Nearly everyone agrees that homelessness remains one of the Coachella Valley's top issues. So News Channel 3 wanted to know what's happening right now with the new homeless navigation center planned to open in north Palm Springs.
When completed, the center is expected to provide 80 beds for the homeless, in addition to a variety of support services. But as the costs continue to increase, so do questions about the project itself.
Though it may look like nothing is currently happening at the nearly four-acre site off McCarthy Road, according to Palm Springs city officials, everything is still on schedule.
In an email to News Channel 3, the city's communications director Amy Blaisdell said, "Residential units are currently under construction and expected to be installed this fall. In addition, the design work for the re-entry facility is underway."
Sitework and utility infrastructure are scheduled to begin in July. The facilities are expected to be ready for the first residents come February 2024.
Plans for the center have been in the works for more than a year. The nonprofit homeless services provider, Martha's Village and Kitchen, is currently in talks with the city to operate the center.
"Is this navigation center going to be a game changer when it comes to homelessness in the Palm Springs area?" Peter Daut asked CEO Sam Hollenbeck.
"I think absolutely," he replied. "Let's say if law enforcement finds somebody on the street who needs help, they now have somebody they can try to filter into the center that they had no place to send before."
But from the beginning, there have been issues with the project.
Neighborhood groups in north Palm Springs protested its location, fearing it will lead to an increase in crime. There have also been questions about the project's timeline, prompting criticism earlier this year from some city councilmembers.
In February, Councilmember Lisa Middleton asked Jay Virata, the director of community and economic development: "Can you give us a broad review of the timeline, and when will we see occupancy at the navigation center?"
Virata replied, "It is difficult to answer, given the availability of products right now for construction and other building materials."
Middleton responded, "Jay, that's not good enough. I don't mean that personally, but we need a timeline that is going to work. And there is no higher priority in the city than getting this open." She later added, "I am very fearful that we are planning this thing to death."
The largest building at the center, Building C, was originally supposed to be a residential facility, but design requirements laid out in the grant-funding rules say that residential facilities must have windows and bathrooms. So Building C is currently not included in the designs, but labeled for "future use."
And then there are the rising costs. The project's development team is requesting millions of extra dollars to offset construction costs, and add services to the project.
According to a June 5th city council staff report: "Bids for the construction were received in May, and were higher than budgeted." There are also "electrical costs" and "extensive infrastructure upgrades."
Back in February, the council approved $3 million in additional funding for the center, bringing the total cost to more than $31 million. But according to the June 5th staff report, the team is now asking for an additional $5 million, which would come out of next year's general fund budget. If approved, the county would also contribute and additional $3 million, pushing the project's grand total to nearly $40 million.
"I think the navigation center was put into play without even knowing what they were going to put there. So they spent all this money at a place that does not work," Matt Naylor, the vice president of Well in the Desert, said.
The nonprofit works closely with the homeless, and estimates there are currently 445 unsheltered people in the city of Palm Springs alone, which is higher than the county's most recent homeless point-in-time count of 239.
Naylor said 80 beds is not enough, and recently wrote a letter to the city, questioning why more is not being done to help the growing homeless population.
"Eighty beds is nothing. And if you're asking for a referral service, how are those individuals going to be chosen to fill those 80 beds, which is not even a lot compared to the 445 who actually live here right now," he said.
Daut asked Hollenbeck: "What would you say to somebody who thinks that this is the wrong idea?"
Hollenbeck replied, "I think whenever you do something like this, there's always going to be people with different ideas on how to do it. It's 80 to 85 beds that aren't here now. You can argue whether it's the right type of shelter, but it's going to get people off the streets."
The city and county declined News Channel 3's requests for an interview on the project until after the next public discussion. The discussion was supposed to happen at the council meeting on June 5th, but has now been pushed to June 29th. Even so, Blaisdell said there has been no delay with the project.