San Diego’s Largest Homeless Shelter to Be Built Three Miles From PLNU

H Barracks site where proposed homeless shelter is to be built near the end of this year. Photo credit to Sydney Brammer.

Editor’s Note: A reference to an “encampment” within the article and one within the previous headline has been changed to reflect a more accurate description of how the space will operate. There are multiple ideas about how the H Barracks can serve unhoused individuals, which all include wrap-around services. Because the term “encampment” does not include the presence of such services, the word has been removed from the article. 

Driving past the San Diego International Airport on North Harbor Drive, across Spanish Landing Park, there is a group of abandoned buildings with cracked paint and spray art behind a green border fence.

The buildings, which were previously a training facility for the San Diego police and fire departments known as H Barracks, are to be demolished. This will leave a concrete slab for what would be San Diego’s largest homeless shelter, housing 700 to 1,000 unhoused people at maximum capacity.

The demolition of the eight structures began in February of 2024 and is continuing to make progress, according to Kohta Zaiser, San Diego’s council affairs advisor. 

In about four to six months, the demolition is predicted to be complete and the city is looking toward late winter 2024 to begin housing unhoused people.

By vehicle, Point Loma Nazarene University is 10 minutes away from the proposed shelter, five from Liberty Station and three from the airport.

In about five years, the city plans on building its largest project in history, the Pure Water recycling system on that land. Because they won’t begin building until then, that leaves about seven acres of dormant land and a city that wants to combat the seriousness of homelessness.  

“The goal is to be a stepping stone on the pathway to permanent housing,” said Zaiser in a phone interview. “Our goal is to provide a safe, stable, secure place where people can sleep at night and get connected to the proper services.”

There are a few options as to what this shelter would look like, said Blake Nelson, a writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune who covers homelessness. Nelson has communicated with the city and written on this proposal.

A safe sleeping site is one of the options, with city-provided tents for individuals who don’t feel safe staying in indoor shelters. This is utilized at the O Lot shelter in Balboa Park.

One of the front-runner options is a large tent, similar to the homeless establishment on 16th St. and Newton Avenue downtown.

According to Zaiser, the most recent front-runner option is a parking lot where individuals can sleep in their vehicles without the fear of a citation or getting towed.

“We’re looking at what we can prop up the fastest, what is most cost-effective, and looking at all of our other shelter needs across the system, what do we need most right now,” Zaiser said.

According to a newsletter from Mayor Todd Gloria sent on Feb. 29, the city is still in the early planning process, but can officially say that the site would include transportation to and from the site, on-site resources for mental health and substance abuse and medical counseling. Furthermore, air conditioning, bathrooms, showers, meals, case managers and 24/7 security will be provided. 

The shelter would be referral-based only by fellow homeless services and city police officials. No walk-ins would be allowed, according to the newsletter. 

The shelter would be low-barrier, meaning residents would not be required to be clean and sober to receive resources, according to Matthew Hoffman, San Diego’s media services coordinator. However, substance use would be prohibited onsite. 

There is security the shelter’s to-be-determined service provider will bring. The San Diego Police Department will also provide two police divisions: the Western which was described to cover areas from PLNU to Hillcrest and Neighborhood which handles “quality of life” and “homeless spaces,” Zaiser said.

In addition, there would be security both roaming and stationary on-site, outside the fence border, at the check-point, at entrances and exits and at every station within the site.

Jeff Bolster, Vice President for University Services at PLNU, has been taking the lead on this conversation as to what this could look like for PLNU’s Liberty Station campus, which is less than a mile away from the proposed shelter.

“We’re planning based on what we know,” Bolster said in a phone interview. “Right now, it’s all conversational and hypothetical from the city. As soon as we have a definitive, then we will start planning definitively.” 

As far as how this shelter would affect PLNU’s Liberty Station campus directly, Bolster has not received enough details from the city to predict what it would look like.

“What I can confidently say is the safety of our students and [the Liberty Station] campus is always our first priority,” Bolster said.

Libby Storm, a fourth-year graphic design major, lives in an apartment that is within a mile radius of the proposed shelter.

Storm said she often sees the same people experiencing homelessness near her apartment building, so having a place for them to stay would be beneficial to the surrounding areas.

“There’s already a good amount of homeless people that hang around [her apartment] so if anything, it’d be really great to have a way to provide resources for them,” Storm said. “I can see how it’s [the shelter] a controversy but I, personally, am totally fine with this.”

Kristina Patterson, a second-year psychology major at PLNU works at Con Pane, a bakery in Liberty Station, which is a 20-minute walk from the proposed shelter.

“If [unhoused] people can come and go as they please [from the shelter] and they don’t have to be sober, I think that can make Liberty Station feel less safe, which is sad because I want these people to get the resources they need,” Patterson said. 

Patterson said no unhoused people have come into the bakery during the time she’s worked but could see that changing if the shelter is built because they have public restrooms.

“I don’t know how it would affect Con Pane directly, but it would change the way Liberty Station operates as a whole,” Patterson said.

Dana Hojsack, PLNU’s community ministries director, oversees the homeless ministry groups that travel to downtown East Village three nights a week and provide food, coffee, blankets, clothing, hygiene supplies and Bibles to people experiencing homelessness.

“It’s an emergency to get people housed,” Hojsack said. “Our friends on the street need a place to go, and it would be a step for them to get off the streets and God calls us to help them.”

According to Hojsack, homeless ministries volunteered at the homeless establishment on 16th St. and Newton Avenue run by Alpha Project located downtown before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Hojsack said if this shelter were to be built, they would do what they could to serve and Zaiser said the city would support that.

“This is an immediate need students can be a part of in offering the ministry of friendship,” Hojsack said.

Reaves Dayton, a second-year nursing major, has classes three days a week at the Liberty Station campus. As a Hawaii native, which has the highest rate of homelessness in the nation as of December 2023, Dayton is familiar with a large homeless population environment and “wouldn’t feel unsafe at all” if the shelter were to be built, she said in a phone interview.

“If people are concerned about them [unhoused people] being within their vicinity, think about the unhoused people that could be right outside schools, footsteps of hotels,” said Dayton. “They’d [unhoused people] much rather be housed than on the streets.”

Dayton serves in PLNU’s OWLS (Older Wiser Loving Souls) Community Visiting Ministry and had an encounter with an unhoused person who lives near the senior home they serve at.  

“All he asked for was a Bible,” Dayton said.