Citing a forecast calling for nighttime temperatures of 40 degrees downtown, the City of San Diego on Monday called off its weekend housing emergency and closed its makeshift shelter for the homeless in Balboa Park's Municipal Gymnasium.
The decision provoked mild protest from the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, which believes that city guidelines for an emergency declaration are too severe. Under a new policy, the city declares a housing emergency when temperatures are expected to drop to 35 degrees, or 40 degrees with rain.
"I would prefer to see the parameters raised," said Amy Rowland, the task force's housing consultant. "I think that 35 is deadly cold and 40 can be pretty cold out on the street."
But Bill Wolf, coordinator of the city's Office of Emergency Services, said: "That's life in the big city. Our program was designed for life-threatening conditions. It was not designed as a supplement to the shelters."
With temperatures in inland North County expected to drop to the high 20s, a nonprofit group operating the county's only other emergency shelter decided to keep it open for a fourth consecutive night Monday.
Shelter Moved to Escondido
The North County Interfaith Council shelter, hastily established at the Palomar College student union in San Marcos Friday night, housed a total of 84 people over three weekend nights. The shelter was moved to a Salvation Army building in Escondido for Monday night, which was expected to be the last night of operation, said Suzanne Pohlman, executive director.
The St. Vincent de Paul Joan Kroc Center for the homeless in downtown San Diego, which increased its 300-bed capacity by adding 130 beds in common areas Saturday and Sunday nights, also planned to stay open Monday night, said the Rev. Joe Carroll, who runs the center.
"The city closed down its shelter, so we expect to be packed," Carroll said.
All three emergency operations, which were quickly planned by officials when word of plunging temperatures spread Friday morning, were described as complete successes Monday.
The weekend brought just two incidents: a brief fistfight at the Municipal Gym as the homeless filed out Monday, and a man removed for drunkenness at Palomar College on Sunday night.
A major problem remaining for the homeless is the lack of any emergency shelters in East County and South County, Rowland said.
"We've been lucky. I think eventually we will lose somebody if we don't get more places open in this kind of cold," she said.
The weekend's most ambitious effort came at the Municipal Gym, where 108 homeless people stayed Saturday night and 350 more packed in Sunday when an Arctic air blast dropped downtown temperatures to 37 degrees. With just 320 cots available in the cavernous gym, about 30 people slept on blankets on the floor, Wolf said.
The city shelter was operated under a plan approved by the San Diego City Council in August, calling for emergency housing for the homeless in times of life-threatening cold. But planning for such an effort had not even been completed when predictions of near-record cold sent Wolf into action Friday.
"Everybody thought it was great," Wolf said. "The staff was just as cooperative as could be. We got it cleaned up (Monday morning). We had the homeless pick up the trash."
Wolf attributed the dramatic increase in the number of people at the shelter Sunday to word spreading on the street that the emergency shelter was safe and orderly.
"In talking with the homeless Saturday, the word was being spread on the street that all it was going to be up there was a bunch of drunks, and you'll get knifed," Wolf said. "But when the word spread that it was orderly, a lot of people felt safe coming up there."
Paul Downey, spokesman for Mayor Maureen O'Connor, said that getting word of a newly proclaimed emergency to skeptical homeless people is one of the remaining challenges for city officials.
"One of the things we need to work on is getting the word for the first night," Downey said.
County supervisors have approved a resolution similar to San Diego's, but plans have not yet been made to implement the program. As a result, the North County shelter was established primarily by Pohlman and her staff.
The North County shelter housed 14 people Friday, when it was the county's only open emergency facility, 24 Saturday and 50 Sunday, Pohlman said. Because of bitter daytime cold and winds, the homeless were allowed to stay in the student union building all day Sunday and were served three meals, she said.
Workers tried to recruit illegal aliens who sleep under open skies in North County agricultural areas. The county paid for North County Transit bus tokens passed out free by soup kitchens and police, Pohlman said.