A proposed homeless housing project in Clairemont seeks to turn an old office building in the Balboa Mesa Shopping Center into 52 permanent apartments for the chronically homeless. The proposed housing is located on Mt. Alifan Drive, a couple of hundred yards southwest across a strip mall parking lot from the intersection of Clairemont’s two main thoroughfares, Balboa and Genesee Avenues.
Residents have mixed feelings regarding the project, and some say they need to know more before deciding to support the project or not. Others are either adamantly opposed or ferociously in support.
Valerie said she would like to move into the Mt. Alifan housing, and said for someone like her, homeless and single without children, there are few resources. “It seems like the entire neighborhood has homeless phobia. I’ve only been in this neighborhood six months, and it’s full of persnickety old people who feel entitled to pretend they own this part of San Diego. It’s like every house here has the original owners living in it. I think the average age here is 67 or higher. And of course, they all have their grown 40-year-old children living with them. It’s like no one has a life here. They all stay huddled in the 1960’s mentality. Very annoying and depressing.”
The co-developers, Wakeland Development and People Assisting the Homeless, are experienced at these types of housing projects. If the city gives the go-ahead, the Mt. Alifan parcel will be purchased in 2018, construction will begin in 2019, and leasing of apartments will happen in 2020. Wakeland and People Assiting the Homeless will both own and operate the facility.
The idea behind permanent supportive housing is to get people off the street into a forever home and then offer services designed to keep them there. The cost of housing the chronically homeless, supporters say, can be much cheaper than the cost of emergency services and police officers responding to related calls that sometimes result in “three-hots and a cot.” One resident said this is what a homeless man gleefully calls jail whenever she threatens to call the police on him.
In permanent supportive housing, services offered can help with employment, health, money management, mental health services, and substance-abuse treatment programs. Tenants, who will be selected from the county-wide Coordinated Entry System via a questionnaire that prioritizes homeless people, don’t have to take what is offered in order to stay housed.
Where does a pleasant 74-year-old homeless woman sleeping in front of the public library rank compared to a menacing 36-year-old meth-head dealing drugs across the street in front of Carl’s Jr.? (These two examples correspond to known homeless people in the Clairemont area.)
Lisa, who has lived in Clairemont for 20 years, explained how the questionnaire works. She used to work as a caseworker for an organization like People Assisting the Homeless placing people into shelters and voucher-based housing. “Every one of my clients had a record and a drug problem,” she explains. “They are going to choose people that have a high risk of relapse. Just because you are most at risk doesn’t mean you are elderly, a vet, or sick. You could still be on heroin you can’t kick, you’ve had the shit beaten out of you, or you are addicted to meth.”
She is concerned about what happens once these tenants move into her neighborhood. “Things can change in nine seconds, you need someone there that will be able to handle things.” She said a security guard won’t have the proper training.
Lisa and others don’t see how the “drug den” behind the Vons adjacent to the proposed housing and the 7/11 across the street (at Mt. Alifan and Genesee) will work with drug addicts as tenants.
Sandy, not her real name, is apprehensive about homeless housing coming into the neighborhood when no one is promising to take the homeless people off her neighborhood streets. She says she and her husband worked hard to purchase their own home seven years ago. A few years ago when a drug house appeared in her neighborhood, so did homeless people. Recently, Sandy was forced to get a restraining order against a middle-aged homeless woman that wouldn’t stop defecating in her front yard. When asked to leave, the homeless woman would threaten Sandy with rocks stockpiled in her shopping cart.
“She seemed pretty mellow in the beginning. The first time I noticed her, she was sleeping in my neighbor’s front yard. Over the last year, she’s gone to the drug house more and become more erratic.”
When Sandy first filed a police report, she says the officer told her it wasn’t illegal for someone to defecate or urinate in public unless an officer witnessed it. Sandy had to pick another reason: the homeless woman was trampling her plants.
The drug house hosted a homicide in early January. On a Tuesday night in February, Sandy was doing neighborhood watch patrol when she took a photo of a license plate associated with the drug house. “The driver of that car chased me, driving erratically and threatening me, swerving her car toward me while she filmed me.” On Thursday, Sandy says she saw the same car on her street, set on fire by the same driver after fleeing the scene of a crime elsewhere.
Sandy and her neighbors plan to sue the drug house property owner to get the nuisance out of their neighborhood. “I picked up 184 cigarette butts on the street before it rained last time,” she complains. “I know half of those are from homeless people.”
“We’re not all crazy and we’re not all on drugs, says Jason, a young homeless man sitting near the proposed project. “Homeless people comes in all colors, shapes, and sizes.” He said 90 percent of the problems that homeless people have are related to the stress of how they are dismissed by those that aren’t homeless. “Things you take for granted — like showering or having a place to go to the bathroom without being hassled — are stressful for us.”
Regarding potential housing for local homeless, “Why do they have a place for the trash but not for people? We have [this landfill] over here that we’re filling up with trash and we could use that land for people. We’ve got hands. We could build out own houses . . . we could make our community and keep to ourselves. We could grow our own food, be self-sufficient.”
His message to the powers-that-be about the “homeless problem” is this: “I don’t want to play their game of ‘Monopoly,’ I want to play the game of ‘Life.’ I don’t want to be your game piece, I want a chance at a real life. Too many greedy people living in stone houses are throwing those stones at those of us living in paper houses.”
Jason said he doesn’t panhandle. “I don’t ask for money, I like compassion better. I love food, especially home coked food. It really raises our spirits. A lot of homeless people are suspicious because people might spit in the food, but I’m not. I find it compassionate.”
Rebecca Louie, a representative of Wakeland, said they are looking into the possibility of giving Clairemont’s homeless priority, though a specific target population hasn’t been selected yet.
Louie wants to assure Clairemont’s residents that all tenants will have background checks and that no sex offenders or those convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine will be allowed. The number of tenants will be determined later dependent on the mix of unit sizes, though one-person households are the initial vision.
What will be expected of tenants? “Permanent Supportive Housing is no different than traditional rental housing,” Louie explains, “in terms of what is required of the residents. Residents sign leases and are expected to abide by the terms of the lease. Residents not abiding to the terms of the lease can face eviction.”
One key difference, Louie said, are the supportive services. She confirmed there will be a homeless outreach component incorporated into the design. As for as funding, Louie said money to build comes from a number of federal, state, and local housing subsidies. For rent, tenants pay 30-percent of their monthly income. Operational funds typically come from a project-based rental operating subsidy.
Another concern voiced by Clairemont residents involves the very low-income housing operated by Wakeland directly across the street from the proposed project. Online tenant reviews mention gang members and shootings.
Some residents want to know why Clairemont was chosen for this project. A memo councilmember Chris Cate wrote to the mayor in 2017 declared that his district needed to be the solution in housing those most in need. Native Jeremiah Blattler, a 2018 candidate for Cate’s District 6 seat, said he supports the project only if it serves homeless already in the area. He says he would like to see affordable housing laws have some teeth versus letting developers opt-out by paying a fee.
October 2016 through September 2017, 1134 homeless people entered the centralized system with 760 having slept in places not meant for habitation for a year or more. While the breakdown for the most recent homeless count won’t be out until May, numbers from the previous year showed 31 percent chronically homeless, 39 percent self-reporting mental health issues, and 20 percent self-reporting substance abuse issues.
A community open house is scheduled for April 11 (4-7 p.m.) at the SDG&E Energy Innovation Center (4760 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard) for Wakeland and People Assisting the Homeless to answer more questions.