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Havens for the homeless

‘Bridge shelters’ and legal homeless encampments are the latest experiments in dealing with a growing homelessness crisis

Havens for the homeless

Verna Vasbinder prepares her new bunk in the city’s new bridge shelter for the homeless in downtown San Diego. (Gregory Bull/AP)

Who knew a tiny virus could help provoke an overhaul of a city’s homeless policy? Yet that’s what happened last year in San Diego.

At first, doctors in the city were seeing a trickle of patients with seemingly minor complaints: abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue. But other symptoms—jaundiced eyes, sickly yellow skin, dark urine—suggested something more serious, something highly contagious.

It was hepatitis A. Those early signs in March 2017 exploded into the largest person-to-person hepatitis A outbreak in the United States in more than 20 years. To date, the virus has infected almost 600 people and killed 20 in San Diego and spread to Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, Utah, Kentucky, and Michigan. Affected most by the outbreak: homeless populations.

Hepatitis A transmits by hand, food, sex, and objects infected by contaminated feces. The virus is largely preventable with vaccination and proper hand-washing, but those health measures aren’t always realistic for people living tent-to-tent on feces-splattered streets. Jeffrey Norris, the medical director of Father Joe’s Villages, the largest homeless service provider in San Diego, says homeless communities are a perfect breeding ground for a public health crisis: “Put a little hepatitis A virus in there, and boom, it explodes.”

Now, thanks in part to the hepatitis outbreak, San Diego leaders have decided it’s time to talk less and act more to solve the homelessness crisis. San Diego officials have launched a major initiative long sitting on discussion tables: They’re building huge, temporary tents for the homeless. These city-sanctioned encampments, called “bridge shelters” because they’re meant to be stepping-stones to permanent housing, are the first of their kind in San Diego.

John Gibbins/San Diego Union-Tribune/Newscom

San Diego County public health nurse Summer Leal (left) puts a bandage on Terrie Woolever, who is homeless, after giving her a hepatitis shot. (John Gibbins/San Diego Union-Tribune/Newscom)

The experimental bridge shelters are part of a broader, new homeless policy approach—the idea of using public funds and land to support so-called “tent cities.” In 2015, Seattle became the first U.S. city to legalize designated homeless encampments. Massive tents and homeless villages might sound like a desperate attempt by politicians to deal with a staggering, ever-growing homeless population, and critics question whether the encampments only distract leaders from investing in “real” solutions. Still, advocates argue that tent cities, while not a long-term fix, are a better solution than the alternative: leaving people to die on the streets.

I visited both San Diego and Seattle to see these experiments firsthand and to talk to the people affected by them. While bridge shelters and homeless villages aren’t meant to solve homelessness, it appears they could help prevent more unnecessary tragedies while cities catch up on decades of inaction and inefficiency.

U.S. CITIES WITH HOMELESS CRISES face two main challenges: One, the homeless population keeps growing. Two, as real estate values skyrocket, fewer people can afford housing, and they become homeless more quickly than cities can build new housing.

For the past decade, federal and local governments have championed “Housing First,” a policy that prioritizes placing the homeless in permanent housing. As a result, available funds for shelters and other nonhousing services have dipped significantly, while the few remaining shelters are overcrowded, creating unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Although governments earmark millions of dollars for housing, building a few dozen units is a monumental effort due to complex zoning codes, neighborhood lawsuits, and slow-as-molasses bureaucracy.

Not enough housing, not enough shelters, so where can the homeless go? For too long, there’s been a vicious cycle: The homeless set up tents, then law enforcers cite them and kick them out. Some land in jail for fines they can’t pay, others shuffle to the next location until the next police crackdown—and so on.

Sometimes, it ends in tragedy. In March a homeless family, including a 2-year-old girl and a baby boy, was found dead of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning in a van at a CVS parking lot outside of Los Angeles.

Greg Schneider/Genesis Photos

Wheels of Change crew chief K.B. Allen in Alpha Project’s tent. (Greg Schneider/Genesis Photos)

San Diego has the fourth-largest population of homeless in the nation—around 9,100. In January 2017, Mayor Kevin Faulconer declared he’d make reducing homelessness his “No. 1 social service priority,” yet his plans seemingly got stuck in discussion rooms and bureaucracy pipelines, while more and more people crashed on the streets, soiling San Diego’s surf-heaven image.

When hepatitis A erupted in San Diego, it attracted media coverage and public outrage—and city officials reacted forcefully and swiftly. Breaking from previous homeless policy, they agreed to divert $6.5 million from housing funds to build three bridge shelters.

The cost for San Diego to build three bridge shelters was $1.1 million. It cost another $6.5 million to operate the shelters for seven months (with a possible extension). While the city pays the bills, three different nonprofits handle the day-to-day management of each shelter. One shelter is for single adults, another for women and families, and a third for veterans.

