What Will San Diego’s New “Harm Reduction” Shelter Actually Be Like?

    San Diego is building what’s being touted as the city’s first harm reduction-based homeless shelter. The facility, currently under construction in a former Pier 1 Imports store near the downtown area, will provide services related to mental health, trauma and substance use disorders. It’s slated to open in late October or early November.

    The shelter is a partnership between the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC), a city agency which addresses homelessness, and Alpha Project, a local housing nonprofit. It will have 50 beds reserved for chronically unhoused people seeking support related to drug use and mental health. Case managers will also work directly with small groups of residents. The shelter will offer “care coordination, peer support services, substance abuse treatment, medication-assisted treatment, mental health services and access to public benefits.”

    While it will be the first shelter in the city focused on providing services specific to mental illness and substance use, it’s not quite a “harm reduction” operation.

    “You can’t go out and do drugs all day and come into a facility that has a bed and breakfast,” Alpha CEO Bob McElroy told Filter. “Depending if you stay in your lane, if you’re not a disruption to other residents and you respect the facility and you also respect the efforts that are being taken to better your life, [but] we’re not going to be an enabling facility … I’m not about helping people kill themselves.”

    The shelter will not allow alcohol or illicit substances onsite. It won’t turn residents away for active use—up to a point. “People can come in at different stages of inebriation. However, it’s not something we will consistently tolerate,” McElroy said. “It will be discretionary as folks come in [and we ascertain] how serious they are about wanting to better their situation.”

    “You don’t kick someone out at five in the morning and say come back at six. That’s just bullshit.”

    Though it’s not the first to do so, the facility will keep naloxone onsite, and it will not perform drug testing, including use breathalyzers. Residents will not be discriminated against for using prescribed buprenorphine or methadone.

    The shelter will maintain a 10:00 pm curfew, but will not make residents leave each morning. “This is 24/7,” McElroy said. “You don’t kick someone out at five in the morning and say come back at six. That’s just bullshit.”

    San Diego has more than 7,600 homeless residents, the majority of whom sleep on the streets rather than in shelters. In San Diego and around the country, shelters often deny entry to people who use drugs, even in cases of extreme cold weather. Shelter operators usually justify these measures by arguing that drug use “triggers” residents trying to stay sober, or that it poses a safety risk. Staff have even blocked residents from grabbing naloxone to revive someone dying of overdose.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle, for example, operates a low-barrier “wet” shelter that welcomes alcohol users. The services it’s provided residents over the past 15 years have actually helped them become less likely to both use alcohol and to be chronically homeless.

    Increasingly visible homelessness and drug use in recent months pushed San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria to pledge $100 million to address the housing crisis.

    The new shelter is meant to be the first example of a model that will be replicated with smaller, “safe-haven” shelters where people can stay longer-term and have their own rooms. The city is also planning to re-open 300 shelter beds, purchase hotel rooms to be used as housing and increase homeless outreach and non-police emergency response. However, it also is continuing a controversial “abatement” policy to raid homeless encampments.



    Photograph via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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