1,300 under one roof: Life at the San Diego Convention Center homeless shelter

Residents watch "The Price Is Right" at a homeless shelter at the San Diego Convention Center.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Thefts, screams at night and tedium are some of the challenges at San Diego’s largest homeless shelter


Life inside San Diego’s largest homeless shelter can be tranquil, relaxing and friendly.

And it can be a place where women are frightened by men who leer at them. Where possessions often go missing. Where sleep is disturbed every night by the sound of someone screaming.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that 1,300 people living at the city’s largest homeless shelter — in the San Diego Convention Center — are not going to have a shared experience.


Depending on who you ask, the bathrooms are either horrible or the best part of the shelter. The effort to find people permanent housing is either running smoothly or at a snail’s pace. The days can be tedious or can be pleasant and peaceful.

Cody Dixon, 38, has been at the shelter since April 22 and said he’s seen good and bad during his time there.

“Coming here really saved me,” Dixon said. “It saved my life. It saved my freedom. It saved my sobriety. It saved my sanity. This place has been a big blessing to me.”

People at the shelter also often help one another, he said, but there’s also people who help themselves to other people’s property.

“There’s a theft issue in this place,” he said. “Anything of value, you have to take with you. Things go missing all the time.”

The shelter at the Convention Center opened April 1 amid growing concerns that the tight quarters of other city-run shelters could be breeding grounds for the coronavirus. The city closed its bridge shelters and transferred 765 people to the Convention Center. An ongoing effort by outreach teams has brought others in from the streets or encampments.

The shelter is divided into three sections, with service providers who operated the city’s large bridge shelters responsible for people in their areas. The Alpha Project oversees about 660 people. Father Joe’s Villages has about 460 and Veterans Village of San Diego about 180.

There are no children, and men and women sleep in separate areas of each section. The nightly curfew is 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., but it doesn’t apply to people who have to leave for work.

The initial goal of protecting homeless people from the coronavirus appears to have been successful, with only six people testing positive after about 2,000 tests in the Convention Center. In contrast, a Boston shelter saw 36% of its clients testing positive. A San Francisco shelter reached 66%, and a Seattle shelter was at 17%.

The city’s efforts to find permanent housing for people in the shelter — its official name is Operation Shelter to Home — is a work in progress, but it has some early encouraging signs.

As of Friday, 114 people who had been in the shelter have moved into permanent housing. Of those who have moved out, 51 already had a resource such as a housing voucher when they arrived at the shelter, meaning 63 had found help while at the shelter.

Those 63 were among 600 people at the shelter who have received housing vouchers, rent subsidies or other assistance from the San Diego Housing Commission or the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, Mayor Kevin Faulconer said.

City employees who otherwise would not be working because of shutdowns during the pandemic are filling various positions at the shelter. Lifeguards worked there before beaches reopened, and library workers continue to fill some positions, including conducting daily health screenings and helping people do research on computers.

Like others stuck at home during the pandemic, people at the shelter may struggle with boredom. On a recent Friday morning, a handful of people slumped in chairs to watch “The Price Is Right” projected on a back wall. Many others lingered on their cots or visited one another at tables. A few dozen at any one time were outside on a cigarette break, while several people were taking their dogs for walks around the nearby marina. The check-in table at each section saw a steady stream of people coming and going.

Jeffrey Pangellinan, 48, has been at the shelter three months and has been a Father Joe’s Villages client for 18 months.

Jonet Thomas takes a smoke break
Jonet Thomas takes a smoke break in a designated smoking area outside the homeless shelter at the San Diego Convention Center.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“The people here go out of their way to help you,” he said. “But if you can’t help yourself, how can they help you?”

Pangellinan is a graduate of Father Joe’s Villages culinary arts program and had been working as a sous chef at Puesto in downtown San Diego before the restaurant closed during the shutdown. He spends his day helping out at the shelter and said he wants to set an example to others.

“If you do nothing, you’re going to get yourself agitated,” he said.

Pangellinan also recognizes that many people at the shelter already are agitated and may have mental health conditions.

“Every night you’ll hear a woman screaming over here or a man screaming over there,” he said. “But after a while, you get used to it, and you just block it off. It gets irritating after a while, but you have your headphones and listen to music.”

Pangellinan said security workers are usually quick to calm any confrontations at the shelter.

San Diego Fire and Rescue personnel are also on hand for safety inspections and to help with medical emergencies.

