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Police enforcement spiked in the downtown area most densely populated with homeless San Diegans in the days before the annual homeless census last Friday, spurring questions from advocates and even the group that oversees the count about how the increased enforcement may have affected the effort.
Data obtained by Voice of San Diego after a public records request reveals police arrested 62 people for two violations often associated with homelessness in two ZIP codes where many homeless San Diegans reside the week before the count – triple the number of arrests made in the previous two weeks combined.
If the latest sweeps followed past patterns, additional homeless San Diegans residing in those areas likely moved elsewhere at least temporarily to both accommodate and avoid police.
Arrest data shows officers made no encroachment or illegal lodging arrests – two charges often associated with homeless camps – in the ZIP codes that include East Village and Sherman Heights between Jan. 11 and Jan. 15. They made several dozen arrests in the week that followed.
Acting Assistant Police Chief Scott Wahl and Greg Block, a spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, said the increased enforcement was not meant to skew the results of the Jan. 25 homeless census. Instead, they said, police were focused on addressing residents’ concerns.
“That had nothing to do with the point-in-time count, but everything to do with the buildup of the tents,” said Wahl, who oversees the police department’s neighborhood policing division.
But advocates and even the CEO of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, the group that oversees the annual count, fear police activity may have negatively impacted the annual effort to track San Diego’s homeless population in two areas considered ground zero of San Diego’s homelessness crisis.
Images and videos shared on social media of officers standing around homeless camps in East Village and Sherman Heights fueled questions in the days before the count.
Task Force CEO Tamera Kohler said the stepped-up enforcement caught the group and the volunteer corps that helps conduct the point-in-time count off guard.
In the days and weeks before the census, Kohler said her team coordinated its efforts with an eye toward gathering information in areas with large concentrations of homeless San Diegans. She said she was disappointed to hear about the increased enforcement after it had occurred.
“To have that kind of activity just changes the landscape,” Kohler said.
Kohler said she may request that police and sheriff’s departments put a moratorium on enforcement affecting homeless San Diegans in the days before future homeless counts. She also said she is planning to evaluate how the enforcement may have impacted homeless census numbers and if necessary, to note that increased enforcement when it submits data to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development later this year.
John Brady, a homeless advocate who surveyed homeless San Diegans in East Village, suspected the impact was significant.
Brady, who is formerly homeless, was assigned to count homeless San Diegans along and near 17th Street, an area often lined with homeless tents.
Brady estimated only a third of the tents he had seen there the week before the count remained there when he arrived for the census early last Friday.
“The damage that was done by activating sweeps that intensely the week prior was significant,” Brady said.
Regional Task Force board member Ellis Rose, who also once lived on the streets, said he too fears people may have been missed – whether they were arrested or relocated elsewhere.
“I am concerned that it’s a possible effort to adjust the numbers because not only does it push (homeless people) out, but they go to areas where they’re less likely to be counted,” Rose said.
In recent years, the Task Force has surveyed people staying in county jails to estimate how many had previously slept on San Diego streets. Last year, the Task Force estimated about 1,500 people might have been counted on San Diego streets had they not been jailed. That estimate was not factored into the overarching homeless census numbers because HUD does not consider people staying in jails to be homeless.
That means homeless San Diegans who were arrested in the sweeps and may have remained jailed will not be formally included in this year’s homeless census numbers.
“When the rain stopped, (police) got a lot of calls and complaints. The police department has a job to do,” Block said. “They have to balance the quality of life in our neighborhoods with the needs of our homeless population.”
Block said the city can’t allow the unsanitary conditions that long festered in the area to build up again and risk a disease outbreak like hepatitis A, which sickened hundreds.
The increased police enforcement wasn’t the only wrinkle to emerge during this year’s homeless census.
This year, the Task Force conducted the point-in-time count differently than it has in years’ past, at the urging of federal officials who last year dug into the nonprofit’s approach when it opted to exclude homeless people living in RVs from reported 2018 census numbers.
For years, the Task Force and its volunteers have simply counted homeless San Diegans they see living on the streets and then surveyed an estimated 20 percent of the unsheltered population the following day.
This year, the Task Force asked volunteers to try to survey as many homeless San Diegans as they could and take down information on people they observed rather than simply record numbers on a map.
The goal, Kohler has said, was to gather more detailed information that San Diego leaders can use to better serve homeless San Diegans.
But volunteers ran out of surveys in at least two notable locations.
Brady, who worked in the East Village area, estimated that he was unable to complete surveys for at least 20 homeless San Diegans he saw after running out of surveys.
And Angie Striepling, regional manager for homeless-serving nonprofit Veterans Community Services, said her group ran out of surveys in a Chula Vista area near a large homeless camp after being given just three surveys and Starbucks gift cards to give to people who participated.
“We didn’t even get to our whole area because we ran out so fast,” Striepling said.
Both Brady and Striepling said they appreciated the focus on surveying homeless San Diegans to get more qualitative information, but said they wish there had been more clarity and resources on the morning of the count.
To try to ensure homeless San Diegans weren’t missed, Kohler said other groups of volunteers returned to areas with large homeless populations over the weekend to try to engage additional homeless San Diegans. Brady joined one of those teams on Saturday.
Kohler said the Task Force plans to follow up with volunteers who worked in East Village and Chula Vista to gather more information. Kohler said her team also hopes to have volunteers use a mobile app in future years so they don’t need to rely on paper forms to avoid the challenges that came up this year.
“I would be first to admit there are places it was clunky and not as smooth, but we also got some things this year that we haven’t in the past that I think will be helpful and actionable,” Kohler said.