Lessons learned housing homeless during freeze

When San Diego Police Department Assistant Chief Boyd Long found out San Diego, where an estimated 9,800 homeless people live, had four days of record cold weather coming, he knew he’d have to scramble to save lives.

“I’ve been watching these poor souls lay their heads on concrete for 28 years,” said Long, who is retiring this month. “This is really an under-served and poorly served population – and we (the police) are the frontline providers. We mobilized to make sure no one died in the cold.”

That was a valid concern, it turned out. In Costa Mesa, 80 miles north of San Diego, two homeless people died from exposure in separate locations the third night of freezing weather.

“We couldn’t get the word out fast enough,” says Bob McElroy, who works every day for the Alpha Project. “The folks on the street are so locked into survival mode that they don’t think to look for anyone interested in keeping them alive. We had people who had ice on their clothes, it was that ragged.”

Once Long heard the predictions for freezing temperatures from Jan. 11 to Jan. 15, he started pounding on the doors of established shelters –most filled to capacity with waiting lists, and started to push for floor space. Armed with funding from the San Diego Housing Commission and the credibility the HOT team had established, he was able to rustle up space for 600 indoor nights of sleep.

Because of a special designation by HUD, the housing commission was able to fund the emergency sleeping arrangements, which cost about $15 per person per night.

People who didn’t usually sleep in shelters or who were wait-listed showed up at the St. Vincent de Paul dining room, the Neil Good Day Center, Rachel’s Women’s Center, the Rescue Mission.

The lessons to be learned are pretty simple, Long said. “We need to start breaking the silos down so people aren’t shuffling around trying to understand a bunch of conflicting rules and structures,” he said. “You should not have the Rescue Mission working independent of the Salvation Army independent of St. Vincent de Paul. There’s a lot of administrative redundancy and a lot of confusion for the homeless.”

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