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Much more than the rest of the revived downtown San Diego, the southeast corner of the East Village is still scattered with vacant lots, closed shops, daytime-only businesses and closed-curtain homes.
Juxtaposed to the redevelopment boom elsewhere downtown, it’s a forgotten neighborhood still beset with drug dealers. Residents and nearby business owners call it one of the city’s most historically active drug zones, and the problem goes back farther than most can remember.
And it continues today, despite a heavy police presence, community outreach programs and the area’s redevelopment prospects. As city officials continue pushing redevelopment downtown, and evaluate the area for a downtown Chargers stadium, kicking the East Village’s drug trade to the curb remains a challenge that no one’s figured out. Particularly on 17th Street between Market Street and Imperial Avenue.
“It was crack corner 20 years ago, and it still is today,” said Bob McElroy, president of the nonprofit Alpha Project that manages the city’s winter homeless shelter nearby. “We’ve tried diligently for decades to clean up that street.”
On 17th Street, small houses and low-income apartments line one side and the other abuts Interstate 5 with wire fencing. It’s home to a large transient population with the city’s day homeless shelter and other social services in the area.
In a five-block stretch of 17th Street alone, police arrested 262 people last year for narcotics violations. Include three more streets, over to 14th, and the total nears 900 arrests. One out of every 10 people arrested for drug violations in San Diego last year was picked up from this corner of the East Village.
San Diego Police Capt. Mark Jones said part of that heavy load is related to illegal drug use among the homeless population. Their drug use is visible to police because it happens on a public street, more than people who use illegal drugs at home or in a car.
“The issue is people out on the sidewalks dealing dope,” Jones said. “Whether those people are homeless or not, the fact is, in this area, there are people out there doing that and it’s a large market.”
The broader problem, police and residents say, is not the homeless, but the area’s long-standing reputation as a staging ground for street-level drug dealers. Even before the area’s homeless population swelled with the availability of social services in recent decades, people from across the region knew where to find their next fix out of the limelight.
“The guys that bring [the drugs] in are not the homeless and most of the buyers are not the homeless,” McElroy said. “If you want to buy crack and you’re living in Poway, you’re going to 17th and K.”
When police and residents discuss the root of the drug trade along 17th Street, they first point to Interstate 5. Drug dealers generally meet where they can quickly make an exchange and leave without much attention, police say. In the East Village, the ramps connected to Interstate 5 fulfill that need. In a matter of minutes, drivers can exit Interstate 5 to 17th Street, circle the block and hop back on the freeway.
Before the East Village became the home of Petco Park, eclectic artisans and high-rise condos, it was strewn with dormant warehouses and factories. The freeway ramps to 17th Street would have served the commercial truckers well in their hey-day, but when the district’s economy collapsed long ago, and major businesses deserted the area, the ramps started to better serve drug dealers, residents say.
The corner of 17th and K, near the freeway ramps, is the historical center of drug dealing in the area, police say, but it has shifted over time with enforcement levels. When police patrol the street more often, drug dealers move a few blocks down. When police move there, the dealers go back to 17th and K.
Last year, the 100 block of 17th Street and the 400 block of 15th Street each had more drug arrests than any other single block in the city, according to a voiceofsandiego.org analysis of police data. Several other blocks in the southeast corner of the East Village also ranked within the city’s top 10 most active places for drug arrests.
Father Joe Carroll is president of St. Vincent de Paul in San Diego, which now manages the city’s day homeless center on the 100 block of 17th Street. He describes the area as a “no man’s land” that’s nurtures drug activity in the absence of the public eye.
“You’ll look at it and there’s almost no daily life. If you’re a drug dealer, you want to be in a place where nobody notices it every day,” Carroll said. “As long as there’s a market, it’s very hard to stop.”
Security guards at the homeless shelter do call police about drug activity across the street, Carroll said, but they won’t leave the shelter and address it themselves. Several other business owners and social service employees in the area said they also call police about drugs, but won’t intervene out of fear of being sued. It’s also dangerous.
Jones, the police captain, said police enforcement in the East Village is a mix of patrolling and responding to complaints. Police have foot patrols or squad cars roll through the area, specifically looking for drug activity from time to time. At the city’s winter homeless shelter on 16th Street, police station their homeless outreach team to assist.
Despite that enforcement presence, and the area’s proximity to police headquarters, drug activity hasn’t been dramatically affected, police and residents said. The situation’s silver lining, at least recently, has been a decline in violent crimes, Jones said.
“There’s no doubt that (drug) activity can spawn the other types of crimes, but we’ve been very diligent about trying to keep a lid on the activity,” Jones said. “Believe me, if we didn’t have the narcotics enforcement, we’d have a different result right now.”
Some residents and business owners criticized the police department for not doing more, but they also don’t know whether it would have a lasting impact on the community. They point to business development as a possible deterrent in the future, but some of the area’s projects have stalled under economic stress. Other proposals like the Chargers Stadium are uncertain at best.
“This is the last corner of downtown that needed to be reformed,” said David Ventura, co-owner of a mixed martial arts gym that moved into the area two years ago. “I guess they would have to clean this up eventually.”