By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown & Uptown News
Alpha Project is one of the main homeless nonprofits in the region that has adapted to new needs in the community due to coronavirus. The organization is operating the most beds of the three providers in the San Diego Convention Center.
Two weeks ago, when inewsource toured the facility, Alpha Project had space for 176 more people. When SD News spoke to Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy one week later, those spaces had all been filled. The organization is operating close to 800 of the Convention Center’s 1,300 beds. For some people housed in the Convention Center, this is the first time they have ever used Alpha Project’s services.
As reported by Voice of San Diego, families are being left behind in the response to coronavirus, although McElroy said this is always an issue as shelters are primarily built to host single people.
To that end, a Super 8 motel has been renovated into temporary housing. Currently, the Alpha Project has a waitlist of 250 families in need of housing. McElroy said he believes many children in homeless families become the next generation of homeless adults.
In addition, he said another group whose needs are not being met are the mentally ill.
“The resources aren’t there for those folks, and so they are destined to the streets. That’s outrageous as far as I’m concerned,” McElroy said. “I know a lot of these folks, and it’s tragic that they can’t go to a low-barrier shelter. They certainly can’t go to permanent supportive housing simply because they’re trapped in their mental illness.”
The pandemic has created a unique situation in which much of the ancillary support that helped homeless people has disappeared from the streets. McElroy explained that when he was homeless, restaurants would give him food in exchange for picking up trash.
“Because of this COVID thing, all those resources dried up,” McElroy said.
With churches and other groups not present to deliver food, some unsheltered people are seeking services from official organizations for the very first time.
“I’m seeing people I’ve known for 25 years that have been out there — good people they just don’t want to be in services — are coming in out of desperation because there’s no place to get a sandwich, there’s no place to go to the bathroom, there’s nobody to hand out hygiene packs or the outreach team.
“I love to see people come in that I’ve seen for a long, long time get cleaned up, have a good meal, have their own bed, at least have a shot,” McElroy said. “Whether they accept or reject it, that’s up to them. It’s free will.”
Some advocates and politicians are pushing for those in the Convention Center to be connected to long-term housing once the pandemic ends. McElroy said he believes San Diego is so far behind on affordable housing that getting the hundreds of people in the Convention Center into permanent housing simply will not be possible. San Diego is building hundreds of affordable units per year instead of the estimated thousands it needs.
“We’ve got 1,300 people at the Convention Center. Do you know if there’s 1,300 units of low-income housing in San Diego or San Diego County? I doubt it. There isn’t any,” McElroy said. “The reality is that we’ve got to at least have a place for people who are homeless to choose to be safe with ancillary services — simple things like showers and bathrooms and other support services to keep them healthy and keep them safe until housing comes.”
The economic downfall of COVID-19 has strained renters who are already in affordable housing.
Under the eviction moratorium, households have until Sept. 25 to catch up on rent payments or face eviction. Although the rental assistance program authored by District 3 Councilmember Chris Ward could mitigate this, there are still worries that the expiration of the eviction moratorium could exacerbate the housing crisis and put more people on the streets.
“I don’t want to think about that. … We’re overwhelmed now,” McElroy said.
Preserving affordable housing and preventing people from being on the streets in the first place has become a major push with grant money and in the city budget. In addition to rapid rehousing, the Alpha Project also has rental assistance programs to keep people in the homes they already have.
A local mother named Isela with two young children reached out to Alpha Project as soon as she was furloughed from her job. She submitted the correct forms to receive unemployment checks, but delays in receiving those funds meant she needed immediate assistance to afford the rent. Since the school provided meals and there were extra EBT funds for children during the pandemic, one of her main concerns was remaining housed.
“If it weren’t for [Alpha Project], I don’t know where I’d be with my kids, to be honest,” Isela said in a phone interview. “They helped me out so much.”
The COVID-19 Community Response Fund at the San Diego Foundation granted Alpha Project $100,000 to enable the nonprofit organization to continue providing emergency assistance, rapid rehousing and supportive housing for homeless people.
“Right now, the challenges facing our communities are vast, and nonprofit organizations like the Alpha Project are playing a vital role for San Diegans in need, particularly those that are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences,” said the San Diego Foundation in a statement.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.