On April 1st, 2020, the city of San Diego took a historic step in addressing its long-standing homelessness crisis. This extraordinary move was named Operation Shelter to Home, which converted two of the city’s major events centers, the San Diego Convention Center (SDCC) and the Golden Hall, into shelters for our neighbors experiencing homelessness. There are now plans in place to close down the shelter at the SDCC on December 31st, 2020. Our organization, Mustard Seed Project, along with our fellow community members and concerned San Diegans, believe that this decision was not made in the best interest of our community. This shelter at the SDCC has proven to be extraordinarily successful in the ways that it has supported our city and the people who make it America’s Finest City.
The initial reason SDCC was explicitly chosen to be used as a shelter is due to its large occupant capacity and physical space for social distancing. This is especially vital in San Diego county having the 4th largest homeless population in the United States. Most other shelters in San Diego are currently operating at half capacity, if at all, with hardly enough space to social distance (shelter beds at Newton Ave. are only 3 feet apart). Our community was able to come together and collaborate with one another to provide the safest, streamlined services to support our unsheltered community. With help from Father Joe’s Village, The Alpha Project, and Veteran’s Village of San Diego, the SDCC shelter is able to provide not only basic needs such as food, showers, bathrooms, laundry services, and sanitary living spaces, but is also able to go above and beyond in its mental and behavioral health services, as well as daily health screenings for COVID-19. Furthermore, the coordination of numerous homeless services in a single location has also shown to be immensely successful. Since its inception in April, we have seen a collaborative effort to centralize services like SSI, State ID, and many others. This consolidation of resources has more than proven the effectiveness of Operation Shelter to Home, resulting in sheltering 1200 individuals, providing 700 housing vouchers, and purchasing 332 permanent supportive housing units.
In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic and San Diego’s very recent ascension into the Purple Tier on November 14th, there have been various restrictions placed on activity in the city. These restrictions include the prohibition of indoor operation at restaurants, gyms, places of worship, and movie theatres. It would then logically follow that as an indoor events center, the SDCC should not be able to begin hosting events. The number of COVID-19 cases has skyrocketed, reaching a record 1,087 cases on Nov. 14 and followed by 833 additional cases on Nov. 15. More than 600 cases have been reported every single day in the past week. In the last seven days, 5,031 cases were reported, compared to 3,161 the previous week. These infection rates are disheartening and should serve as a warning for possible catastrophe if San Diego does not seriously take the ultimate public health precautions necessary.
Beyond the restrictions on indoor events, county health officials also recommend the following measures: 1) Wearing a face covering, 2) Staying 6 feet apart from others outside your household, 3) Washing your hands frequently, 4) Avoiding crowds, gatherings, or groups, and 5) Staying home if you are sick. These precautions are absolutely necessary for the good of public health and everyone in our community should follow them to the best of our ability. Furthermore, the city of San Diego should put in its best efforts to support and ensure that these rules are followed for the good of all San Diegans. Many San Diegans experiencing homelessness do not have access to critical resources such as face masks, hand sanitizer, and clean living spaces. At the SDCC shelter, individuals are provided with almost everything they need to maintain the highest degree of safety. In fact, the SDCC shelter has proven to protect individuals experiencing homeless from COVID-19. According to county data, there were only 27 positive cases of COVID-19 out of the 9,306 tests conducted since the shelter has opened. In addition to critical PPE, showers, hand sanitizer, bathrooms, laundry, and clean living spaces, the shelter at the SDCC also provides washing/sanitizing stations, daily temperature checks, verbal questionnaires, and the healthcare necessary if one does become ill. When individuals test positive, they can either safely access a space from self-isolation, or transportation to the hospital when needed.
Research has shown us that those experiencing homelessness have higher rates of pre-existing health conditions that make individuals more at risk for COVID-19 related morbidity. If the shelter were to close, hundreds of individuals would be losing access to these crucial resources. Not only would this jeopardize the health of all who are currently sheltered at the SDCC, but it would also jeopardize the public health of all San Diegans. As individuals who inevitably return to the streets, they would be placing their own health, as well as all of our health at great risk. The hospital system is already overwhelmed and other homeless services are underfunded and not fully operational. By shutting down the shelter, these matters will only worsen. We cannot afford to increase the burden on the hospital system, it will only worsen the COVID-19 infection rates and survival outcomes. We must continue providing the utmost support and resources to our unsheltered community members in order to prevent the rampant spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus. In order to protect ALL San Diegans, we should be doing our best to continue protecting our most vulnerable community members and providing them with the maximum level of support.
