San Diego Sandbags Efforts to Shelter Homeless People

by on August 17, 2016 · 0 comments

in Culture, Economy, History, Homelessness, Politics, San Diego

San Diego homeless graph downtwnCity snubs California law for emergency shelters

By Jeeni Criscenzo

If the City of San Diego really wanted to solve the ever increasing problem of homelessness, they might be willing to try something more innovative than eliminating 98% of the areas previously designated as suitable for emergency shelter without a Conditional Use Permit.

I first became of aware of a map in the City of San Diego General Plan, Housing Element called Figure 1 Areas Suitable for Emergency Shelters – November 2006. Amikas, a non-profit I founded with four other homeless advocates in 2009 to work with homeless women and children with a focus on veteran women, was considering the Midway Post Office as a potential site for veteran housing. The map was required by California Senate Bill 2 (SB2) also known as the Cedillo Bill.

This Statute became effective January 2008. Chapter 633 clarifies and strengthens housing element law to ensure zoning encourages and facilitates emergency shelters and limits the denial of emergency shelters and transitional and supportive housing.

SB2 requires zoning identified for emergency shelters to include sufficient capacity, when taken as a whole, to meet the need for shelters identified in the housing element, and have a realistic potential for development or reuse opportunities in the planning period. Further, capacity for emergency shelters must be suitable and available and account for physical features and location including proximity to transit, job centers and public and community services. (California Dept. of Housing and Community Development Div. of Housing Policy Development, May 7, 2008, Updated April 10, 2013)

The bill added emergency shelters to the provisions specified in the State Planning and Zoning Law, that require a local government to identify a zone or zones where emergency shelters are allowed as a permitted use without a conditional use or other discretionary permit. (California Senate Bill.2 Chapter 633, 2007)

Why is this important? Just look at what happens when it is announced that there is even the tiniest hint that emergency shelter will be built anywhere – anywhere! Suddenly everyone in the area becomes an activist. People who never give a damn about what impact building could have on the environment will show up en mass to prevent the construction of something to shelter homeless people. Even if the neighborhood is overrun with encampments. Here’s an example.

The San Diego Land Development Code (LDC) currently requires emergency homeless shelters to obtain a Conditional Use permit (CUP) with City Council approval. Given the current public resistance (to put it lightly) toward locating emergency shelters in any neighborhood without the exemptions bestowed by SB2, emergency shelters will never be built.

In addition, a $21,501 fee must be paid to Civic San Diego staff to process a Homeless Shelters CUP. With funding for homeless programs at an all-time low, most agencies need that money for the actual project, not to pad the pockets of bureaucrats.

To address the requirements of SB2, a local government may amend an existing zoning district, establish a new zoning district or establish an overlay zone for existing zoning districts. Figures 1 and 2 in the Housing Element complied with SB2 by providing an overlay of commercial, industrial, residential and commercial/office/mixed use zones where emergency and transitional housing could be located without the requirement of a CUP.

City of San Diego map showing "Areas suitable for emergency shelters"

Figure 1 – Areas suitable for emergency shelters (Click for larger view; detailed PDF at this link.)

The Midway Post Office wasn’t included on Figure 1, which was only part of the reason that project never happened, but look what was on the map!

Notice that there are sites designated throughout the City. Figure 2, Areas Suitable for Transitional Housing, was even more generous.

City of San Diego map showing "Areas suitable for Transitional Housing"

Figure 2 – Areas suitable for Transitional Housing (Click for larger view; detailed PDF at this link.)

Which brings me to January 2016 when Amikas and a coalition of homeless advocates wanting to build a pilot program of a tiny home village as emergency shelter for homeless women and children were offered a lease on a lot in East Village.

We met with the owner and he was very positive about putting the lot to use for the next 12 months while he decided what he wanted to do with it. The lot, located on the southwest corner of 17th St. and Imperial Ave. was located near the services at St. Vincent de Paul, and transit. The area is overrun with tent and tarp encampments, and we would be offering an alternative that would improve the safety and living conditions for both homeless and housed residents in the area. And it was on the map as an area suitable for emergency shelter.

Maps showing the Imperial Ave. location of proposed tiny home pilot project

Imperial Ave. location of tiny home pilot project (Click for larger view)

Our exhilarated but naive coalition put together a presentation and got onto the calendar for the San Diego Smart Growth and Land Use Committee for February 10th. Our attorney had written up a lease agreement and sent it to the owner. Everything was moving along as if there was a higher power sanctioning our efforts. But it turned out the “higher power” was not the beneficent One we were counting on to pave the way.

Following our presentation, which we all thought had advanced our project despite the fact that I delivered it while in the throes of an episode of vertigo, the land owner stopped communicating with us. By March 1st, when the lease was supposed to begin, our attorney learned that the owner had suddenly backed out – he had been made an offer on the lot. (If you drive by the lot, you will see a big For Sale sign.)

We had our suspicions that someone who didn’t want us building a tiny home village in that spot had made the property owner an offer he couldn’t refuse. But we had no idea to what length the downtown power brokers were going to make certain we couldn’t try our concept anywhere.

