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An Idea to Help the Homeless Languished for Years — Then Two Powerful Businessmen Got on Board

Proposals for a homeless intake facility for years failed to gain traction but the idea is now a central piece in Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s plan to address homelessness. What changed? For one, two powerful business leaders who have the mayor’s ear took a strong interest in the idea.

For more than a decade, Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy has called on city leaders to build an intake facility where homeless folks can be assessed and connected with more help.

The proposal for years failed to gain traction but is now a central piece in Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s plan to address rising street homelessness. What changed?

For one, two powerful business leaders who have the mayor’s ear took a strong interest in the idea.

Developer Tom Sudberry, real estate guru David Malcolm and other business leaders asked McElroy, who’s spent more than three decades working with homeless San Diegans, what he thought the city should do to better aid an exploding downtown homeless population.

McElroy had an immediate answer: the intake facility he’s been pushing since at least 2005. He described a facility with hundreds of shelter beds where homeless clients could be linked with services operated by nonprofits both on site and around the region.

There, homeless folks could await longer-term solutions in a shelter rather than on the street.

Then, McElroy said, he put the onus on the businessmen.

“I said, ‘You guys are going to have to drive this car.’”

McElroy’s weathered much public opposition to homeless services projects over the years and has seen politicians back down in response. He wasn’t ready for another battle.

“I just said, ‘You guys kind of dictate policy. You guys are the supporters of campaigns and politicians listen to you guys,’” McElroy said.

Malcolm and Sudberry, who’ve each donated thousands to Faulconer’s campaigns, took up the challenge. Malcolm, who for years served as board chair of Father Joe’s Villages, and Sudberry, an Alpha Project donor, started meeting regularly.

They set their sights on a city yard at 20th and B streets in Golden Hill that McElroy’s long eyed. Then they started pushing the mayor’s office.

They were among advocates who called for the mayor to hire a staffer specifically focused on homeless issues.

By October, the mayor had hired Stacie Spector, a political veteran who’s now his senior adviser for housing solutions.

With Spector on board, Malcolm and Sudberry had another mayor’s office contact to lobby. They pressed Faulconer, Spector and Faulconer Chief of Staff Stephen Puetz on the intake facility concept.

Malcolm said his message was consistent: “I want results. I don’t want talk.”

As the conversations continued, the duo pledged to put up $3 million for the project. They promised Faulconer they’d lead private fundraising efforts and even cover that amount themselves if necessary.

“We have a lot of business friends all ready to write a check,” Sudberry said. “They just need to have a specific business plan and site and facility. Once we get that done, I think it’s gonna be fairly easy to make this work.”

Their efforts seemed to start bearing fruit early this year.

Malcolm and Sudberry got one step closer to their wish this January when Faulconer announced plans to build an intake facility in his State of the City speech. The mayor also said he’d fund hundreds of new shelter beds and propose a 2018 vote on a hotel-tax hike that would give the city more money to invest in homeless services.

Two outspoken homeless advocates publicly balked at those proposals, but Malcolm and Sudberry continued working behind the scenes.

Malcolm said he and Sudberry contacted mayoral staffers daily in the weeks between Faulconer’s speech and the formal request for proposal process.

Earlier this month, the city released a request for qualifications that sought information from nonprofits about how they might operate at least one intake center – which Spector is calling assessment centers – and resources they could deploy. Alpha Project is already working on its response.

A Faulconer spokesman denied that the power brokers’ recent obsession alone has compelled him to take these steps.

For example, spokesman Craig Gustafson said, the mayor previously led efforts to open a year-round homeless shelter and last year unveiled an initiative to house 1,000 homeless veterans.

“The mayor has been tackling homelessness since day one and a lot of the momentum you’re seeing now is the culmination of the actions he’s taken,” Gustafson said.

Spector acknowledged the power brokers’ interests helped inform the plans she’s crafting for the mayor.

Spector said she concluded on her own that the intake center and shelter beds would be valuable but noted that the outside support the concept has received didn’t hurt.

She commended Sudberry, Malcolm and others for their focus on homelessness and said the mayor has sought and welcomed input from many other stakeholders too.

“This mayor is out there in the community talking to everybody and working with everybody,” Spector said.

McElroy, however, made it clear that Malcom and Sudberry’s focus on homelessness and his longtime central intake concept was a game-changer.

Other cities that have made major reductions in homelessness have had strong support and leadership from their business communities. San Diego’s historically lacked that.

In more recent weeks, other high-powered business leaders including Padres investor Peter Seidler and restaurateur Dan Shea, both of whom had already taken an interest in homeless issues, have started meeting regularly with Malcolm and Sudberry.

Seidler, Shea and others aren’t speaking publicly about whether they support Malcolm and Sudberry’s central intake push.

But all have quizzed experts from San Diego and elsewhere to get up to speed. A few toured a Phoenix homeless resource center earlier this month to learn how it’s working.

Most say they want a business plan that lays out a path to reducing homelessness that also clarifies what the business community can do to help with money and resources.

“I want in a few years to be looked at as a model city on this issue,” Seidler said.

But while the others explore potential solutions, Malcolm and Sudberry have decided on the first step the city should take.

“You need a physical location for people to get plugged into the system,” Sudberry said.

McElroy said he doesn’t think the mayor’s office would have released the request for information absent the political pressure.

“In my opinion, they’re driving the conversation,” McElroy said.

Malcolm said he believes Faulconer would have eventually pursued the project even without the constant lobbying from him and Sudberry.

What they’ve done, Malcolm said, is keep things moving.

“The mayor has 1,000 different items he has to deal with. We’re just trying to keep this up front in his priorities. (Mayor Kevin Faulconer) knows this, Kevin has dealt with this and Kevin is going to always be doing the right thing,” Malcolm said. “We’re just going to keep nudging it along. The mayor knows it’s inhumane what’s going on today.”

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