CARLSBAD — A marathon session concluded with the Carlsbad City Council approving a new path forward regarding the city’s homeless population during its Sept. 28 meeting.
The council unanimously approved a limited-term emergency hotel voucher pilot program, expanding La Posada, the city’s only homeless shelter. The council also passed an item to join Project Homekey, 4-1.
The council also approved an amendment to its quality-of-life ordinance, which will now ban camping in open public spaces, such as any public street, parks and beaches (with some exceptions), if the person has access to “adequate temporary shelter” but refused it.
The council opted not to support the following three items: an emergency shelter voucher program at Hyland Inn near Holiday Park, “scattered sites” for a hotel voucher program, and a zoning ordinance amendment to expand allowable emergency shelter locations.
“We will check in weekly to make sure they stay on top of things,” said Mandy Mills, director of housing and homeless services. “We’d help with their credit, helping them interview with landlords and securing critical documents. We’d be working on all those things in tandem.”
The homeless issue has grown more pressing over the past year in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also with several changes in state law, the housing crisis and other factors.
Holly Nelson, the city’s homeless program manager, said one goal directed by the council is to reduce homelessness by 50% over five years for those willing to receive help. According to the city, there are 147 homeless individuals as of the last Point-in-Time Count (individuals encountered in one night) and 507 individuals from another estimate conducted over the course of the year.
According to Nelson, FEMA funds, via the Biden administration, would have been used to help pay for a hotel voucher pilot program for 12 months. There are some eligibility requirements, wrap-around services, transition to permanent housing and a low-barrier model. In June, the council approved $3.2 million for its program, which FEMA may reimburse.
FEMA extended the reimbursement application until Dec. 31, although Nelson said not it doesn’t mean the entirety of the program is covered. For example, if a room is vacant for one night, the city cannot claim those reimbursement costs.
However, the city has not been able to secure any hotels for the program, minus Hyland Inn, Nelson said.
“We did reach out to many, many hotels,” Nelson added. “It’s so hard to get hotels. We found they weren’t interested.”
She said due to an increase in tourism, business travel, fewer COVID restrictions and high occupancy rates, plus concerns over brand imaging and reviews, hotels have not jumped on board.
The program as originally designed would prohibit illegal drug use or paraphernalia on-site, although sobriety is not a condition to participating in the program. Nelson said it is required for the homeless to make progress toward their housing goals and the city’s efforts are not a free resource for people to “hang out.”
Staff will report back to the council every quarter with updates from each item.
Councilwoman Priya Bhat-Patel said due to the complexities of the issue, a multi-layered approach would work best. Councilwoman Teresa Acosta supported five of the six measures but had concerns with long-term accommodations and the Hyland Inn proposal.
“It’s a very difficult conversation to have,” Bhat-Patel said. “It’s a very layered conversation to have. We converse about housing first or rehab. For me, it’s a mixed solution because there is no one size fits all.”
Project Homekey allows cities and counties to purchase and rehabilitate housing, including hotels, motels, vacant apartment buildings and other buildings to convert them, according to the staff report.
The application process begins Sept. 30 and must be submitted by Jan. 31, 2022. After Jan. 31, applications will be considered on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The state has allocated about $2.8 billion this fiscal year to fund the program and according to media reports, may spend $5.8 billion over two years to create more housing units.
Project Homekey has proven a costly and time-consuming process to add a fairly low number of affordable units. Conversely, the state does offer cities and counties millions of dollars for projects, which it received through the American Rescue Plan Act 2021, according to Mills.
Correction: This article has been updated to include some clarifications.