Homeless shelter set to leave San Diego Convention Center, now seen as vaccine site

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria speaks at a lectern outside the San Diego Convention Center.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria announces plans to begin the phaseout of the homeless shelter at the Convention Center on Friday flanked by government officials and advocates.
(Gary Warth / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The 11-month venture protected homeless people during pandemic and connected more than 1,000 with housing opportunities

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More than 700 people at a temporary homeless shelter in the San Diego Convention Center will begin moving into smaller shelters the week of March 22, but the waterfront venue isn’t expected to host any events in the foreseeable future.

Instead, the Convention Center soon could become a mass vaccination site, San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairman Nathan Fletcher said Friday during a news conference outside the complex.

Under plans in the preliminary, Fletcher said, the spacious building on Harbor Drive near downtown’s waterfront could be a drive-through vaccination site or possibly the county’s next super site, which could administer up to 5,000 shots a day.


Convention Center Chief Executive Rip Rippetoe said he was still awaiting state guidance on when operations could resume at the venue. No events are booked through the first half of the year.

For the past 11 months, the Convention Center had been the site of the city’s 1,300-bed Operation Shelter to Home. The city opened the shelter April 1 last year out of concerns that the coronavirus could spread in the more-compact bridge shelters that were operating in two large tents and at Golden Hall in downtown San Diego.

The Convention Center shelter was largely successful at controlling the virus over most of its operation, although a surge of infections occurred at the venue in December, coinciding with a countywide surge that month.

Overall, 256 clients and 40 volunteers or staff members tested positive for the coronavirus at the Convention Center shelter.

City and county officials on Friday said Operation Shelter to Home was successful on other fronts.

Mayor Todd Gloria said it served more than 4,000 people and helped find permanent or longer-term housing for 1,300 individuals and 43 families.


“Every San Diegan should take pride in what Operation Shelter to Home accomplished in keeping our homeless neighbors safe, but also ending the cycle of homelessness for hundreds during this pandemic,” Gloria said.

Tamera Kohler, CEO of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, said the 11-month operation also provided lessons in how to better connect homeless people with healthcare, and those lessons will be replicated moving forward.

Vaccinations for COVID-19 have been administered to people at least 65 years old at the Convention Center, and the medical clinic at Father Joe’s Villages in downtown’s East Village has been administering vaccines every other week.

Fletcher said the county expects to receive doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine next week. Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that require two shots, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one.

Fletcher said homeless people will be among those given priority for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because requiring a second shot could be challenging for people living on the street.

So far, there are no medical teams that are administering vaccines to the unhoused, but Fletcher said the county may begin such a program.


Deacon Jim Vargas, president and CEO of Father Joe’s Village, said the nonprofit’s medical teams that already are doing street outreach could begin providing vaccines to people living without shelter.

Father Joe’s Villages is overseeing about 400 of the 737 homeless people at the Convention Center shelter this week, and Vargas said there is more than enough room at Golden Hall to accommodate them all.

The nonprofit had been operating a bridge shelter at Golden Hall before moving its clients to the Convention Center, and Vargas said it will be able to shelter more people there than it did last year because beds will be spread out over two floors.

The first floor will have 526 beds for men and the second floor will have 46 beds for transition-aged youths 18-24 years old, 146 beds for families and 10 cribs for babies.

No single women will be in Golden Hall, but Father Joe’s can accommodate them at its Paul Mirabile Center, which has 40 beds for women and 135 beds for men, and its new 28-bed shelter for women, Vargas said.

The Alpha Project, which is overseeing clients in another section of the Convention Center shelter, will move 180 adults to its tented bridge shelter at 16th Street and Newton Avenue and 106 adults to its tented shelter on Imperial Avenue, according to a press release from the mayor’s office, which also stated that the numbers could change.


Some people from the Convention Center also will move to an interim shelter at Connections Housing, which is operated in downtown San Diego by People Assisting the Homeless.