San Diego Police Sgt. Michael Stirk talks to a homeless man in Balboa Park. / Photo by Lisa Halverstadt

A new plan meant to guide San Diego’s efforts to eliminate homelessness says the city should consider overhauling a central component of its current approach: police enforcement.

Homeless San Diegans, advocates and even courts have criticized the San Diego Police Department’s reliance on tickets and arrests to deter homeless encampments.

Now consultants paid by the city have highlighted the negative effects of that enforcement and urged the city and the Metropolitan Transit System to immediately prioritize a review of its practices. The new plan also encourages the city to look at ways to dial back the police department’s prominent role in homeless outreach.

In the Housing Commission-funded plan, authors Ann Oliva and Liz Drapa of the Corporation for Supportive Housing write that many homeless San Diegans and homeless service staff they met with expressed frustration with the time they spend trying to resolve city and trolley infractions – namely for violations such as illegal lodging, encroachment or fare evasion – when they could instead be working to access housing or jobs.

Police enforcement of offenses tied to homelessness soared in the wake of a deadly hepatitis A outbreak that hammered the region’s homeless population. Mayor Kevin Faulconer and police officials have defended that approach, arguing that enforcement is necessary to maintain health and safety.

Homeless San Diegans and front-line homeless service staff told the Corporation for Supportive Housing that police and MTS enforcement often undermines their work to end homelessness.

“San Diego has implemented practices and policies considered punitive by people experiencing homelessness and the staff that serve them,” Oliva and Drapa wrote. “These practices, like issuance of trolley tickets and tickets for encroachment or illegal lodging, lead to the lack of trust described above and often have negative long-term impacts on people experiencing homelessness that make obtaining employment and housing even more difficult.”

The report also noted that the city and San Diego police have made changes to try to improve practices, such as establishing a division focused on quality-of-life issues with more consistent protocols on enforcement involving homeless San Diegans and pursuing new uniforms they hope are less intimidating to people living on the street.

But Oliva and Drapa suggested that a leadership council and implementation team charged with monitoring the execution of the plan make it an early priority to formally engage with homeless San Diegans, advocates and front-line staff at homeless-serving agencies to learn about the impact of enforcement, broaden access to the city’s homeless court that can help homeless San Diegans address infractions and establish a “balanced plan to reduce criminalization of persons experiencing homelessness.”

The consultants also urged the city to settle on a framework for outreach that de-emphasizes the role of police officers.

“The current approach leads to role confusion and anxiety by people experiencing homelessness, as well as putting undue pressure on limited law enforcement resources,” Oliva and Drapa wrote. “Outreach workers – rather than police – should be first responders regarding unsheltered populations or other outreach-related issues.”

Oliva said that the intent wasn’t to propose that police entirely step away from outreach but that they take a backseat to service workers.

“What we were suggesting is that their role be shifted to support outreach or clinical experts rather than being the central hub for outreach, which is sort of how they work right now,” said Oliva, the lead author of the plan.

Faulconer said Thursday he is open to discussions about the city’s existing policies but also defended its approach.

“I know that particularly our police department, our Neighborhood Policing Division, approaches everyone with an offer to help first, an offer to help for a bed for the night. I insist on that and that’s I think a hallmark of what we’re doing,” Faulconer said. “Because what we are interested in is actually getting somebody off the street, into that shelter, into that permanent supportive housing unit that they can call their own. It’s important to have that right balance.”

Those offers of help, though, are for the most part mandated by a 2007 court settlement requiring police to offer an open shelter bed to people they encounter on the street between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. before they can cite or arrest them for illegal lodging. Police have said most of their enforcement happens during the day.

Rob Schupp, a spokesman for MTS, said in email that MTS is also willing to talk about issues raised in the homelessness plan.

“MTS supports a comprehensive approach to help people experiencing homelessness,” Schupp wrote. “We are committed to working with all stakeholders to implement effective solutions.”

At a recent MTS public safety committee meeting, homeless advocates spoke out against MTS enforcement, and agency staff gave a report on their efforts to explore new programs to connect homeless San Diegans to services.

The city has been sued by homeless San Diegans impacted by police enforcement. One case is nearly settled while another continues.

Keely Halsey, the city’s chief of homelessness strategies, noted in a statement to VOSD that the city has already expanded its homeless court program and has worked to ensure police officers offer services to homeless San Diegans each time they encounter them.

“Being homeless is not a crime,” Halsey wrote. “Our goal is to divert people from the criminal justice system whenever possible if there is a better alternative.”

Halsey said the city is working to increase the role of trained outreach workers as the front-line contacts for homeless San Diegans and is partnering with the Regional Task Force on the Homeless to try to increase and better coordinate homeless outreach in the city.

In a Aug. 30 memo to the Task Force regarding outreach policies that the city released to VOSD, Halsey wrote that the lack of a contact for residents, businesses and city officials to use quickly reach outreach teams has made the city overly reliant on law enforcement.

“A result of this deficit is that law enforcement is perceived by many as the only viable option: with nowhere else to turn for help, neighbors call on the Police Department to intervene and interact with individuals who, in many cases, need an outreach worker’s assistance, not an officer’s,” Halsey wrote.

But Halsey said police will continue to respond to community concerns and to conduct outreach, including when homeless service workers request their help.

“Outreach professionals have expressed that they prefer having SDPD presence on site during complex interactions,” Halsey wrote in an email to VOSD. “Those include connecting with individuals in remote areas such as our canyons, our riverbed and those experiencing mental health issues.”

City Councilman Chris Ward, also an MTS board member who has criticized that enforcement, said the homelessness plan’s recommendations strengthen his resolve to push for improvements at both the city and MTS.

Last year, Ward put forward a draft citywide outreach policy to set protocols, as the homelessness plan recommends. Though the policy cleared a City Council homelessness committee, it has not been endorsed by Faulconer or the full City Council so Ward this year moved those efforts to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, which he chairs. The countywide group is now accepting comments on an updated countywide outreach strategy through the end of the month and intends to finalize it next month. Halsey’s memo was response to that request for comments.

“The whole point is to be able to constructively resolve homelessness on our streets, in our canyons, and to adhere to an updated and reformed protocol that is constructive and not playing whack-a-mole and just displacing issues,” Ward said.

Interested in learning more about the homelessness plan and what it will take to implement it? Join me at Politifest on Oct. 26 for a discussion with key players engaged in trying to execute the new city strategy.

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...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.