“There was a gentleman the other day who had a seizure in the back, and EMTs were there right away,” said Paul DeLessio, director of coordinated services for Father Joe’s Villages. “It’s amazing to have that level of support.”

Pangellinan is preparing to move into the new affordable housing complex the Link about a mile away from the Convention Center, and he said he usually speaks with his housing navigator after doing chores at the shelter.

Dixon still is waiting for word about when he’ll get a home.

“I was told by a case worker I’d be provided with permanent housing,” he said. “They say I’m on a list. There’s nothing specific. Just, ‘You’re on a list.’ It just leaves a big question mark. They’re really not forthcoming with what will happen.”

While he’s waiting for word on housing, Dixon is making the most of his time in the shelter. With a long history of incarceration, substance abuse and mental health issues, he said he is finding the help he needs though Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and men’s support group meetings at the Convention Center.

“These are all awesome,” he said. “These are things I wasn’t able to receive out there in the community due to the fact that no meetings were being held except for online, and I couldn’t download the Zoom app on my phone.”

DeLessio said some homeless people who had been reluctant to go into a smaller shelter are willing to go into the spacious Convention Center, creating opportunities to connect them with services for the first time.

“They’re being exposed to change and willing to take the next step,” he said.

Jonet Thomas, 48, had been homeless for 10 years and uses a wheelchair because of health issues. Going on eight months clean and sober, she moved into the shelter about two weeks ago.

“It’s hard being straight around a bunch of people using,” she said about life on the street.

She’s still adjusting to life in the shelter and said she wants to make friends, but she has her guard up.

“It’s hard to be around so many people you don’t know,” she said. “You’re around all these people but still alone.”

Thomas said she has a hard time sleeping because of noises from other people, and she’s heard many of her neighbors have had possessions stolen.

While Thomas still is trying to fit in, Kathleen Mortensen, 62, seems to be friends with almost everyone at the shelter. People stop to say hi and even occasionally break social distancing protocol by tapping her shoulder as they pass.

“I am thankful,” said Mortensen, who was in the Alpha Project bridge shelter for two years before coming to the Convention Center. “I am appreciative. We have even more meals here than the Alpha Project tent. The food is amazing.”

Individual packaged meals are prepared by the Convention Center‘s on-site catering company Centerplate.

Mortensen, a vegetarian, is growing morning glories and spinach in a box in the corner of the smoking area, and she joked that she almost has enough for a salad.

She also is impressed with the laundry service. Clients can take 12 items of clothing to a laundry area, and they will be returned to their cot washed and dried by noon each day.

Mortensen also recognizes that the shelter, daily health screenings and testing for the coronavirus are keeping her and others safe during a deadly pandemic.

“With what’s going on globally, we are so blessed to be here,” she said. “So, yeah, thank you. Thank you, San Diego. That’s what I really want to say.”

But the place is not perfect. She also has heard of things being stolen and has seen men walk through the women’s section in the middle of the night.

“Me personally, I feel unsafe,” she said. “There are dangerous men here who have nothing to lose.”

She also said some clients have become upset and directed their rage at the restrooms, making a terrible mess in the women’s rooms. Dixon also said crews can barely keep up with taking care of the men’s restrooms, which constantly need cleaning.

Christine Barnes, however, said the women’s restroom is her favorite part of the shelter.

“I’m so vain, I cannot go into the washroom without looking in the mirror,” she said. “They have full-length mirrors. When you get a whole bunch of women and they’re washing their hands in front of a mirror and having a conversation, it’s like a tea party.”

Besides the social aspect of the bathroom, Barnes appreciates how the Alpha Project section offers clients an opportunity to earn $52 for a four-hour shift picking up trash around the Convention Center as part of the Wheels of Change program and offers $25 gift cards to four people each night at bed-check.

To help keep things interesting, the shelter also has started Thursday afternoon bingo games, and she is an assistant in the activity.

“There’s some people who will just stay in the bed all day long,” she said. “It’s just something fun to do, especially for people who don’t get out.”

Sleep can be disrupted by people with night terrors or somethings yelling at one another, but Barnes said the incidents aren’t many considering the many people under one roof.

“I like the place,” she said. “There really isn’t a whole lot of issues. There’s not a lot of fights. You would think there would be more. It’s pretty good. You get used to it.”

Barnes and her 29-year-old son, who also is in the shelter, expect to move out soon to a unit under the rapid rehousing programs, which subsidize rent for a set period while people become self-sufficient.

“I’m trying to get a job,” she said about her next phase. “I don’t want to go through this again.”

Warth writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.