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Supervisors OK temporary migrant shelter downtown

Posted at 5:57 PM, Jan 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-29 20:59:03-05

SAN DIEGO (CNS) - After a lengthy public hearing, county supervisors today signed off on a plan to temporarily house migrants at a San Diego property.
On a 4-1 vote, the board approved a lease agreement with Jewish Family Service of San Diego for the property at 1501 and 1555 Sixth Ave.

The lease term will end Dec. 31. Supervisor Jim Desmond cast the dissenting vote, citing health care- related costs.

Many in the meeting hall gallery applauded the board's decision, which Chairwoman Dianne Jacob described as "the right thing to do."

Jewish Family Service of San Diego will make a one-time lease payment of $1 to the county and reimburse it for all costs to open, operate and maintain the property.

"We are pleased to see the county step up and provide proactive solutions to address the humanitarian crisis facing our community," said Jewish Family Service CEO Michael Hopkins. "Today's vote will help house asylum-seeking families until they can safely travel to their final destinations, and ensure our homeless population does not grow even larger with the addition of migrant families released from (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) custody."

The San Diego Rapid Response Network, a coalition of human rights, service and faith-based organizations, has offered humanitarian aid and assistance to asylum-seeking migrants for months, including members of the Central American migrant caravans that arrived in Tijuana in November.

The coalition says it has helped more than 5,200 migrants since early November. The coalition's lease on its current location is set to run out on Feb. 15, prompting the board's vote.

Coalition members contended that hundreds of asylum-seekers would be rendered homeless should the shelter facility's doors shutter without a new location.

According to JFS, a member organization of the Rapid Response Network, funding for the shelter has already been secured, lifting the financial burden off the county's shoulders.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, one of the main proponents, said a shelter is the "most workable solution." He said the federal government has failed in properly dealing with the influx of those seeking asylum, but the county will inherit the crisis if it doesn't step up. "If we have to scour around every bus station to help people, it will cost us more," Fletcher added.

Juan Pablo Sanchez, a business owner and board member of Business for Good San Diego, applauded the move. "As the largest border city in the United States, it is imperative that we, San Diego, give the example to the rest of the country of how a refugee should be treated by meeting their essential human needs," he said.

Karim Bouris, executive director of Business for Good San Diego, said: "Supervisors Fletcher and Cox brought forward cost-effective solutions to address a full-blown human and civil rights crisis at our doorstep. This is the kind of responsiveness San Diego's businesses want to see, and are thankful the other supervisors supported their vote."

Officials from both the county District Attorney's and Sheriff's offices wrote letters supporting the temporary shelter as a way to protect vulnerable migrants from traffickers and prevent any major health crisis.

The board also heard from representatives of San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Assemblyman Todd Gloria, who expressed support for the shelter.

Desmond credited the SDRRN for its work in helping migrants, but said county residents are paying for medical screenings and related treatment. "That means eight full-time, on-site medical professionals," Desmond said. "If these same services are carried out in the new shelter, that will cost $4 million between now and December."

The federal government and state should also cover health costs, Desmond said. He also faulted a recently established migrant crisis task force for not yet holding a formal meeting. "I'm OK with the shelter, but not with the county having to bear the entire burden," Desmond said.

In response to Desmond's concerns, Supervisor Greg Cox said that in the short term, the county will save $16,000 in security costs. Cox added the county would still be responsible for medical screenings even without a new facility. Paraphrasing a famous San Diego ad by the late bail bondsman King Stahlman, Cox said, "It's better to have a shelter and not need it than not have one and need it."

Supervisor Kristin Gaspar said while she supports a temporary facility, she has zero interest in the county "being the piggy bank for San Diego." She stressed that the county is fulfilling its obligations, but added officials must find a permanent solution involving both federal and state government. "The practice of dropping off vulnerable families at a McDonald's or bus stop is entirely unacceptable. But what happens come December?" Gaspar said.

Jacob said asylum seekers "have legal permission to be here, and have certain rights," and faulted the Trump administration for recently ending a program that ensures migrants have safe travel plans after entering in the United States.

Jacob said she is considering a closed-session discussion about possible legal action against the federal government, so the county could recoup some expenses.

Before the vote, numerous people, many of them activists, urged the board to approve the temporary shelter.

Johanna Afshani, a Solana Beach resident and attorney, said she believes it's her moral responsibility to open her heart to refugees. "I am simply here to give a voice to the voiceless," Afshani said. "I don't want my kids 20 years from now asking me, `Why didn't you help these children?"'

A man opposed to the shelter had another view. Roger Ogden said one main reason the migrants are traveling to San Diego "is because you give the goodies to them." The San Diego resident said the idea that the county isn't aiding the caravans is "baloney."

He contended that many migrants who are allowed to stay in the U.S. do not attend their court hearings. Ogden also said many also have no legitimate claim to asylum.

After the meeting, Fletcher said he was "just happy (the motion) passed." The issue of immigration will continue, but "this gives us time and space to figure out a sustainable solution," Fletcher added.