Benson Place gives residents sense of home, family


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OTAY MESA — If it weren’t for Benson Place, a former motel recently transformed into affordable housing, Cheryl Mesa isn’t sure where she would be living right now.

“All I know is it’s a blessing,” the 61-year-old said.

Mesa, who moved into her furnished studio apartment at Benson Place in late August, has had a challenging life. She was a drug user for many years, and her children were taken away from her. She later experienced homelessness and battled schizophrenia.

Mesa has been clean and sober for six years now and, since she has been in recovery, she has been able to reconnect with six of her seven children.

“Now, I’ve got my own place. I’m so happy,” she said with a chuckle.

It’s a first for her.

“I’ve never had my own home, ever in my life,” said Mesa, who previously had lived in short-term housing at Father Joe’s Villages’ Paul Mirabile Center. As part of a group of the center’s residents who weren’t considered at high risk from COVID-19, she briefly relocated to the San Diego Convention Center prior to moving into Benson Place.

Benson Place, which welcomed its first residents on Aug. 24, represents the first afford-able housing project to emerge from Father Joe’s Villages’ Turning the Key initiative, which was launched three years ago. The initiative aims to create 2,000 affordable housing units in San Diego through a combination of new construction on lots owned by Father Joe’s Villages as well as through the acquisition and refurbishment of local motels.

Deacon Jim Vargas, president and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages, described Turning the Key as a “pretty audacious” plan that responds to a serious need in the community. He noted that the average one-bedroom apartment in San Diego goes for $2,000 a month — well beyond the price range of Father Joe’s Villages’ clients — and a rental vacancy rate of around 3.5 percent means that newly listed apartments are “scooped up” quickly.

Once homeless individuals are taken off the streets, they need an affordable place to live — and Benson Place provides just that. The units are reserved for individuals earning no more than 30 percent of the area median income. Tenants pay 30 percent of their income towards rent; those currently without income pay nothing.

Father Joe’s Villages purchased what had formerly been an EZ-8 Motel in the Otay Mesa area near the close of 2019, and renovations began the following January to transform it into Benson Place.

Deacon Vargas said that the difference between Benson Place and the motel that it once was are “like night and day.”

Benson Place now offers 82 fully-contained living units, including living space, kitchenette and bathroom. The complex also includes shared community space, a comput-er lab, and a food pantry. The latter is accessi-ble not only to Benson Place residents but also to other food-insecure individuals and fami-lies in the surrounding community.

The next Turning the Key project in the pipeline is Saint Teresa of Calcutta Villa, a 14-story building currently being constructed at the intersection of 14th and Commercial streets. Expected to open in January 2022, it will include 407 units for more than 500 peo-ple and community space on every floor.

Deacon Vargas expects to break ground in mid-2021 on a second 14-story building, to be located at the intersection of 13th and Broadway, which will provide an additional 270 units of affordable housing.

Along with a place to live, Father Joe’s Villages’ affordable housing projects will also offer supportive services to prevent residents from relapsing into negative behavior pat-terns. These include access to employment assistance, life skills training, benefits assis-tance, addiction treatment, healthcare man-agement and other services through Father Joe’s Villages.

“We just don’t put them in units and walk away. We make sure they have the support that they need to be able to retain the hous-ing,” Deacon Vargas said.

Lister Lane, 60, moved into Benson Place in early September, and said his new apart-ment means “security, freedom, a new way of life.” He expressed appreciation for how Father Joe’s Villages has provided residents not only with an affordable place to live, but also help with any problems they might have.

“It’s like having a family,” said Lane, who like Mesa had previously been living at the Paul Mirabile Center. Because of a preexisting condition, he did not make the move to the San Diego Convention Center, but relocated directly from the Paul Mirabile Center into Benson Place.

Though Father Joe’s Villages will continue to operate homeless shelters, Deacon Vargas said affordable housing is something very different.

“There’s a place for shelters, but … they’re not homes,” he said. “What we do here in Turning the Key, those are homes. And, for Benson Place, that’s a home. And that’s what we want for all those who we serve.”

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