What makes Fiesta Island great for so many people is you can do many different things there, from shooting rockets to letting your dog swim to having a bonfire. Now, it’s become a place to settle for those in RVs and campers with few other options.
For weeks this summer, dozens of people have parked their campers and cars along the Mission Bay island’s western shoreline during the day and overnight, inspiring complaints about blight, safety and trash.
A new ordinance barring large vehicles from parking on city streets overnight may be contributing to the phenomenon.
Camping is not allowed but the new residents of Fiesta Island stay in large vans, trucks and RVs – some sun-faded and others, likely owned by tourists, still shining – packed with their belongings and pets. As the sun set Wednesday night, nearly 30 vehicles had stopped on the beach, along with another 40 smaller cars and trucks.
Some planned to stay for a few hours or a night. Others may have parked there for days or even weeks at a time. One evening last week, police towed 10 vehicles after warning those who remained that it’s illegal to park on the island between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.
Frequent Fiesta Island visitor Jeff Kronenberg took this video of RVs parked on Fiesta Island on Aug. 7.
A handful of folks who’ve stayed on Fiesta Island who talked with Voice of San Diego are adamant city rules, including one not always regularly enforced, have helped foster the growing numbers who spend their nights at the popular recreational hub.
City code has long barred people from living in their vehicles, forcing the hundreds who do to try to stay under the radar.
A newer, 2013 ordinance barring oversized vehicles, including RVs, on city streets between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. and near a city intersection any time without a permit has complicated life for homeless people who live in those vehicles. They search for places to park during the day and night where they don’t think they’ll be cited, often moving to multiple spots in a single day.
“We’re constantly on the move,” said Julie Porter, who’s parked the RV she shares with her boyfriend in various Mission Bay locations, including Fiesta Island, over the past couple years.
Meanwhile, the most recent regional homeless census revealed a 50 percent year-over-year spike in vehicle homelessness in the city alone.
Enter Fiesta Island. While city signage at its entrance declares it closes at 10 p.m., Porter and others, including a city spokesman, confirmed the island gate isn’t always locked. Police can’t check the area every night.
The process to check on and close the island can take two to three hours, time police don’t always have.
“This inspection only occurs when SDPD has time and resources available to inspect the island and close the gate,” Park and Recreation Department spokesman Tim Graham wrote in an email.
Porter and her boyfriend Melvin Price say they don’t believe that happens often. The couple has taken to parking their late-70s RV at Fiesta Island during the day. Most nights, they move elsewhere before 10 p.m., Porter said, but once in a while they stay.
“I’ve never seen that gate locked,” Porter said.
Price estimated he’s noticed the gate locked a half-dozen times in six years.
Others have come to know they won’t be booted out.
Robert, 50, a San Diego native who asked that I not use his last name, told me Wednesday night he’d planned to park his truck and camper on Fiesta Island that evening.
Robert said he was between places and hoped to move into a friend’s home as soon as Thursday. He thought of Fiesta Island as a safe spot to park. He couldn’t afford to stay in a campground. He knew from past experience the gate would likely remain open and police wouldn’t bother him.
“There’s really no areas you can go besides here where can you go and not be fined a lot,” Robert said.
I chatted with Joe, who also asked that I not print his last name, Wednesday night while he grilled chicken for his 80-year-old father and two boys outside their large white van. Joe, 46, said he’d been sleeping on Fiesta Island for about a week and that he was grateful the city hadn’t been locking the gate or regularly kicking people off the island. Joe said he’s working during the day and can relax on Fiesta Island at night.
“It’s given me a little breathing room so I can make things better for myself,” he said.
Joe called me Thursday morning, saying he’d given it more thought and was conflicted.
About 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Joe said, police ordered those on Fiesta Island to pack up and move. Countless cars and RVs drove off the island and Joe said most were filled with partiers or others who didn’t seem to be using Fiesta Island as a launching pad to something better.
“They don’t want to get off the streets,” Joe said. “You give them the bay and they’re gonna sit there and they’re gonna take up all the room at the bay.”
Porter, 59, is frustrated with some others who’ve settled on Fiesta Island, too.
By the time police showed up last Wednesday, Porter said couches and beds were sitting out on the sand and other trash had piled up. She also dislikes that others who’ve stayed on the island drink or use drugs.
Nearby residents have taken similar concerns to city officials.
Bay Park resident Jeff Kronenberg, who visits Fiesta Island multiple times a week, called City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf’s office recently after he counted more than 50 RVs parked along the west shore on a single day.
He said he’s sympathetic to the homeless people staying on the island and is convinced the oversized vehicle ordinance is at least partly behind the increased numbers.
“There’s probably hundreds of these guys around town with no place to go,” Kronenberg said.
Denise Friedman, who serves on the Pacific Beach Town Council, said she knows many neighbors have complained to police or Park and Recreation staffers. She wishes the city would take greater steps to shutter Fiesta Island at 10 p.m. and perhaps open a campground or a lot to those living on Fiesta Island.
“Certainly there must be some city land somewhere,” Friedman said.
City Councilman Todd Gloria asked about that possibility in April when the City Council’s land use subcommittee discussed making the oversized vehicle ordinance permanent.
At the meeting, Gloria asked city officials whether they could secure a safe haven parking area for homeless people affected by the ordinance, which comes with a $100 fine per violation.
“They really have nowhere else to go,” Gloria said.
Graham, the city spokesman, said the city has no plans to open a safe parking lot for people who live in RVs or large vehicles.
That means there isn’t a designated safe zone for homeless folks who live in their RVs. Dreams for Change, a nonprofit that operates safe parking lots, can’t accept them.
Porter, Price, Joe and Robert all told me they wish the city would offer them that option.
“People like me, they need something like this,” Joe said.
The window for safe haven on Fiesta Island may be closing.
After many complaints, Graham said the police department agreed to take the lead in patrolling Fiesta Island at night and letting those parked there know they could be cited or towed if they remain there after 10 p.m.
Police officers returned this Wednesday night, at least the second time since officers ordered people to leave the island in the last week.
“The city is taking all necessary steps to create a safe and inviting environment for recreational vehicles and tourists while doing its best to ensure that some RV users are not taking advantage of parking at public park facilities for multiple days at a time,” Graham wrote in an email.