I visited the largest bridge shelter, a 325-bed tent for single adults run by the nonprofit Alpha Project that opened in December in Barrio Logan, an industrial neighborhood overlooking the San Diego Bay. The gigantic dome-shaped structure has a waterproof roof, foot-thick insulation, and a high-quality framework. Compared with permanent housing, which can take several years just to break ground, it took the city about two months to build three bridge shelters.

Greg Schneider/Genesis Photos

An Alpha Project/Wheels of Change team cleans up the neighborhood. (Greg Schneider/Genesis Photos)

Unlike emergency shelters that shoo people out in the mornings, these bridge shelters are open 24/7. They connect residents with services such as housing navigation, job training, and medical treatment. For example, the 150-bed bridge shelter for women and families, which is run by Father Joe’s Villages, offers a playground and a child care center, where social workers, teachers, and psychologists work with kids on homework or developmental issues. Unlike most shelters, bridge shelters allow pets, unmarried couples, and families with teenage sons.

Although some locals worried that the shelters would attract more crime and unsavory activities, there’s no evidence that crime has increased since they opened. To keep it that way, Alpha Project sends security teams to patrol the shelter area every 15 minutes and—with its Wheels of Change program—pays residents $11.50 an hour to clean up the neighborhood twice a week. Tattooed security guards with burly biceps man the area 24/7 and enforce strict rules: no fighting, no active drug or alcohol use.

They keep the shelter clean and quiet, too. I saw storage bins and duffel bags tucked underneath beds, folded blankets and towels, giant stuffed animals. Dogs snoozed on beds, the floor, or couches. Many residents were napping, but I managed to overhear a blond woman planning her wedding at the shelter, where an Alpha Project executive planned to walk her down the aisle.

In this bridge shelter, all 325 beds are full with a long waiting list: Whenever a resident leaves, someone else fills the bed within an hour. One man standing outside the shelter told me he and his wife, three months pregnant, have been on the waitlist for weeks. But not everyone likes the communal, cramped living space of the shelter: Residents sleep on bunk beds and share the tent with hundreds of other people and about 70 dogs—but “it’s so much better than out there,” several residents told me.

Elaine Thompson/AP

Eva Stough opens the door to her tiny house at a homeless encampment in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Tommy Silva, for example, slept in his truck for seven months before he made it to the shelter. A 50-year-old plumber with a gray chevron mustache and a grizzled voice, Silva said he lost his wife, then his apartment, and then his business truck when he missed his registration renewal fee by two days. In two weeks’ time he went to jail seven times for “illegal lodging” and failure to pay the $300 fines.

Without work, without health insurance (Silva is diabetic), without access to showers and restrooms, and without a safe parking spot, Silva was close to “giving up, just not caring anymore” when two Alpha Project employees picked him up. They gave him new clothes and fed him a PB&J sandwich. During his first night at the bridge shelter, Silva slept like a baby—“on my first pillow in seven months, how about that!”

At the shelter, Silva has access to port-a-potties, mobile showers, and laundry service. He gets two hot meals per day of potatoes and meat and salad. He can visit the on-site clinic, get flu and hepatitis A shots, and store his insulin in the fridge. He says he celebrates with other shelter residents when they land a job, find housing, or return to their family: “In a nutshell, this place saves lives. They don’t just find us housing, they help us not give up.”

WHILE SAN DIEGO TESTS bridge shelters, Seattle has been experimenting with a similar concept—homeless encampments—for more than two years. Seattle’s homeless population is the third-largest in the nation.

Like other major metropolitan areas, Seattle has a severe shortage of emergency shelters and affordable housing. For decades, Seattle has allowed churches to sponsor homeless camps on private property, but only for 90 days at a time. That means homeless campers must constantly move from host to host, sometimes squatting on unpermitted sites when they can’t find a new host in time.

Then in 2015, Seattle for the first time used public land and funds to support three homeless encampments of up to 100 residents each, with the goal of ultimately transitioning every resident into permanent housing.

Greg Schneider/Genesis Photos

Rosemarie Rivera washes at San Diego’s bridge shelter port-a-potty/shower facilities. (Greg Schneider/Genesis Photos)

These camps are meant to stay in place for one to two years, with the city paying for maintenance and nonprofit organizations providing case managers and other services. Within the camps, residents govern themselves in the manner of a democratic commune, holding weekly meetings to discuss internal policies and issues. To promote good relations between camp and neighborhood, advisory committees made up of local residents, churches, and business owners meet monthly with camp leaders to discuss camp needs and community concerns. Today, the city supports six homeless encampments—though not without some local pushback.

