Amid a rash of record cold temperatures, city and county officials agreed Monday to relax the criteria for making available more space in shelters for the thousands of homeless people believed to be living on San Diego's city streets.
Under the new system, effective immediately, downtown shelters will increase their capacity when temperatures drop below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in dry weather or 45 degrees in wet weather--that is, when at least a half inch of rain is forecast for the evening.
The city will continue its current system of opening an emergency facility in the municipal gymnasium in Balboa Park only when the temperature drops below 35 degrees in dry weather or 40 degrees in wet weather, city officials said.
"I think it's pretty obvious to anyone who lives here that the temperature dropping below 35 happens very rarely," said Amy Rowland of the regional task force on the homeless. "There was a concern that there are other times, a lot of other times, that it's cold enough that people in deteriorated physical condition are at risk."
Special Shelter Closed
Meanwhile, the special holiday shelter opened by the city at Plaza Hall in the community concourse closed, its four-day mandate having expired. The temporary facility, staffed largely by volunteers, had served as many as 700 people a night and had had to turn people away.
A spokesman for Mayor Maureen O'Connor, who initiated the holiday shelter program last year, pointed out that the service had been planned for only four days. He and others said it would be too expensive to keep it open, even with the continuing cold weather.
"We'd love to keep Plaza Hall open right now and through the rest of the winter," said Paul Downey, the mayor's spokesman. "We just can't do that. We don't have the money and we don't have the volunteers."
The temperature in San Diego hit a record low Monday for the second day in a row, dropping to 37 degrees at Lindbergh Field, according to Wilbur Shigehara of the National Weather Service. The average temperature for the date is 48 degrees.
Sunday's low of 37 tied the previous record for that date, set in 1891 and matched in 1924 and 1926, Shigehara said.
Warming Trend Predicted
Forecasters on Monday predicted a warming trend beginning Monday night with lows in the 40s along the coast, 30s in inland areas and mid-20s in the mountains. They predicted a 50% chance of rain through Wednesday afternoon.
"When the storm leaves, we will see cold temperatures again," said Shigehara. "By Wednesday night and Thursday morning we are going to get cold again. We are going to see frost and a frost vigil will be going."
Shigehara forecast a chilly Rose Bowl in Pasadena on New Year's Day.
Throughout the county, officials have estimated that there may be as many as 5,000 people living on the streets, the bulk of them in the city of San Diego. They estimate there are about 700 permanent beds in shelters and a few hundred emergency beds. The holiday shelter briefly added another 700 spaces.
The new system, under which shelters will expand their capacity during cold periods, could make available nearly 350 more beds, said Mary Case, director of the St. Vincent de Paul-Joan Kroc Center. She said her facility will set up 146 beds in its dining room and the San Diego Rescue Mission may be able to add another 200 beds.
The emergency measures will be coordinated by city officials who will be charged with regularly monitoring weather service forecasts. Those officials will contact the shelters, which will then determine how many additional beds they are in a position to open.
"We've reached a new level of understanding and cooperation and we're very pleased with the plan that's been drafted," said Ross McCollum, a member of the city manager's office in charge of programs for the homeless in the city.
Both city and shelter officials praised the new plan.
"It's a good one," said Case. "I'm glad they're doing something. I was worried that we would keep talking and not do anything."
Meanwhile, at least one shelter reported available beds in spite of the record cold. Richard White, a dispatcher at San Diego Life Ministries, estimated that 35 of the shelter's 160 beds had been vacant on recent evenings--a fact he attributed to the holiday shelter.