As an inevitable symptom of the global pandemic, we have seen the onset of a global economic crisis. From record high unemployment to soaring rates of eviction, the financial repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic have been one of its most heavily felt effects. For more than half of California’s renter households that have at least one adult who has experienced a COVID-related job loss, taking away a significant portion of their total household income. The loss in pay is particularly stark for households that were already low-income. Furthermore, policies of eviction moratoriums were implemented earlier this year, but those policies are due to expire in San Diego in February of 2021, essentially immediately after the SDCC shelter is slated to close. More individuals could end up homeless after the moratoriums end, with many experiencing homelessness for the first time. Never having experienced homelessness before, this could create an unpredictable impact on all of our lives. For many especially hard hit by the economic crisis, Operation Shelter to Home at the SDCC is the best alternative to sleeping in their cars, the streets, and other locations not meant for human habitation. By keeping the SDCC shelter open after the end of the moratorium, we are making available a centralized hub of resources and services that can give these individuals the opportunity to attain housing and end their homelessness.
While we recognize the negative economic impact that closing the SDCC as an events center has had on local businesses and workers, a major factor in considering its closing, we cannot comprehend why we should be forced to choose between the protection of our businesses and the safeguarding of our neighbors experiencing homelessness. It is immoral to prioritize any one group of our community when human lives are at stake. The economic impact of COVID-19 is felt at all levels of society and all individuals should be treated and considered with compassion and respect. We should be able to provide the utmost support for our unsheltered community whilst also providing relief for local businesses and workers. There is no price on human life, and certainly not one that can be equated to the economy. In response to the economic crisis, we should be maintaining efforts like Operation Shelter to Home in order to best serve our unsheltered and low-income communities. These communities are now in a more vulnerable position than ever before and their well being should be prioritized alongside that of workers and businesses.
Currently, the San Diego Board of Supervisors has approved for Operation Shelter to Home at the SDCC to effectively end on December 31st, 2020, in the middle of winter. Winter is generally a time where most cities and shelters greatly increase their accessibility, services, and availability. For the San Diego Board of Supervisors to shutdown the largest and most successful shelter in San Diego on December 31st is outright cruel and shows a lack of understanding of the unique hardships that those experiencing homelessness during the winter.. In addition to the global pandemic, winter is home to inclement weather conditions, flu season, and spikes in tourism. For these reasons, we should not even consider closing the SDCC shelter until at least the spring.
Due to harsh weather conditions, there are numerous health and safety risks that come with homelessness in the winter. The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress reported in January that 564,708 individuals and families were homeless on any given night. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that from 1999 to 2011, a total of 16,911 deaths in the United States, an average of 1,301 per year, were associated with exposure to excessive, natural cold. Hypothermia, or subnormal temperature in the body, remains a leading, critical, and preventable cause of injury and death among those experiencing homelessness. Seven hundred people experiencing or at-risk of homelessness are killed from hypothermia annually in the United States and those who are very young, old, malnourished, or exhausted are at increased risk of serious health problems from exposure to temperature extremes. Hypothermia can set in at temperatures as high as 50℉, even higher when it is windy or wet. While temperate, San Diego still reaches temperatures, winds, and rains every single winter that are cold enough to be detrimental to those without shelter. In addition to cold-related illnesses like hypothermia, other complications can include frostbite, pneumonia, and many others. According to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, the lowest average temperature in San Diego is consistently reported as low as 41℉ (5℃) during the winter time since 2011. Additionally, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office reported in 2019 that many homeless individuals in Southern California were afflicted with hypothermia, with more individuals dying from it or causes related in comparison to San Francisco and New York City combined. Hypothermia has caused more deaths in Southern California than in colder regions due to the fact that there is a larger homeless population living outdoors in this region. By closing down the shelter at the SDCC, the city is condemning unsheltered individuals to all of the risks and potentially fatal effects of living outside during the winter. The city of San Diego is inherently responsible for protecting and supporting all of its people at all times of the year and under all circumstances. Keeping as many shelters with an adequate level of pandemic, social, and health support should be viewed as the bare minimum when considering the well being of our city.
Beyond the enormous risk of cold-related illness during the wintertime, there is also an enormous risk in San Diego specifically when it comes to tourism during the winter. Due to the fact that San Diego is comparatively warmer than many other places in the world during the winter, it is natural that tourism greatly increases during the winter. Any other year, this increase might be less detrimental. However, in light of the global pandemic, tourism is bound to bring higher risks of COVID-19 infection. This would tremendously increase the risk of infection for those experiencing homelessness. In order to best protect public health, we should not unnecessarily force individuals into the most vulnerable positions possible, especially not during the most dangerous time of year whilst enduring a pandemic.