When the city first proposed placing one encampment at a city-owned lot in Ballard, furious neighbors swarmed two public hearing meetings to voice opposition. They said they didn’t want an “eyesore” moving in and affecting local businesses. But since the Nickelsville Ballard (now Northlake Village) camp opened in November 2015, camp residents told me the neighbors haven’t complained much: Each camp enforces a strict quiet time from 9:30 p.m. to 8 a.m., posts guards 24/7, picks up neighborhood litter, and kicks out anyone who causes trouble or abuses drugs. Residents must sign up for chores such as kitchen duty, community cleanup, or security duty.

Residents call their camps “a village within a village,” and they’re beginning to look like one: Tents slowly are being replaced by “tiny homes”—12-by-8-foot wooden cabins painted in cheery colors with little windows and sloped roofs. Each tiny home has electricity, insulation, heat, and a door that locks. As long as the structures stay under 120 square feet, they’re able to circumvent the city’s complex, time-consuming building codes. Each tiny home costs about $2,200 in materials and $0 in labor, thanks to volunteers from local churches and businesses. The volunteers add their own unique design to each home, resulting in rows of bright-colored, miniature homes instead of the previous cluster of tents on wooden platforms.

Joseph Procella, a 56-year-old resident at one of Seattle’s camps, Tent City 5 (TC5), said that while many people donate hot meals, clothes, and hygiene products to the camps, the homeless sometimes know better than others what they need. That’s why he likes the self-management model: “Who helps the homeless more than anybody you know? Was it other homeless people?” Another TC5 resident, a 25-year-old transgender person named Haley, immediately responded, “Every time.” Procella nodded: “When everybody else is just ignoring you and you’ve become an invisible person to society ... that’s a real hard feeling being homeless, having to deal with all that ostracism from people.”

Before he moved to TC5 last November, Procella was “living like a barn rat” in Oregon, sometimes sleeping in the streets, sometimes in a barn by the hemp farm where he found temporary work. He arrived at TC5 hobbling on a walker, but now he zips around town in an electric wheelchair welcoming newcomers, delivering fresh laundry to camps, and attending community meetings.

In the camp, Procella lives in his own tiny home, a warm little space packed with a bed, a small table with a lamp, and handmade dreamcatchers and medicine bags hanging on the wall. Stacked milk crates contain his toiletries, clothes, snacks, and a coffeemaker. A little brown box holds memories: pictures of his mother; pictures of Procella as a boy with a 1970s overgrown hairstyle; pictures with his ex-wife at the beach; and pictures of his son and daughter.

These pictures remind him that he had a past—sometimes hard, sometimes joyful. Though far from ideal, Procella says TC5 offers a safe community that helps people like him “recycle” their lives: “Just because we had a bad or hard past doesn’t mean we’re not worth recycling our lives to do something better.”

CAN HOMELESS VILLAGES and bridge shelters be considered successful? Residents like Procella and Silva would probably say so. But if “success” means not just making the homeless comfortable but moving them into permanent housing, the programs are no panacea: In 2017, among the 843 people Seattle’s program served, only about 40 percent of exiting residents moved into permanent or transitional housing or reunited with family. In San Diego, Alpha Project has in the last three months served more than 890 people and placed about 60 people into permanent housing—still far short of the city’s goal of housing 65 percent of bridge shelter residents.

Every service provider I spoke to said providing permanent housing will continue to be the greatest challenge: In San Diego, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,640 with a near-zero vacancy rate. In Seattle, it’s $1,970 for a one-bedroom apartment, and most new construction involves high-end apartments. Procella echoed many others when he told me, “Tent cities are just a small fix. The real fix is affordable housing.” And one of the biggest questions, given the limited resources, is whether tent shelters are worth the money that could have gone into building more affordable housing.

To that, Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy points to the statistics: Last year, San Diego recorded 126 homeless deaths, Seattle 169. Chronic homelessness costs taxpayers $30,000 to $50,000 per person per year in public services. Then he points to 60-year-old Terrie Woolever, a gray-haired woman with a limp who spends hours outside cleaning the streets because she wants to “give back” to the community for giving her “a second chance in life.” Woolever is scheduled to move into permanent housing through Alpha Project’s bridge shelter.

McElroy thinks that’s better than keeping the status quo: “Whether you care about people or not, leaving them on the streets costs taxpayers billions,” he said. “The cost of doing something costs far, far less than the cost of doing nothing.”

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


  • charles jandecka
    Posted: Fri, 04/13/2018 07:59 pm

    During Europe's Thirty & One Hundred year wars, those town officials with the backbone to resist, by extreme threat of violence, roaming hordes of "homeless," maintained both their collective necessities and dignity.