Cots in a row with a curtain dividing the room

The Beginning: Operation Shelter to Home

Before the pandemic, we were calling the San Diego Convention Center "a place for life-changing events." Over the course of the past few weeks, we have transformed our operations to become a place of life and a place of change during one of the most volatile and far-reaching events many of us have witnessed in our lives.

In this series of blog posts, my colleagues and I will share our experiences as we temporarily shift the San Diego Convention Center from an economic engine for our region into a place for our unsheltered neighbors, through a collaborative San Diego regional effort dubbed Operation Shelter to Home.

This shift began in March, when our sales team coordinated with customers on the cancellation or postponement of more than 30 events -- conventions, trade shows, meetings and public activities -- with total attendance exceeding 100,000 and a regional economic impact in the hundreds of millions. Like most of our colleagues in venue management around the world, we soon realized we would probably not host a single event in late March or April, and possibly longer.

All the while, our President and CEO Rip Rippetoe had been in discussion with local leaders regarding the potential repurposing of the San Diego Convention Center as a temporary shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness. We had space, staffing, expertise in planning large-scale operations and outdoor areas that could accommodate equipment such as trailers with showers and rows of washer/dryers. Opening our building for this purpose would allow for greater physical distancing within existing shelter facilities and ensure that more homeless individuals throughout our region would have access to health services, mental health support and reliable food sources during this pandemic.  

Our operations staff worked closely with leaders and staff from the City, County, San Diego Housing Commission, Regional Task Force on the Homeless and homeless service providers to create diagrams, staffing plans, policies and procedures. Where would health screenings take place? Where would an isolation area be located? Could people bring their pets? Where could people charge electronic devices and connect to Wi-Fi? In some cases, our staff's experience with conventions led to quick and easy answers. Other topics required greater time and consideration. 

The teams decided to move in clients using a phased approach, beginning with the exhibit halls on the end of the building next to Plaza Park and the Hilton Bayfront (F, G and H), with the possibility of expanding into more exhibit halls.

This past Wednesday, April 1, we opened our doors to the first clients, a group of more than 350 individuals who were previously living at two of the City's bridge shelters operated by the Alpha Project, a local nonprofit organization. As you can imagine, uprooting yourself and your belongings from the place you have come to know as your home can be difficult. With the great teams at Alpha Project, who've created a community and family-like atmosphere within their shelter, the move went smoothly and clients have been adjusting nicely to the new space given these unusual circumstances.

One of the most important pieces to this entire project is the emphasis the operations team will be putting on finding and connecting individuals to permanent housing. The team has identified a number of strategies to quickly transition people into permanent housing solutions—ultimately reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness in San Diego.

Our SDCC team is glad to support community initiatives to curb the spread of COVID-19 and provide temporary shelter for individuals in urgent need. We thank the City, County, and community partners for their guidance and partnership. To learn more, see the Shelter to Home press release, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or stay tuned to our website, where we'll share more information in the coming days and weeks.

Authored by Maren Dougherty

Maren Dougherty is the San Diego Convention Center's Executive Director of Marketing & Communications. When she isn't writing articles or talking to media, you can find her enjoying San Diego's climate. She loves running through neighborhoods, visiting Balboa Park, and relaxing at San Diego's beautiful beaches.

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  • San Diego Convention Center
    111 W Harbor Drive
    San Diego, CA 92101
  • 619.525.5000