When considering this issue, it is impossible not to consider San Diego’s history in addressing homelessness. From the Hepatitis A outbreak (2016), to skyrocketing rent prices and rate of urban poverty, to a history of negligence, there are many reasons why San Diego is home to the nation’s fourth largest homeless population. And while this history has resulted in record high numbers of homelessness in the city, the last few years have truly proved that when San Diegans put our mind to something, big changes can happen. In the last three years, through initiatives like Downtown Impact, the bridge shelters, the Navigation Center, and the most recent Operation Shelter to Home, we have more than shown that if San Diego prioritizes an initiative, it will go above and beyond to get it done. The SDCC has been an act of historic collaboration between community actors and its impact has been monumental. From a coordination of services to the centralized access of resources, we should be proud of what has been accomplished at the SDCC. This being the case, why stop now? There is no reason for us to put an end to the extraordinary accomplishments of Operation Shelter to Home. Rather, we should not only be putting our best efforts forward to extend the lifespan of the SDCC shelter, but we should create more programs modeled after it.
We acknowledge that shelters are not, and will never be, a standalone long-term permanent solution to the homelessness crisis. However, we also recognize the current unprecedented circumstances in which we are living. From the global pandemic to the global economic crisis, we believe that we are living through a critical emergency that calls for immediate short-term relief. We are not asking for Operation Shelter to Home to exist at the SDCC indefinitely, but only as long as there is no better alternative to keep individuals experiencing homelessness safe during a pandemic. Those who are most vulnerable in our community should not have to face the brunt of a global crisis without the continued support of their city. We have proven in the last year through Operation Shelter to Home that we are fully capable of providing the exact relief that is needed for our community experiencing homelessness. Now, we must maintain these efforts and continue to implement similar interventions.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread economic crisis, the winter season, and the need for continued progress, we make the following demands:
Keep the Operation Shelter to Home shelter open at the San Diego Convention Center until San Diego is able to reach the Yellow Tier for a minimum of five weeks. It is unconscionable to close Operation Shelter to Home at the Convention Center while the fatal threat of COVID-19 is only worsening.
Increase funding for social workers, permanent supportive housing, and expanding access to sanitation. In order to best support our community, our supportive services, local grassroots organizations, and resource providers need access to adequate funding so that they can best support our city.
“People do not understand the emotional toll living on the streets has on a person. When you’re homeless, it is literally hitting rock bottom. You feel hopeless and you feel like you’re alone. Staying at the convention center is 100 times better than living on the streets. I feel safe from COVID because the convention center is so spacious, and we all get three meals and access to laundry. Ever since I stayed at the convention center, so many blessings have come into my life. I am going to move into my new apartment soon and I am waiting for my job interview tomorrow. Before this, I was drinking heavily, but now I don’t feel the need to drink because my life is finally moving forward.”
– Mustard Seed Project Client experiencing homelessness at the Convention Center
“If we don’t take the pandemic seriously, we are going to end up in lock down again. The convention center should not be utilized for events, but it has shown success in keeping people on the streets safe. The convention center is needed now more than ever so that those who don’t have a home have a place to be safe. On a separate note, it should not have taken a pandemic for the city to realize that we need to invest in a large scale operation, like operation shelter to home, to address the homelessness crisis. If we don’t offer people a way out of their situation, the homelessness crisis will continue to rise, and taxpayers will pay much more than they are now. If we are going to find a solution, we need to hold our leaders accountable to offer long-term solutions.”
– San Diego Homeless Case Manager
Closing Operation Shelter to Home at SDCC during a global pandemic, economic crisis, and in the winter is unacceptable and unwarranted. We feel this decision is not made in the best interest of ALL San Diegans and we demand the shelter remain open. In response to the economic crisis, we should be maintaining efforts like Operation Shelter to Home in order to best serve our unsheltered and low-income communities. These communities are now in a more vulnerable position than ever before and their well being should be prioritized alongside that of workers and businesses. In order to protect our ENTIRE community, we should be doing our best to continue protecting our most vulnerable community members and providing them with the maximum level of support. In order to best protect public health, we should not unnecessarily force individuals into the most vulnerable positions possible, especially not during the most dangerous time of year whilst enduring a pandemic. With an already overwhelmed hospital system in conjunction with underfunded homeless services, inadequate support to those most vulnerable, inevitably placing them back on the streets, will only increase the stress on our healthcare system. We have proven in the last year through Operation Shelter to Home that we are fully capable of providing the exact relief that is needed for our community experiencing homelessness. Now more than ever, we must maintain these efforts and continue to implement similar interventions.