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No Room to Rest — Series Part 2: San Diego homeless shelters provide beds but also pose challenges

Jerome Morrison is pictured during a stay at the Alpha Project homeless “bridge shelter” in downtown San Diego.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This La Jolla Light series looks at local homelessness, explores the complicated factors that contribute to it and highlights the various viewpoints about potential solutions.

The city of San Diego provides different shelters to people experiencing homelessness, but for some, the obstacles to getting one of the beds — and the challenges once they get there — outweigh the benefits.

One of them (whose story will be told later in this article) says being in a shelter was “the most horrible experience I ever had” and that other attempts to get off the street weren’t much better.

According to the nonprofit San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness, the city had about 4,800 homeless people as of the 2022 Point-in-Time Count in February (the numbers were released in May). Of those, 2,307 were “sheltered” (with some kind of temporary roof over their heads, such as in a shelter or transitional housing) and 2,494 were “unsheltered” (living on the street or in a park or vehicle).

This new La Jolla Light series looks at homelessness in La Jolla, explores the complicated factors that contribute to it and highlights the various viewpoints about potential solutions.

The shelters

The city funds 13 homeless shelters, according to bit.ly/SDshelters, with a total of 1,708 beds, though there are others that are not included in that information, according to city spokeswoman Ashley Bailey.

Alpha Project, a homelessness outreach organization, operates a 325-bed temporary “bridge shelter” program for single adults at the corner of 16th Street and Newton Avenue in downtown San Diego.

Father Joe’s Villages, a prominent San Diego homeless services nonprofit, also has programs for emergency shelter and/or temporary housing, plus housing-related resources.

Jack Salmon is accompanied by his dog Loco during a meal for homeless people at Father Joe's Villages in San Diego.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune)

City shelters are marked for men and women, women only, senior citizens, families, transition-age youths and unaccompanied minors. None of the 13 shelters is north of Point Loma; most are clustered in downtown San Diego.

Bailey said city shelters do not require criminal background checks, credit checks, income verification, program participation, sobriety or identification. However, the shelters may enforce safety requirements for clients, staff members and others, she said.

Pets, couples and partners, personal belongings and free exit and entry are allowed at city shelters, according to the city website. And there is no limit on how long a person may stay.

However, Bailey said, a shelter might deny admission to someone who “would need a higher level of care, need an ADA [disabled]-accessible bed or [is] on a do-not-return list” (suspended for violating terms of service that all clients sign).

“All shelters offer a variety of services for clients to access,” Bailey said, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, job training, housing navigation and more.

Looking to provide more facilities, the city will open “a new non-congregate senior shelter before the end of the year,” Bailey said. “Non-congregate” means each individual or household has living space that offers some level of privacy. The shelter will be able serve 60 senior citizens in 34 rooms.

In addition, a 26-bed shelter will open soon in the former San Diego Central Library and remain in operation until the spring, Bailey said.

Another non-congregate facility for clients “with more acute behavioral health needs” and a non-congregate shelter for families are in the works for early 2023, Bailey said.

The challenges

For some, the number of beds is not necessarily the problem but the restrictions to access and challenges once they get there.

Joanne Standlee, who co-founded the nonprofit Housing 4 the Homeless with fellow La Jolla resident Amie Zamudio, said that for every 100 people who agree to take shelter, only 37 get in. Further, a referral system is required to get someone into a shelter.

Housing 4 the Homeless has tried to become one of the entities that can refer a homeless person to a shelter, but without success, Standlee said.

“We have had people wait five and six days for a bed,” Zamudio said. “Seniors wait up to a month.”

An additional challenge is that those older than 55 are prohibited from sleeping in top bunks, further reducing the number of beds available to them. There also are limits on the amount of possessions people can have with them, plus weight limits on any pets and more.

Edy Morales sorts through belongings he was storing in a bin at the Alpha Project "bridge shelter" in San Diego.
Edy Morales sorts through belongings he was storing in one of the city-provided bins at the Alpha Project “bridge shelter” in San Diego.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“The rules are set to screen people because there aren’t enough beds,” Standlee said. “Some people need that dog or to have their things. It’s the last little shred they have of who they were. When you take that away, they have nothing to hang onto. It is dehumanizing to be told you don’t deserve anything.”

Once in a shelter, some people find it uncomfortable to be where they don’t know the people around them or whether they are safe among their roommates.

The challenges can be particularly great for seniors and women, Standlee said.

“Sometimes older people have prescriptions, so they are targets and it is easy to steal their stuff,” she said. “Shelters try to make it a wholesome environment, but you have a bunch of strangers that are all in crisis, so how is that a recipe for healing?”

La Jolla residents Amie Zamudio (left) and Joanne Standlee are co-founders of the nonprofit Housing 4 the Homeless.
(Courtesy photos)

Zamudio said some women have reported being raped in shelters.

“Some people would rather sleep in a bush than go through the trauma of a shelter again,” Standlee said. “The system is a disaster, everyone is trying to do a job … but there is not a lot of resources. There is also a shortage of staff.”

The idea that shelter beds are a solution to homelessness “is a fantasy,” she added.

Voice of experience

Deb Cool, who has lived in beach areas across San Diego, told the La Jolla Light about her “horrible experience.”

Wheelchair-bound and battling cancer, Cool has had inconsistent housing for more than a decade. A construction engineer and teacher by training, the 62-year-old said she became homeless after a brain injury limited her ability to work.

Cool applied for housing vouchers but couldn’t accept some of them because she had limited mobility and the apartments were not accessible for her.

“I should have just accepted the apartments I was offered; that was my mistake,” she said. “But I shouldn’t have had to.”

“It makes me frustrated, but I’m not going to let them make me feel ashamed of myself. It’s the system that’s broken, not me.”

— Deb Cool

When Cool was finally placed in an apartment, it flooded repeatedly and she eventually had to move in 2019. She used what little money she had and financial assistance from friends to rent a room at a hotel while she looked for more permanent housing.

“I called everywhere I could think of to get a referral, but I wasn’t approved because I had a hotel room,” she said. “They said I didn’t need a shelter because I could afford a hotel. So I waited until the money ran out and was sleeping outside. Some couldn’t accommodate me with my wheelchair. I’m also not a drug addict or convict, and there are beds saved for those people.”

While sleeping on the street, she said, she was beaten and robbed of her belongings and medication.

But above the problems of living on the street, Cool said she struggles with the idea that “people hate us for being homeless” and the notion that housing is available but not being taken.

“It takes a week for me to get my strength and my confidence back when I try to find a place and can’t,” she said. “I don’t have an ID, I can’t see my doctors, I don’t have a case manager or social worker or access to my prescriptions, and I can’t go to school or have cancer surgery. Somehow I am supposed to figure this out for myself.”

After a recent hospitalization, Cool was discharged with a list of phone numbers for area shelters. After finding one that would take her, another homeless person threatened her and said she would kill her if she returned, Cool said.

“I don’t want to sleep by those people,” Cool said. “I was safer sleeping on the beach, so I went to sleep at the beach. It makes me frustrated, but I’m not going to let them make me feel ashamed of myself. It’s the system that’s broken, not me.”

The third installment of the series will look at the effects of mental health and substance abuse problems on the cycle of homelessness, along with related services.