Shopping carts and other belongings sit along the curb of an East Village street in 2017. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The group that oversees San Diego’s homeless count decided to include more than 60 people arrested for violations often associated with homelessness to its annual tally to lessen the impact of police enforcement in the run-up to this year’s census.

In the days before and after the January count, homeless advocates and even the CEO of the organization that coordinates the count said they feared a police crackdown in the downtown area most densely populated with homeless San Diegans may have affected the effort.

A Voice of San Diego analysis in late January revealed police arrested 62 people for encroachment or illegal lodging – two charges often associated with homeless camps – in the ZIP codes that include East Village and Sherman Heights. That was triple the number of arrests made in the previous two weeks combined.

Police and mayor’s office officials have said the ramped-up enforcement was a response to nearby residents’ complaints – not an effort to skew the count.

But Regional Task Force on the Homeless CEO Tamera Kohler told Voice of San Diego that the group decided to include the 62 arrestees after consulting with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees homeless counts. The 62 people were incorporated into the tally of 2,600 homeless San Diegans that the task force found living on city streets.

William Snow, a HUD official who oversees point-in-time counts, told VOSD he heard from the task force about the stepped-up police enforcement within days of San Diego’s point-in-time count.

At the time, Regional Task Force officials told Snow and VOSD they were startled to learn of the increased police enforcement in an area considered ground zero of the region’s homeless crisis.

“To have that kind of activity just changes the landscape,” Kohler told VOSD in January.

Snow agreed.

“What we often find with law enforcement activity is you get people dispersed all over and you can’t find them,” Snow said.

Further complicating matters, HUD rules bar groups coordinating homeless counts from including in their official tallies homeless people who are jailed, though they are counted separately in San Diego.

Snow said he advised task force officials they could consult with outreach workers and groups such as the Downtown San Diego Partnership, which conducts its own monthly downtown homeless count, to estimate the number of homeless San Diegans who likely would have been in the area were it not for the increased police enforcement. He told officials that they could also factor in other data or methods they considered viable.

Kohler and Task Force Operations Coordinator Kat Durant said they decided to rely on data reported by VOSD and later the San Diego Union-Tribune, documenting a burst in arrests the week before the count.

Kohler acknowledged it was an unusual step and said she appreciated HUD’s guidance on how to address the impacts of the police enforcement.

“That’s not something you usually can do,” Kohler said.

Kohler said the increased enforcement and the reaction to it has spurred conversations between police and the Task Force about how they can better coordinate in the future.

In January, Kohler said she was mulling whether to request that police and sheriff’s departments put a moratorium on enforcement affecting homeless San Diegans in the days before future homeless counts.

Capt. Scott Wahl, who leads the police division charged with combating quality-of-life crimes and other issues tied to homelessness, said the city has not talked with the task force about halting enforcement before next years’ count.

But Wahl said he and Kohler have discussed how San Diego police officers can assist with the census in the future.

“You’ve gotta have a village trying to help you count,” Wahl said. “We want to make sure that we’re doing our part.”

Greg Block, a spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, said Friday that he was also unaware of any discussions about a future moratorium.

“The mayor’s direction has been very clear to our police department. Our police officers have a job to do,” Block said. “They will continue to enforce the law. What we learned from this episode is there should be better communication.”

Block said the mayor’s team didn’t oppose the task force’s decision to include the 62 people who were arrested in the census.

“You know who the people were. You know how many people you came in contact with,” Block said. “There was no attempt to skew anything.”

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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