Jia Lawton, a homeless resident who stays on Commercial Street in downtown, says despite the city posting notices of upcoming homeless encampment sweeps in the area, it’s still hard to know exactly when they will occur. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Jia Lawton, a homeless resident who stays on Commercial Street in downtown, says despite the city posting notices of upcoming homeless encampment sweeps in the area, it’s still hard to know exactly when they will occur. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Mayor Todd Gloria promised on the campaign trail to dial back police enforcement efforts affecting homeless San Diegans that had soared on Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s watch. He wrote in his homelessness plan that the city should “stop criminalizing the existence” of homeless residents.

After three months in office, Gloria has yet to institute a major overhaul of enforcement, though the mayor told Voice of San Diego he has directed some changes as he reviews the city’s strategies. Meanwhile, homeless camps are growing, especially on downtown streets where homelessness has long been most visible.

Police wrote a similar number of citations for three violations associated with homelessness, illegal lodging, vehicle habitation and encroachment – an offense originally intended to address wayward trash bins – through January as they had in the months since the coronavirus pandemic led them to dramatically reduce enforcement of those misdemeanors, which are also no longer eligible for jail bookings, data released in response to a public records request shows.

City data documenting homeless camp clean-ups, called abatements, shows city workers continued to post a similar volume of notices – typically more than 1,500 a month – to conduct those operations and proceeded with 215 in January and 136 in February. The city conducted an average of 250 abatements a month from July through November under Faulconer, who made those clean-up operations a core tenet of his approach to homelessness. The clean-up operations can lead to citations when homeless people resist orders to move elsewhere, an outcome police now say is rare.

Homeless San Diegans, neighborhood activists and advocates, including attorneys who have sued over the city’s enforcement tactics, told VOSD they haven’t noticed significant shifts in the city’s approach to enforcement or sweeps on Gloria’s watch.

A police shooting late last month that left a 69-year-old homeless man injured only intensified focus and some advocates’ concerns about the city’s approach to policing its homeless population.

Gloria said more change is coming to the city’s homelessness strategies.

“I’d caution folks from thinking that the first couple of weeks of this administration is indicative of what the next eight years would look like,” Gloria said. “We’re taking a more thoughtful approach that isn’t about quick fixes.”

Gloria has given some direction on enforcement and clean-up operations, though. He recently ordered city staff to stop cracking down on homeless San Diegans or conducting clean-ups during inclement weather, and to take a more compassionate approach in all interactions with homeless residents.

Gloria spokeswoman Jen Lebron said the mayor reiterated his directives on efforts to clean camps  early this week after an activist posted photos and videos of an abatement in the evening, operations that she said Gloria had previously asked city workers to halt.

The operations can catch homeless San Diegans off guard, and Gloria said he wants to institute a more regular schedule for homeless camp clean-ups.

On Wednesday, the mayor announced the deployment of outreach workers from nonprofit PATH, which he hopes can better coordinate efforts to interact with homeless San Diegans and help lessen the need for police to interact with them. Gloria has also said he looks forward to the future deployment of county-funded mobile crisis response teams for calls involving San Diegans struggling with behavioral health challenges, teams he believes will also lessen the burden on city police.

More dramatic change at the city level could follow a review by consultant Matthew Doherty, the former leader of the agency responsible for coordinating the federal government’s response to homelessness.

Gloria said he has asked Doherty, who has a six-month, $50,000 contract, to provide specific recommendations this spring on enforcement and the police department’s role in addressing homelessness.

During his time as mayor, Faulconer had ordered dramatic increases in both enforcement of violations associated with homelessness and efforts to clear homeless camps as the city’s homeless population grew, an approach he is now touting in a run for governor.

Doherty is likely to recommend that police take a far less significant role in addressing homelessness in the city.

“Police enforcement activities don’t help people end their homelessness and can be traumatizing for people who are experiencing homelessness, adding to their challenges,” Doherty wrote in a December email to VOSD. “If police personnel are a part of a community’s homelessness response, their primary focus should be on ensuring the safety of people experiencing homelessness and of the staff working with people experiencing homelessness.”

Capt. Scott Wahl, who helps lead the police division Faulconer championed that is focused on homelessness, has for years argued that police play an important role – stepping in when outreach workers can’t to help homeless people who may be openly using drugs or experiencing other challenges.

For years, officers have followed a progressive enforcement model, first offering shelter or other services before citations or arrests in subsequent encounters.

