission to facilitate shelter placements. 

That essentially meant police were competing with non-police outreach workers for an already-limited number of shelter beds.  

Gloria’s office and the Housing Commission failed to respond to questions from VOSD seeking to clarify what the city did immediately after the intake process change to try to ensure both officers and outreach workers could connect homeless San Diegans with shelter – and why the city recently stopped filling the Alpha Project beds already set aside for police. 

But by Monday, 33 of 50 Alpha Project beds already set aside for direct placements by police sat empty. At the same time PATH outreach workers grappled with a 50-person waiting list for shelter placements. 

By late Tuesday, 36 beds set aside for police were open at Alpha Project’s bridge shelter at 16 Street and Newton Avenue – and Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy said he had directed his staff to start filling them. 

“Until we have clarity on this new direction, if I have empty beds, my outreach teams, and others such as PATH, are going to put people in our shelters,” McElroy said late Tuesday. “Period.” 

The direction from Gloria’s office also seemed to have changed after inquiries from Voice of San Diego. 

Gloria spokesman Dave Rolland wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon that San Diego police will now only essentially compete with city homeless providers for shelter beds when 90 beds set aside for police at Alpha Project’s Barrio Logan shelter and Father Joe’s Villages’ Paul Mirabile Center are unavailable. He added that placements for non-police beds will be made based on which clients are determined to be most in need, rather than who is requesting shelter. 

Another 10 beds set aside for police will remain open to officers for after-hours check-ins. 

The goal of all these tweaks, Rolland said, has been to make the process easier. 

“These changes are intended to simplify the intake process and ensure that if there’s a bed available, it will not go unfilled,” Rolland said. 

Yet that’s exactly what happened this week. 

Earlier this month, San Diego police Capt. Shawn Takeuchi and Hafsa Kaka, director of the city’s new Homeless Strategies and Solutions Department, told VOSD the city was working to add more shelter beds that would be accessible to police officers. 

Kaka said the goal was to give police priority access. 

“We want to change the culture of being able to – or even policy – that PD will have access at any given time because we understand that persons experiencing homelessness may say no at 12 o’clock but then yes at 3 p.m. so if the PD does interface it, there will be access to a shelter bed,” Kaka said. 

The same week, on Oct. 11, the city supplied dozens of new beds at nonprofit Alpha Project’s Barrio Logan shelter to help increase capacity, including 26 beds set aside for police.  

Access to those beds is significant not only to the department’s homeless outreach team but also to officers’ ability to cite homeless San Diegans for offenses tied to homelessness.  

VOSD last week reported that police for a time ticketed homeless San Diegans who accepted shelter for offenses such as encroachment, or blocking a public right of way, when it turned out beds weren’t available. Gloria’s office said the mayor halted that practice last week after questions from VOSD that noted the ticketing policy appeared to violate an existing city settlement and 2018 ruling by 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling barring cities from enforcing such laws when they don’t have open beds. 

temporary bridge shelter
The Alpha Project shelter on Newton Avenue and 16th Street in 2018. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“Citing unsheltered residents for violations such as illegal lodging or encroachment when officers do not have an available shelter bed to offer at that moment would be inconsistent with the mayor’s compassionate approach to homelessness,” Rolland told VOSD last week. 

City shelter providers were later notified that police would be added to the city’s coordinated intake process to give police greater access to shelter beds. 

Rolland said the directive was to add police to the coordinated intake process to “ensure access to beds across the system.” 

“Regardless of who is doing the outreach, they should have the ability to connect people to shelter,” Rolland wrote on Friday. “We should never turn people away.” 

McElroy and PATH Regional Director Hanan Scrapper said Monday they hadn’t been fully briefed on the change – and what it could mean for their outreach workers and shelters. 

PATH leads non-police outreach efforts in the city and now responds to complaints residents make about homeless camps via the city’s Get It Done app. It also operates a downtown shelter. 

“We were informed that PD will have priority for beds, but we don’t really have details yet,” Scrapper said late Monday. “I think that’s being worked on.” 

Father Joe’s also wrote in a Monday statement that it was “working with the city and (Housing Commission) to fully understand the scope of the change and to assess any impacts on our shelter operations.” 

By that point, PATH’s outreach team’s waiting list for shelter placements had climbed to 50. Scrapper said late Tuesday that the nonprofit hadn’t been able to place any homeless San Diegans in shelter since last Thursday. 

Scrapper said the city policy change seemed to coincide with already increasing demand for shelter beds. 

She said PATH is willing to accommodate the city’s new direction but hopes for better coordination and understanding of that direction going forward so that outreach teams can apply it on the ground. 

“How can we communicate better so that our outreach teams have the most updated information?” Scrapper said. 

Karen Pucci, Alpha Project’s director of special projects, said the nonprofit was unable to place any of the 10 people its outreach teams encountered on Friday who requested shelter beds. It did manage to get one of four clients who requested shelter in on Monday and four of eight clients who accepted on Tuesday got into Father Joe’s Golden Hall shelter.  

Prior to the past several days, Pucci said Alpha Project has usually managed to secure a bed for most clients who request shelter. 

“If we can’t get beds, what’s the messaging we should relay to our clients?” said Pucci, who questioned why police weren’t using the beds already set aside for them. 

The open police beds should have been obvious to city officials.  

Pucci said Alpha Project shares its counts of available beds – both its general population of beds and those set aside for police – with the Housing Commission twice daily. 

As of late Tuesday, police hadn’t moved any clients into the Alpha Project beds set aside for them since Oct. 19. 

By midday Wednesday, Pucci said, police had placed five homeless San Diegans into beds set aside for them and another three in Alpha Project’s general program. 

John Brady, who once lived on the street and now serves on the leadership council overseeing implementation of the city’s homelessness plan, expressed frustration with the situation on Tuesday. 

After all, the Regional Task Force on Homelessness this week urged providers to weigh in on whether they could help deliver inclement weather shelter that cities including San Diego have been unable to supply during the pandemic. The city has historically sheltered dozens of additional homeless San Diegans during storms and cold weather.  

“We’re putting out (a request for proposals) for emergency shelter inclement weather beds and it appears we’re not filling the beds that we have available right now and people are suffering on our streets in the rain and cold,” Brady said. 

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