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San Diego plans shelter for homeless residents struggling with addiction, mental health challenges
San Diego Union-Tribune - 9/14/2021
A shelter for homeless people struggling with addictions and mental health issues is expected to open in a few months on Sports Arena Boulevard as part of a far-reaching plan targeting a specific population often resistant to help.
The 50-bed facility at the site of a former Pier 1 Import at 3220 Sports Arena Blvd. will not require clients to commit to sobriety programs and will not bar people who are under the influence, though use of drugs on the grounds will be prohibited. Once inside, they will be offered a broad range of resources to help with recovery, mental health and housing.
The San Diego Housing Commission on Thursday unanimously approved a $1.7 million, nine-month contract with the Alpha Project to operate the shelter beginning Oct. 1, with a one-year option for renewal.
Lisa Jones, executive vice president of strategic initiatives for the Housing Commission, said city crews already are making improvements to the site. In a report to commissioners Thursday, she noted that the Alpha Project already has experience helping people with addictions at its 90-bed residential treatment program Casa Raphael in Vista, which provides treatment for men in recovery from substance abuse in Vista.
"Not everybody is ready to go from actively unsheltered to absence-based treatment," Jones said about the concept behind the new shelter. "How do we create some resources in-between that?"
The city of San Diego owns the property and will fund its operation with assistance from the County of San Diego's Behavioral Health Services, which will provide case management, care coordination, peer support services, substance abuse treatment, medication-assisted treatment, mental health services and access to public benefits.
The new city shelter comes at a time when the county is working on a similar program to help homeless people with addictions through a strategy aimed at reducing the harm caused by drug use. An outline of the county's strategy reported that overdose deaths in the region jumped from 616 in 2019 to 941 in 2020, with a higher monthly trend continuing this year.
In June, county Behavioral Health Services Director Dr. Luke Bergmann announced a plan to open three safe havens somewhere in the city of San Diego to provide temporary housing for people with addictions. The safe havens will be smaller than the Sports Arena Boulevard shelter, with each providing just 25 beds in individual rooms rather than a dorm-style setting. Jones said the shelter is intended for short-term stays while safe havens will accommodate people for longer stays.
Both the shelter and safe havens will not require sobriety to enter, while the ultimate goal of both is to lead clients to recovery, stability, better health and housing.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria in April proposed investing more than $10 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds in crisis response and shelters. The city's budget for the new fiscal year includes $7.5 million to develop and expand "harm-reduction" strategies.
Alpha Project President and CEO Bob McElroy said after the Thursday meeting that he is hopeful the new shelter will help people overcome addictions.
"We're going to do a concentrated effort to having people transition from chronic drug and alcohol abuse," he said. "Give people a reason to give up the needle, the bottle, the crack pipe, and start on the road to recovery."
The Alpha Project already operates two downtown city-funded shelters that together have about 460 beds. McElroy said he expects some people who have stayed in those shelters will come to the new one, and he is optimistic the focused attention and the smaller setting will help them.
"We're going to see a lot of the same people, but they're going to get personalized attention," he said. "And usually when they see their peers, somebody within their group doing better, a lot of times that's the catalyst for them saying, 'Maybe I'll give it a shot, too.'"
Commissioners approved the contract with little discussions other than questions about security.
Jones said the new shelter will have a higher per-bed cost than other shelters to meet staffing and security concerns because it is targeting a high-need population.
"Frankly, we over-invested just to make sure that we don't under-staff this program," she said. "We can always scale back, but we wanted to make sure it's successful."
Father Joe's Villages, which also operates city-funded shelters in downtown San Diego, was the only other nonprofit to bid on the contract.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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