Convention center gears up for return as emergency migrant shelter closes


SAN DIEGO – The San Diego Convention Center is gearing up for a return to normalcy after roughly 2,400 unaccompanied migrant girls have been moved out of the one-time emergency shelter.

San Diego County Supervisor Nora Vargas

It has been a time unlike any other in the facility’s history. Starting in April 2020, the convention center opened as a shelter to house San Diegans experiencing homelessness as part of the city’s Operation Shelter to Home program before transitioning this year into a temporary shelter operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to house migrant children seeking asylum.

Now the mammoth waterfront building is planning for a more conventional year with 30 conventions already set for 2021. The first event back — SPIE Optics and Photonics 2021 — kicks off Aug. 1.

“We made it work and over 2,000 young children are now in their homes with their families who were waiting for them,” San Diego County Supervisor Nora Vargas said Tuesday. “To me, that really is what San Diego is all about which is a welcoming city.”

Standing on the doorstep of doing what it does best, anticipation is building for the time to come, according to Maren Dougherty, director of marketing and communications for the Convention Center.

“We’ve started to hear from clients who are ready to go full-force with their planning, with their promotion,” Dougherty said.

HHS plans to shut down two facilities in Texas and two at convention centers in California by early August, Aurora Miranda-Maese, juvenile coordinator for the agency’s office of refugee resettlement, said in a recent court hearing about custody conditions for migrant children.

Four of the large-scale shelters will remain open, including one that has faced criticism from immigrant advocates at Fort Bliss Army Base in El Paso, Texas, she said. Others are in Albion, Michigan; Pecos, Texas; and Pomona, California, she said.

U.S. officials have reported a recent drop in the number of children held in emergency facilities, including a more than 40% decline at Fort Bliss since mid-June. Miranda-Maese said more children are being released to relatives in the U.S. or being sent to state-licensed shelters, which have a higher standard of care.

Now the facility is being readied to host crowds of various sizes through the remainder of the year. Under current California guidelines, few restrictions remain in place for convention attendees, but there still are some to consider for indoor crowds totaling 5,000 or more people.

“The attendees either need to be fully vaccinated or have a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours,” Dougherty said.

But after 17 months, Vargas said everyone is looking to get back to normal.

“We are looking forward to having people back and to San Diego and enjoy our beautiful weather and spend a lot of money in our stores and our restaurants,” Vargas said.

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