At a meeting held at the Nestor library branch Wednesday night (September 27) it became clear to South Bay residents and business owners that the city is going to place in their midst a motel-sized residence for recovering addicts who would otherwise be in jail, and many of the 100 or so people who heard it weren’t pleased.
Two big issues stood out for residents: the city’s failure to talk with residents about the plan, and that they would be dealing with the unknowns of a newly created program.
"This is a pilot program you’re going to put in our backyard,” said a resident named Sarah. “Now [you’re telling us] we’re going to have a voice after you stick this in our faces…. Wouldn’t it be smarter to put it in La Jolla where there aren’t people using drugs and liquor stores across the street?… At least if it’s in La Jolla they’ll have to go some ways to get some drugs.”
A panel of city officials including the chief of police and the city attorney spoke optimistically about the pilot program. City officials identified the Super 8 motel on Palm Avenue near the eastern boundary of Imperial Beach as an easy-to-convert property for the planned facility that will serve previously homeless people.
The site is on the north side of Palm Avenue at the bottom of the San Diego Bay, with densely populated mobile-home parks to the east and north. There’s a smog shop immediately west. The city has long talked about revitalizing the area, but it’s not clear that the project was ever funded. The program the city intends to run there is aimed at helping homeless people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol and have misdemeanor convictions for behaviors that arose from their addictions: public nuisance, urinating in public, and a range of minor offenses.
It is funded by the money saved by not incarcerating people for minor crimes including drug use — the promise made to Californians in 2014 when we voted to end the incarceration of many misdemeanants and people with substance-abuse problems. More than two years later, San Diego won in the first round of grant funding and has $3 million to get this up and running, chief deputy city attorney Lara Easton said.
The South Bay site will be the second time the prototype program is tried out. Easton said the first cohort had produced five people who were success stories — defined as employed or financially stable, clean and sober, and with healthcare coverage. On Wednesday, she could not recall how many people started the program, but at a previous meeting, she had indicated that of 23 applicants, the city had selected 10 for the pilot project.
No one in the area was notified of the plan until councilman David Alvarez learned of it, attendees said. His office let residents know what was planned and apparently sought the involvement of the California Coastal Commission. The coastal commission weighed in with at least one letter that suggested the plan would be problematic because the Super 8 is one of the last affordable places to stay near the coast in San Diego.
City Attorney Mara Elliot dismissed the coastal commission view, saying the response to Alvarez’s letter — which wasn’t reviewed by her office, she noted — didn’t matter until there is a real project for the commission to review, not just a theoretical set of circumstances.
“I’m not going to do to a community what I wouldn’t want done to my own community,” Elliot said.
South County Economic Development Commission president Cindy Gompper-Graves said the project would make revitalizing Palm Avenue much more difficult. There has been a plan to revitalize the area, but few if any resources have been thrown at it.
“Palm Avenue is the gateway to South County beaches, and when you talk about sprucing it up, this use acts as a deterrent to investments in the community and a deterrent to economic development,” she said. “Investments will be very difficult to get with this use of the motel.”
Gerry Braun, the city attorney’s chief of staff, retorted that he’d spent a fair amount of time in the Super 8 motel, and he thought it would be very hard to argue that the motel was helpful to the community.
Chief of police Shelley Zimmerman chimed in with what she said is the current state of Super 8’s use: “It’s not a pretty sight. Our officers respond there all the time,” she said. “The top three calls we get for that hotel are…disturbances, fights that are occurring there…. We’re constantly responding to calls there for people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.”
Zimmerman said mental health calls, felony arrests, and weapons charges are also occurring. “With SMART [Self Management And Recovery Training] there, I would be surprised if we got calls,” she added. According to Easton, the SMART program provides intensive, mostly on-site support for its residents (not every room will be used). Those involved will have counseling, addiction programs, job and job-search training, and other specialized services. They are subject to curfews and room checks and can stay up to two years, Easton said.
If they violate the rules or curfews, Easton said, they’ll be kicked out of the program and sent back to jail. If they take off and don’t come back, warrants will be issued for their arrest, she said at a previous meeting.
Many of the attendees went to the city-council meeting in July where, despite their protests, the council voted 8-1 to purchase the motel. There are three more scheduled meetings with the local planning group, the city planning commission, and the city council
“We’re here to be as open and transparent as we can be,” Elliot said, promising to answer every email concerned residents send. But several people told Elliot that they had emailed the office and not gotten a response, including Dr. Matthew Dickson, who recently opened a clinic across Palm Avenue, and a woman who showed this reporter the email she sent on her phone.
Darnisha Hunter, from mayor Kevin Faulconer’s staff, told people they could call her with any concerns and provided her phone number as well (619-236-6568). Gompper-Graves asked the city attorney to notify everyone who signed in for the meeting, had contacted city officials, attended the previous meetings, or otherwise expressed an interest, so they could know when the three hearings will be held for a permit to run the facility.
“We went to the last meeting,” said planning-group member Walter Zumstein. “They cut our speaking time to a minute and then didn’t listen…. We don’t want to see this there at all.”