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Anchors Report: Jared Aarons gets look inside San Diego's Safe Sleeping Sites

Nearly nine months into the program, ABC 10News Anchor Jared Aarons checks in to see how things are going at San Diego's Safe Sleeping Sites.
Posted at 11:18 AM, Jan 25, 2024

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Now nine months into the program, San Diego's Safe Sleeping Sites are still a work in progress. But new numbers show people experiencing homelessness are taking advantage of the opportunity, and even using the sites as a springboard to permanent housing.

The City of San Diego opened two "Safe Sleeping Sites" over the last year. Mayor Todd Gloria made them a cornerstone of his plan to crack down on illegal camping on city streets and also said they would become part of the solution to San Diego's homeless crisis.

In May, the city opened the lot at 20th and B, near the Balboa Park golf course. Several months later, a second, larger lot opened near the Navy Hospital at Balboa Park. It was called "O-Lot."

Numbers change every day. But as of Mid-January, data from the city shows that the lot at 20th and B has 105 tents currently occupied, housing 141 people. O-Lot has 322 tents full, with 373 people.

Also, Dreams for Change, one of two groups that manages the lots, says 26 people have moved directly from the lots into more permanent housing.

ABC 10News Anchor Jared Aarons got an inside look at the lots, speaking with employees, city staff, and people who live there.

Most say it's been a learning curve for everyone involved, but progress has been made.

"I think people need to know that this is a stepping stone," says Karina Santos, the Program Manager at Dreams for Change. "We're in the infancy stage. We're still having tweaks, we're still learning how to do things. I think that you give it about a year, year and a half and we're gonna see tremendous progress."

She adds that the 26 people who have found housing are a good start.

"It typically takes about three to nine months to get somebody matched to housing and then transition into housing itself," she says. "So, to be only open for nine months and have 26 people transitioned into housing is actually good. We're beating the statistics."

Over the last eight to nine months, Santos says they have added several amenities based on feedback from the people living in the lots. That includes ramps to make the tents more ADA accessible, shower and laundry facilities, on site case management and the ability to get two meals a day.

But success is hard to gauge, and depends on which data you look at.

Numbers from the Downtown San Diego Partnership show the population of unhoused people downtown has plummeted since the sites opened, from more than 2000 in May to just over 800 in December.

But numbers from the Regional Task Force on Homelessness also show the number of people newly homeless for the first time has been higher than the number getting off the streets every month.

And there have been some significant issues recently.

Monday's storm, which brought flooding to several parts of the city, forced an evacuation at the 20th and B Lot. O-Lot, which is at a higher elevation in the Balboa Park area, was not impacted. All of the people living at 20th and B had to be relocated to the Balboa Park Municipal Gym for a couple of nights. The city says they have all since returned to their tents in the lot.

Meanwhile, O-Lot had an outbreak of a stomach illness over the past weekend. 30 residents and four staff members got sick. The city paused intakes at that site during the outbreak. They also increased sanitation measures at the site.

County Health investigators have not pinpointed a cause, but a spokesperson for the City of San Diego says most of the residents have recovered, and all four employees are now back at work.

Despite all that, Santos points out that word of mouth has spread through San Diego's homeless community, and it's mostly positive. The sites have a waiting list more than 300 people long, even though you can only get on the list through referrals.

Santos says she's able to move two to three people in every day, as long as there's room. She hopes that number grows, along with the number of people moving out and finding a home off the streets.

ABC 10News is committed to following through on stories like these. We'll continue to check in with the Safe Sleeping Sites to see the progress being made, and the struggles as the arise.