The “disappearing” of areas suitable for emergency and transitional housing

It turns out that a new General Plan Housing Element had been adopted by City Council March 4, 2013 . Figures 1 (areas suitable for emergency housing) and 2 (areas suitable for transitional housing) are gone. In fact the only mention of SB2 is on page HE-126:

  1. Compliance with Cedillo Bill (Senate Bill 2) and Fair Housing Laws

California Senate Bill 2 (SB2), known as the Cedillo Bill, enacted in October 2007, clarifies that local governments must analyze constraints to the development of emergency shelters, transitional, and supportive housing. It requires local governments to identify one or more zoning categories that allow emergency shelters (year-round shelters for the homeless) without discretionary review. The statute permits the City to apply limited conditions to the approval of ministerial permits for emergency shelters. The City must have sufficient capacity to accommodate at least one year-round shelter and accommodate the City’s share of the regional unsheltered homeless population. In accordance with SB2, the City will amend the Land Development Code accordingly to ensure compliance within one year of the adoption of this Housing Element. The City will work closely with homeless service providers throughout the process to revise the Land Development Code. (emphasis added)

BUT nothing actually happened until three years later, and exactly one month AFTER our presentation to the Smart Growth and Land Use Committee where we had gleefully displayed Figure 1 from the earlier Housing Element. In a Report to the Planning Commission on March 11, 2016, staff recommended that the City Council approve proposed amendments to the Land Development Code and the City’s Local Coastal Program. Those amendments addressed two housing related issues, including compliance with the Cedillo Bill (SB-2).

Proposed amendments to Land Development Code, Local Coastal Program

Using the January 2015 Point in Time Count (PITC), they claimed that their proposal needed to accommodate the 2,765 unsheltered homeless person in the City. They identified two zones that met the criteria (access to transit, social services, employment opportunities and sufficient land area to develop emergency homeless shelter) for emergency shelter: IS-1-1 (Small Lot Industrial) and CCPD-MC (Center City Planned District Mixed Commercial).

The IS-1-1 zone is a citywide zone currently located only in the communities of Pacific Beach and Midway/Pacific Highway Corridor. Within the Midway Pacific Hwy Corridor Community planning area the zone is generally located in the area between I-5 and Pacific Coast Highway, and in the area between the Sports Arena and I-5. Within the Pacific Beach planning area it is in a small area bounded by I-5, De Soto Street, Albuquerque Street, and Damon Avenue. The current land area of the IS-1-1 zone is approximately 180 acres; however, the Midway/Pacific Highway Corridor Plan Update proposes to reduce the amount of IS-1-1 zone, resulting in a revised acreage of approximately 57 acres.

The CCPD-MC zone is located within the Centre City Planned District Ordinance. It is located in the East Village bounded K Street, I-5, Commercial Street, and 13th Street; and in the Little Italy neighborhood generally bounded by Laurel Street, I-5, West Fir Street, and California Street, with a three block long (six blocks total) portion of Neighborhood Commercial zone protruding into in the southern portion of the area an each side of India Street. The land area of the CCPD-MC zone is approximately 84 acres.

Note that the CCPD-MC area includes the footprint of the proposed Charger Stadium (hmmmm).

The report also states:

The Cedillo Bill requires only that there be sufficient land area to develop an emergency homeless shelter, it does not require that it be developable within any specified period of time. It is clear that the CCPD-MC zone cannot provide actual opportunities to locate emergency homeless shelters since nearly all of the land area has either been redeveloped or has received entitlements to redevelop. Additionally, the East Village portion of the CCPD-MC zone is home to the Tailgate Park parking facility, the MTS bus yard, the St. Vincent de Paul Villages properties, and existing and proposed affordable housing projects. The residents of this neighborhood have made it clear that the neighborhood has been negatively impacted by the concentration of services in the area. (emphasis added)

Just to be clear, access to social services is one of the criteria the site had to meet.

AND page 1 of the report states that Midway Pacific Hwy. Corridor Community Planning group had voted 8 – 0 on February 17, 2016 to recommend denial of the amendment. As had been pointed out to us when we met with the planning group about using the Midway Post Office for veteran housing, that area also has its share of services for poor and homeless people, including the County Mental Health Services, Veterans Village and (until recently) the Homeless Veterans Tent.

On June 21, 2016, the City Council voted to approve the Amendments to the Land Development Code which included only the IS-1-1 zone as a Process One limited use subject to regulations similar to those currently required when seeking approval of a CUP for an emergency homeless shelter. Not surprisingly, the only dissenting vote was Lori Zapf, in whose district the few sites are located.

City of San Diego map showing new locations of emergency shelter sites

IS-1-1 locations (Click for larger view; PDF file at this link)

Here’s what we now have to work with:

Assuming that it is impossible to get a CUP for emergency shelter outside of the 57 acres defined here (which by a quick site viewing do NOT actually seem to be available), the City has made a mockery of compliance with SB-2 while effectively making certain that no new or innovative projects to quickly house the thousands of people living on our streets has a chance in hell of getting off the ground.

