VISTA ---- The smell of household cleaners stung the air this week in a ragged building on East Vista Way as volunteers worked to resurrect a homeless shelter that has been shuttered for more than a year.
Navigating through an obstacle course of sponges and paint-spattered buckets, volunteers from civic groups and local businesses set up bunk beds, polished windows and mopped the partially tiled floors.
"We're starting fresh," said volunteer Pat Reith, 75, as she carried mattresses inside from a nearby storage bin Thursday.
Bit by bit, the 40-bed facility is coming back together, and shelter officials said they hope to open the doors on or around March 21.
"We're making good progress," said Chris Megison, executive director of the nonprofit North County Solutions for Change. "I think we're going to be OK."
Megison said his organization is reopening the facility --- after months of talking and working with the city ---- to provide beds and case management for homeless families waiting to move into Solutions' 120-bed family center on West California Avenue.
That program, which works to help families find permanent affordable housing within a year, has a waiting list of 10 to 15 families, Megison said.
Across town, a 50-bed emergency winter shelter for families called Operation Hope ---- not a part of Solutions --- is operating at capacity, but is slated to close its doors in mid-April. Megison said he hopes his new facility will be a timely lifeline for those who have not yet found alternative housing.
But first things first, he said. Transforming the graffiti-stained building at 809 E. Vista Way into a working "intake and access center" is going to require at least 150 more hours of volunteer work.
"It probably needs about $70,000 worth of material and labor, but we're going to do it for about $10,000," Megison said.
A controversial history
Over the years, the East Vista Way shelter --- located along a commercial corridor a few blocks east of downtown ---- has been the subject of some community acrimony and several City Council debates.
When a permit for the project was first approved in 2000, opponents voiced concerns about safety, noise and negative impacts on their quality of life. Some held rallies, others threatened lawsuits.
But in the years that followed, neighborhood support grew, Megison said.
Jim Adams, the 33-year-old manager of the adjacent Vista Way Cafe, said Thursday that he'd rather see a shelter next door than a vacant building that invites questionable characters into the area.
"We're totally in favor of it," he said. "We've never had a problem."
Under the terms of its contract with the city, Solutions agreed to abandon that Intake and Access family shelter within 30 days of opening its West California Avenue center in November 2004. But without missing a beat, Megison was back before the council, asking for permission to reopen the temporary shelter to skim the top off the waiting list at the new site.
The request angered some city officials, who said Megison was going back on his word.
Councilman Steve Gronke ---- who has repeatedly said the city does more than its fair share to combat homelessness in North County ---- fought the reopening of the shelter through much of 2005. After the city's Planning Commission narrowly approved a permit for the project in September, Gronke appealed it, arguing that the shelter was an inappropriate use for a commercial corridor.
But in the end, only Councilman Frank Lopez sided with Gronke in opposing the plan and the council approved the permit 3-2.
Inside the Intake and Access Family shelter Thursday, volunteers arranged the bunk beds nearly end to end. Megison's wife, Tammy, a co-founder of Solutions for Change, said fathers and teenage boys will sleep at one end of the barracks, while other family members will sleep at the other.
"It just keeps things simpler," she said.
In some aspects, the lack of privacy works to the new shelter's advantage. "It's pretty hard to be an active drug addict or an alcoholic in a place like this," Chris Megison said.
About 40 percent of those who come to Solutions for help suffer from drug and alcohol addiction, Megison said. The remainder have either been economically displaced or are victims of domestic violence.
Unlike the organization's California Avenue center, which requires families to prove they have been clean and sober for 90 days before they can stay there, the intake center will only have a 30-day sobriety threshold for new admissions.
With a first-year operating budget of $130,000, the East Vista Way facility will have three paid employees, including an on-site manager, who will be supported by 50 to 70 volunteers per week, Megison said.
He anticipates an annual budget increase of 5 percent to 10 percent, depending on the material donations the shelter receives.
"It gets real costly if all of a sudden we have to buy toilet paper," Megison said. "Stuff like milk and meat can run thousands of dollars a year."
Last year, Solutions for Change was awarded a $925,000 grant from the state's Emergency Housing and Assistance program. While the funds have yet to clear escrow, the bulk of it will be used to purchase the East Vista Way building, Megison said.
Under its agreement with the city, Solutions can use the building as a shelter until 2016.
To fund future operations, Megison said the organization will seek out grants and private donations, especially from the faith community, which has supported its efforts in the past.