Lessons Learned in LA, Denver, and San Diego Leave Questions About the Feasibility of Using the Convention Center as an Emergency Homeless Shelter
On Tuesday morning, LA City Council approved a plan exploring the use of the LA Convention Center as a temporary emergency homeless shelter. Councilmembers Kevin De Leon and Curren D. Price, whose districts represent the convention center’s downtown neighborhood, co-sponsored the motion, which passed unanimously.
Shelters in cities from San Diego to Boston have had mass outbreaks during the pandemic, raising questions about the feasibility of social distancing and other safety measures in congregate settings.
In a public comment period held after the vote, advocates pushed back on the idea of opening the site during a pandemic. “We know that congregate shelters are responsible for COVID outbreaks among unhoused people,” said one commenter opposed to the plan.
LA’s own experiences sheltering people during the pandemic provide some justification for safety and feasibility concerns.
In March, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that park facilities would be repurposed as shelter spaces, with the goal of creating 6,000 new beds. Shortly after announcing the shelter rollout, anecdotal evidence began to show cracks in the plan. Of the 42 planned shelters, only 26 opened. By August, only seven of the sites remained operational.
As the Thanksgiving surge turned LA into the epicenter of COVID in the United States, homeless shelters in LA like Union Rescue Mission saw a sudden surge in positive tests. Beds set aside for COVID patients without a safe place to quarantine quickly filled up, forcing shelters to set up their own makeshift wards.
Recent evidence from a Denver study seems to confirm the fears of shelter skeptics.
Congregate shelter residents were three-times as likely to test positive compared to encampment residents. While living outdoors comes with many risks, these shelters may not be a safe alternative during the pandemic either.
In San Diego, city leaders took a similar approach to the one proposed in LA, opening the city’s convention center as a shelter last April. Cases were few until the November surge hit residents of the convention center.
Plans for the temporary shelter have since shifted back and forth. When it was originally slated to close at the end of October, San Diego’s city council allocated $11 million to keep it open until December. In December, newly-elected Mayor Todd Gloria vowed to find funding to keep the shelter open. His opponent, then-mayor Kevin Faulconer, had sought to close the site.
San Diego’s approach did produce successes. Hundreds of residents have moved into more permanent units, many of them hotels acquired as part of last year’s Project Roomkey, a statewide program that provided funding for the acquisition of hotels for conversion into permanent housing for homeless people. Under the same program, LA was able to move thousands into hotels during the spring and summer.
Besides COVID safety concerns, LA also faces logistical problems in converting the site.
Doane Liu, executive director of the city’s Department of Convention and Tourism Development, told the LA Times that “our convention center does not have enough bathrooms, does not have any showers. When the building is empty, electricity and utilities are not on. Those are costs that are going to need to be borne by somebody.”
Establishing a realistic timeline for the project may also prove challenging. Today’s motion requests a report back in 30 days. That means even with an aggressive push from city leaders it’s unlikely the site would house anyone until at least March.
Later this year, the convention center plans to resume hosting major events. Large conventions schedule time slots years in advance. If the site is used as a shelter, these contracts may force the shelter to close quickly once officials give the green light to reopen.
Between infection risks, high costs, and a potentially short time-frame for operation, LA’s convention center plan raises more questions than it answers. In LA, splashy plans with few details have a history of failing to deliver on their promises.
Pete White, founder of LA Community Action Network, a Skid Row based advocacy group, recalled that during a particularly cold winter in 1987, “the Bradley Administration opened sanctioned tent cities, and opened council chambers to shelter houseless people.”
Given the magnitude of our crisis, city leaders should be acting with urgency. But headline-grabbing projects can pull focus and resources away from the less glamorous day-to-day work of expanding our homeless housing stock, and addressing the systemic affordability concerns that have made homelessness a crisis in cities across the country.
When LA decides to take emergency action, “we experience a scaling up of political rhetoric” said White, but “there continues not to be a credible plan to house people.”