In the Notice of Public hearing for the City Council meeting on July 12, 2016 when this Municipal Code Amendment was passed, it stated:

If you wish to challenge the Council’s actions on the above proceedings in court, you may be limited to raising only those issues you or someone else raised at the public hearing described in this notice, or in written correspondence to the City Council at or prior to the public hearing.

Katheryn Rhodes submitted written objections and Jeeni Criscenzo (this author) and Christina Imhoof personally appeared to voice our objections, including that this amendment is insufficient capacity to accommodate the need for emergency shelters. Not only is it insufficient for the number of unsheltered they pulled from the 2015 PITC (2,765), but I can show that the numbers are far greater and continuing to grow.

As I explained in an earlier column, Homelessness and Housing by the Numbers, if you compare the HUD-mandated Housing Inventory Count with the number of unsheltered people in the City of San Diego counted on Jan. 29th as part of the annual Point-In-Time Count, the City of San Diego was short 2,311 shelter beds (Emergency Shelter and Transitional Housing). This is after assuming that by some miracle of efficiency we could fill the 434 beds that were reported as available but unfilled.

The City’s unfilled bed loophole used to criminalize homeless people

It’s those unfilled beds that the City uses as a loophole to continue to fine and arrest people for illegal lodging and encroachment. But, as I explained in the column, there are many reasons a bed might not be filled, such as the fact that beds could be for specific situations, such as only for a person who is HIV positive or pregnant or sober, etc. And as the homeless situation worsens year after year, more and more of the people on the street have already timed out on the maximum stay in an emergency shelter.

Currently that is 45 days at the year-round shelter at Father Joe’s. That’s not enough time for most people to find housing in the current situation, so you have people back on the street who are disqualified from going into the only year round emergency shelter the City currently offers.

In a recent meeting with Councilmember Gloria, he indicated that my energies would be better spent convincing places that offer emergency and transitional housing to lighten up on the rules so more rule-resistant homeless people would be willing to go into the existing shelters.

Say that was even possible, and by redirecting my efforts in this fashion I managed to get all of those empty beds filled, the fact is that we would have still been short 2,311 beds on January 29th, and now that number is higher by hundreds.

Despite every effort to make homelessness disappear, particularly during the month of July, the numbers downtown have continued to increase. While residents in other areas of the city complain that efforts to drive homeless people out of downtown have driven them into their neighborhoods, the count done by the Downtown partnership and Downtown Fellowship shows otherwise. Homeless people downtown are just being shuffled around (and in and out of jail) and the increase in other neighborhoods is due to other factors.

Graph showing count of unsheltered persons in the downtown area 2016

Figure 1. Count of unsheltered persons in the downtown area 2016

Graph showing homeless trends in East Village

Figure 2: The unsheltered population in East Village has more than doubled since the January PITC count

There are real, legitimate reasons why people don’t go to shelters

The year-round emergency shelter is fraught with problems, real or imagined, for people suffering with the trauma that comes from finding oneself homeless, or having experienced assault, and/or are suffering with mental illness. Some homeless people will not go to the shelter because:

  • they fear being assaulted or robbed;
  • They have children;
  • Couples cannot be together;
  • If a person leaves their spot to go into the emergency shelter, with no guarantee that will result in permanent housing, then they might not find a spot where they feel safe when they return to the streets;
  • People form family units on the street, where they can depend on each other to look out for themselves and their possessions;
  • People cannot take their pets with them at night inside the shelter;
  • People do not want to leave their possessions behind while going into the shelter;
  • For many, it is impossible to actually sleep in a crowded shelter;
  • People feel that being crowded together with people who are sick is very unhealthy;
  • Surviving on the streets makes some people fiercely independent; the rules and regulations imposed by shelters, while seemingly reasonable to maintain order and safety in a large operation, are too overwhelming for some people and usually not effective in keeping out people who are engaged in illegal activities;
  • People who are taking prescription medication or who are engaged in legal or illegal self-medication, such as moderate alcohol consumption, are unreasonably prohibited from these activities in emergency shelters.

What’s more, the existing homeless shelters do not accommodate all populations, including the most vulnerable, women, children, disabled, mentally ill and addicted.

What we are doing now is not working

There is no argument that permanent shelter using a housing first model is the end goal. But in the meantime people have no place to go. If we are sincere in our mission to end homelessness, we need multiple alternative sheltering options that address these concerns and can be constructed quickly and adapt to the needs of various populations. No matter what your preconceived notions are about personal culpability for being homeless, we must get people housed and by now it must be obvious that what we’ve been doing isn’t working.

We must be willing to try something new and we need the place to locate innovative sheltering solutions without undue barriers, as was the intention of SB-2.

Based on all of the above, I ascertain that the City of San Diego is out of compliance with SB-2 as well as the 8th Amendment and any sense of human decency. They have “pulled a fast one” to open the doors for the Chargers Stadium and downtown gentrification. But they can’t fool all of us. We see what you are doing and you haven’t won this one yet.

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