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San Diego's new homeless shelter first to offer mental health, addiction services on site
San Diego Union-Tribune - 9/12/2022
The beds are made, the showers and restrooms are in place, and mental health and addiction specialists are ready to work with clients at the new homeless shelter in San Diego'sMidway District.
But first, outreach workers from the Alpha Project have to find those clients living on the streets and sidewalk encampments in the surrounding neighborhoods.
"They've known the shelter was going to be opening for quite some time, and they've been waiting patiently for us to give them the OK," said Craig Thomas, who was behind the wheel of the Alpha Project van he drove down a stretch of California Street just off Kettner Boulevard.
Thomas, along with fellow outreach workers Ionia Honeycutt and Jack Phillips, were hoping to pick up people who said they were willing to check into the new shelter that opened Monday.
"We know quite a few," Thomas said about the names on a clipboard in the front seat. "A lot of these people on the street I've been speaking with over the years, not just the past couple of months."
The new 150-bed shelter is in a large tented structure behind the San Diego County Health and Human Services Complex and the Psychiatric Hospital of San Diego County on Rosecrans Street. It's the first of its kind to offer on-site mental health and addiction services, addressing some of the most serious issues facing people on the street.
The plan is to take it slow, bringing in 15 people at a time to assess their needs and connect them with help.
The city of San Diego contracted with the Alpha Project for $4.8 million for a 13-month term through June 30, 2023, at a cost of about $77 a bed nightly.
Through an agreement brokered by San Diego CountyBoard of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher, the county is providing the site for the shelter and has allocated $1.4 million this fiscal year for Vista Hill to provide a multi-disciplinary team that includes a nurse practitioner, mental health clinicians and substance-use counselors.
Peer support specialists also will screen and refer people to community-based behavioral health services.
The large tented shelter is one of three the Alpha Project is operating through contracts with the city. Father Joe's Villages operates a city-funded shelter at Golden Hall, and the new Midway District shelter brings the number of shelter beds in the city to 1,666.
An annual count of people on the street and in shelters in February found 8,427 people countywide, a 10 percent increase since the last count in 2020.
More recently, an August count of homeless people in downtown San Diego alone found 1,609 living in encampments or vehicles, the highest number since the count began 10 years ago.
At California Street Monday, the Alpha Project team stopped to talked to someone they knew at an encampment on the corner of Walnut Avenue. Nearby, the blackened remains of what once were tents sat on a vacant lot that recently caught fire, just one of the dangers facing people living without shelter.
The crew had hoped to pick up a few people on their list, but struck out. A man at the encampment told Thomas that a couple of women they were seeking had left to avoid media coverage of the shelter opening.
Another person told Honeycutt that Frank, one of the men on the list, had left that morning for the Old Town Transit Center because he heard California Street was being repaved, which was incorrect.
The team stopped to talk to another woman on the corner of California and Vine streets, where the encampment included a few large green tents, with one flying an American flag. A gutted pickup charred by the recent fire down the street had somehow found its way to the corner that morning.
"A lot of people think it's like camping," said Sandi Peterson, 54, who has been homeless seven years. "I know what camping is all about. I took my kids camping on weekends. This is not camping. This is survival."
Peterson said she would have accepted an offer to move into the shelter, but can't because her bulldog Tiburón, Spanish for shark, is too aggressive.
Thomas has heard such comments before, among other reasons people give for not accepting shelter.
"I personally believe most of them are shelter-resistant," he said, adding that some people don't like the rules or say they would feel unsafe in one.
"It's just a matter of getting them in there and letting them see for themselves," he said. "A lot of people who have never been in a shelter listen to what they've heard on the street and get misconceptions."
Their next stop was Sports Arena Boulevard, where they met Roberto Evangelista, 44, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who said he was approaching his second year of homelessness.
Evangelista, wearing Hawaiian print shorts and a backpack stuffed with fishing rods, said he was a design technician who had his own business until the pandemic shut down construction companies. With his life spiraling downward, he ended up on the street.
He agreed to go into the shelter.
While Evangelista appeared sober and coherent, Thomas said he would be assessed over the next few days to determine if he needed help with any issues not immediately apparent.
"We get them inside, observe what they're going through, and we can find exactly what it is they need," he said.
The team next went in search of Frank at the Transit Center. While they didn't find him, they did come across Patrick Gregory, 28, who was laying in the shade of the center's parking lot. As they checked to see if he was OK, Gregory stood up, got his bearing, and learned about the new shelter, which he had seen under construction directly across the street for the past few months.
"That's rad," he said. "I was wondering what that place was."
Gregory said he hit a downward spiral after losing custody of his child.
"I kind of fell into a depression, got into drugs, and one thing led to another," he said.
He took little convincing to enter the shelter, where he said he hopes to get clean.
"It's been very hard," he said. "I've tried."
While Thomas said outreach teams frequently talk to people on the street who turn down shelter, Phillips ironically was kept busy throughout the morning answering calls from people asking for shelter. He ran through a list of questions, took their names, and usually told them they would be on a short waiting list.
People who have been on sidewalks encampments, sometimes for years, can be the hardest to talk into accepting shelter. Thomas said he's found many people in encampments are reluctant to go into a shelter, but say they would accept housing.
Almost all are dealing with some kind of substance use, and about half have co-occurring mental issues, he said.
By noon, outreach teams had cut off intakes at 15 people, but would be taking in more in the days and weeks ahead.
On Tuesday morning, San Diego city officials were scheduled to gather for a press conference at a Mission Valley safe-parking lot that expanded to 24 hours on Sept. 6. It is the only city-funded lot that allows recreational vehicles, and more people are expected to use it with the expanded hours.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria also has said a new non-congregate shelter will be announced soon.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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