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A couple of weeks after we ran my story on San Diego’s tent cities, I got an e-mail from a reader. She’d noticed a change:

The tent city on Commercial under the freeway overpass is now gone.  Have any idea what happened?

I didn’t. But I knew that the tent community she was referring to — under Interstate 5 along Commercial Street — was the most concentrated of all the ones I visited while I was reporting the story. There were between 25 and 30 tents on each side of the street, each night. Every spot along the sidewalk was occupied by a tent.

Lodging on public sidewalks is allowed between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m.

I took a drive to find out what was up. Under the bridge at 10:30 p.m., the sidewalks along Commercial Street were empty. A few blocks north, on Island Avenue, there were fewer tents than when I’d visited.

Last week I spoke with downtown police Capt. Chris Ball, who told me that in response to a spike in complaints about the tents in and around downtown, the Police Department had stepped up enforcement.

“The tents seem to galvanize a significant public response,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of permanence that kicks in when the tents go up.”

He said the legal settlement that two years ago resulted in the city agreeing not to enforce the illegal lodging ordinance during nighttime hours made no mention of tents.

“You can’t use them where they’re intruding or blocking the sidewalk,” Ball said. The department has started enforcing municipal code sections that prohibit blocking sidewalks, effectively making the use of tents illegal.

Many of them have disappeared, and the people who told me the tents had provided them a greater sense of security and nighttime comfort are sleeping out in the open, again.

Ball said he recognizes that looking up a city ordinance to effectively prohibit tents while still permitting nighttime lodging does little to address the root problem — it just makes it less visible.

At a community meeting July 28, Ball said downtown residents spent more than an hour complaining about the growing homeless presence. “What they’re suggesting was we put them on a bus or train or boat. I don’t think anyone really has any idea how to solve this.”

“There doesn’t seem to be any political will to get behind the issue,” he said.


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