“It’s cold, wet, exhausting,” Patricia Cook said as she and a half-dozen homeless people huddled under blankets, coats and umbrellas at an Oceanside strip mall to escape this week’s rain.
Cook, 42, said she would go into a shelter “in a heartbeat,” but there are none in the North County city.
In fact, the only inclement weather shelters in the county are in downtown San Diego.
On Wednesday, the San Diego Housing Commission announced there would be 28 beds available at the Living Water Church of the Nazarene and 10 beds for single women at the San Diego Rescue Mission that night. Under the inclement weather shelter program, beds become available when the weather is 50 degrees or below with a 40 percent chance of rain or when it’s 45 degrees or below, regardless of rain.
There were 55 more inclement weather shelter beds in December, but still far too few to accommodate the 1,700 people estimated to be living outdoors in downtown San Diego. They also do not provide shelter during the day, with a check-out time of 6:30 a.m. at Living Water and 7 a.m. at the Rescue Mission.
Cook had been staying under a tarp behind a fire station off state Highway 76, but got flooded out before dawn Jan. 1.
“Before I knew it, water was everywhere,” she said. “I had my groceries all piled up and my blanket folded and piled on top of them. I was sitting on one blanket that was soaking up a bunch of water and trying to stay dry and get some rest.”
Pamela Jean “PJ” Mittag also was sheltering in the Oceanside strip mall with Cook.
“It’s so hard,” she said. “You have to constantly move because you’re on private property.”
On Tuesday, more shelter beds became available as the Interfaith Shelter Network kicked off its winter shelter program, which operates in churches in San Diego, the South Bay, East County, beach communities and coastal North County.
Judy Mantle, who became executive director of the nonprofit Dec. 1, said this is the first time the rotating shelter network has been active since shutting down because of the pandemic two years ago.
Over the next four months, three or four churches in the network will provide 12 beds each for two weeks in the rotating system, but there are fewer participants this year. Before the pandemic, the network had about 70 churches; now it has 28, Mantle said.
Unlike the inclement weather shelters in San Diego, the Interfaith Shelter Network does not take walk-ups. Joe Zilvinskis, director of operations at the Interfaith Shelter Network, ran the shelter network for about 18 years and said the temporary shelters are staffed by volunteers, not trained social workers, so each person who uses the system must be referred and screened by a service provider they partner with.
San Diego used to have considerably more winter shelter beds, but ended its program in 2015 when City Council members approved a plan to close two large tented shelters run by Veterans Village and the Alpha Project, which together provided 350 beds. In their place, the city funded a 350-bed year-round shelter at the Paul Mirabile Center in the Father Joe’s Villages campus in the East Village neighborhood of downtown San Diego.
While the change resulted in the same number of beds plus year-round services, homeless advocates cautioned the action could leave people out in the cold because some would not go into a year-round shelter but would go into a temporary winter shelter.
Greg Anglea, CEO of Interfaith Community Services, said winter months always see an increase in demand at the 49-bed Haven House shelter the nonprofit operates in Escondido.
“We see more people trying to get off the street during cold-weather months,” he said, adding that there are less than 150 shelter beds in all of North County. “However, our shelters all operate at full capacity.”
Among the people living in downtown San Diego encampments this week are Ramona Saucedo, 40, and her husband Steve, 39.
“It’s been windy, and it’s hard to keep everything in place,” Ramona said, pointing out the stakes inside their tent and heavy boards that anchor it to the sidewalk. “Everything is water-logged in there.”
“This whole section was underwater,” said Steve about the intersection of 16th Street and National Avenue. After the rain stopped Jan. 1, Steve said he and others living on the sidewalk pushed water into the street with a large broom.
Around the corner, KarLeatha Pricewas still trying to dry out clothes that were soaked by rains over the past two days.
“When the wind started blowing, it picked up the tent,” she said. “I was like, whoa, how did that happen? Because there’s clamps on there. It was bad. Everybody’s things were tore up. And I’ve been outward to other camps on the bridges and stuff, and people’s things are just ruined.”
Price said a religious group had recently given people on the street blankets, clothing, socks and other gifts for Christmas, and much of those were lost in the rain.
In Mission Valley, Mac Oson, 64, has been living near the San Diego River for about 15 years. Sitting under a large yellow umbrella, he was preparing a meal and had utensils, pots and pans, and plastic containers with food and wine bottles nearby.
He said he prefers the tranquility of the riverbed to the crowded encampments downtown, but it comes with a cost during bad weather. On Wednesday morning, the ground around him was muddy, and his camp still showed signs of the recent rains.
“All my clothes are soaking wet,” he said. “They’re starting to mildew.”
Stronger rains are expected Thursday, and Oson said he would be keeping an eye on the river, which was just yards away.
“I have to keep a lookout every hour,” he said. Just days earlier, he said rains caused the river to overtake his camp, washing away some of his furniture.
“I didn’t think that the river would swell up that fast,” he said. “Sometimes you misjudge it.”
In October 2021, Dan Shea and Drew Moser of the Lucky Duck Foundation pleaded with any city in the county to take a large tented structure it owned to use as a winter shelter. There were no takers, and the structure was unused until September, when it opened as a year-round, 150-bed shelter run by the city and county of San Diego on Rosecrans Street.
Back in Oceanside, a security guard walked up to Cook and others at the strip mall shortly before sundown Tuesday.
“Hello guys,” he said. “I’m sorry. I know it’s raining, but you have to leave.”