In more recent months, Wahl said officers have already taken a less punitive approach during the pandemic. The health crisis has also left them unable to book people in jail for misdemeanor offenses, including quality-of-life violations often aimed at homeless San Diegans.

“There are times when enforcement is necessary, but our approach is to seek compliance and we’re here to help people,” said Wahl, who said officers now typically let homeless San Diegans move on if they follow orders rather than write a ticket.

The result of the reduced enforcement and inability to book people in jail for misdemeanor offenses, Wahl said, is that police have been less able to stem the growth of homeless camps. He said that has led to a proliferation of homeless camps on and near Commercial Street in East Village, for example, where some sidewalks are now densely packed with tents and tarps.

The Downtown San Diego Partnership, which conducts monthly counts of the area’s homeless population, late last month tallied 105 structures in East Village alone – up from 84 in the neighborhood in November.

With coronavirus-related enforcement protocols still in place, Wahl said Gloria has joined officers on ride-alongs and is digging in to understand current policies for dealing with the city’s homeless population and those homeless camps, and to consider further changes.

“This mayor has absolutely been involved since Day One and is asking lots of questions,” Wahl said.

Homeless advocate Michael McConnell, who has for years documented police activity and sweeps involving homeless San Diegans on social media, said he urged Gloria to take a more thoughtful approach to abatements, particularly making them more predictable for people living on the streets. He said he has noticed police and city workers seem to be more mellow in their encounters with homeless people in recent weeks but said he hasn’t noticed other significant changes.

But in the last couple weeks, McConnell has recorded an abatement that happened after dark and the postings about planned clean-ups before rainstorms, two scenarios that Gloria and his team have since said they will no longer allow. (Gloria immediately halted the planned rainy-day operations after learning of the postings.)

Homeless San Diegans who stay downtown told VOSD they would also appreciate more predictability and care for their belongings.

Jia Lawton, 53, who has recently stayed on Commercial Street, said the city should give more notice before those clean-up efforts.

“Just let us know ahead of time,” Lawton said.

Mark Petty, 63, who is now staying at Father Joe’s Village’s St. Vincent de Paul campus after years on the street, said he has noticed an uptick in clean postings and orders in the area in recent months. Petty said he understands the need for the city to clean its sidewalks but said he’d like the city to take more care with belongings. Petty said he has lost bicycles and tents in previous operations.

“They throw a lot of stuff away,” Petty said.

Attorney Scott Dreher, who has previously filed legal challenges over the city’s homeless enforcement practices, said the city’s approach on Gloria’s watch may lead him to soon seek to ask federal Magistrate Judge William Gallo to reopen discussions to ensure the city is adhering to settlements regarding its abatements and enforcement.

Dreher is particularly concerned about whether homeless San Diegans have access to adequate storage before clean-up operations or tickets, and whether the city is taking adequate steps to avoid disposing of homeless San Diegans’ belongings  when they aren’t around.

“I like (Gloria) but I’m disappointed that nothing’s changed,” Dreher said.

Gloria said he has instructed city staff to care with homeless San Diegans’ property. Geneviéve Jones-Wright, who leads legal advocacy group Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance, said she had also hoped for more rapid changes after Gloria took office in December.

“I understand that things take time, they really do, but what we see continuing to happen is very dehumanizing for people,” said Jones-Wright, who campaigned for Gloria’s opponent in the mayor’s race.

Pete Powell, a retired law enforcement officer who lives in East Village, is also frustrated. He has watched homeless camps grow during the pandemic and said he hopes the city can take a more proactive approach to addressing camps and helping homeless San Diegans struggling with addiction and mental health challenges.

For now, Powell said, the city’s response just serves to keep homeless San Diegans on the move – and often not far away.

“These people don’t just literally disappear and go somewhere where no one can see them,” Powell said. “They have to go somewhere, and they can’t go far.”

Gloria said he wishes change could come sooner too but said he wants to take a methodical approach and ensure the policies he settles on will help the city reduce homelessness rather than simply appease those who want immediate results. He often cites as exhibit A the city’s rushed 2018 decision to purchase an East Village skydiving center and convert it into a homeless service hub that didn’t open until almost two years later – and later lost its nonprofit operator less than a year after it opened.

“The approaches are shifting,” Gloria said. “I’m a very impatient person. I’d like to see things go faster, but I think fast moves to try and respond to whatever the issue of the day is a part of how we’ve gotten into the mess that we’re in.”

Adriana Heldiz contributed to this reporting.

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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