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Mayor Todd Gloria promised as a candidate to dial back police enforcement affecting homeless San Diegans.
“No more criminalizing the existence of San Diego’s poorest and sickest residents,” Gloria wrote in the plan to end chronic homelessness he released nearly two years ago.
Ten months into Gloria’s term, police have continued to ticket homeless San Diegans for violations of crimes associated with homelessness, though they aren’t citing them as often as they did under former Mayor Kevin Faulconer, before the pandemic forced reduced jail bookings and enforcement.
Gloria and Hafsa Kaka, director of the city’s new Homeless Strategies and Solutions Department, say the mayor has directed police to take a more compassionate approach with homeless San Diegans as they continue to ticket them for crimes associated with homelessness.
Gloria and Kaka stand by the progressive enforcement model instituted on Faulconer’s watch, which they say they are bolstering with increased non-police outreach and efforts to offer a broader array of services to move homeless San Diegans off the street. The enforcement policy requires that officers offer shelter to homeless San Diegans before cracking down and mete out increasing levels of punishment – first, a warning, then tickets and eventually a possible arrest – to residents who decline shelter offers.
“We’re trying to provide more compassion, more connections to services, more certainty, more humanity behind those interactions,” Gloria said. “But it’s important to also acknowledge that we are a city of laws and homelessness is not a crime, but it’s also not a get out of jail-free card – and we do have a responsibility to enforce the law.”
The continued enforcement has inflamed homeless advocates who expected Gloria to halt or at least significantly curtail the city’s longtime practice of citing and even arresting homeless San Diegans for violations associated with homelessness based on comments Gloria made as a state Assemblyman and mayoral candidate.
Those advocates have been even more frustrated since August, when police say they stepped up enforcement in response to complaints and public health and safety concerns.
The city’s enforcement posture has also continued to capture the attention of attorneys and national experts who say it is counterproductive and can complicate rather than aid in efforts to move people off the streets.
Gloria’s police department has also made at least one other recent shift in its enforcement policies.
The police department recently began citing homeless San Diegans for violations like encroachment even when they accepted offers of shelter if beds weren’t available.
Attorney Scott Dreher, who has filed multiple suits against the city over its homelessness enforcement policies, told Voice of San Diego he believed the new practice violated a city legal settlement and a 2018 ruling by 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling barring cities from enforcing such laws when they don’t have open beds. He also said he planned to take legal action.
After questions from VOSD, a top Gloria staffer said the mayor directed police to halt that practice because it doesn’t match his intent for the city to take a compassionate approach to homelessness.
“We made it crystal clear that this is not consistent with the mayor’s direction and we do not want to see it happen,” Deputy Chief of Staff Nick Serrano said.
Going forward, Serrano said the mayor hopes the new Homeless Strategies and Solutions Department he stood up earlier this year will help the city coordinate the city’s day-to-day interactions with homeless San Diegans and ensure what’s happening matches Gloria’s direction.
Gloria came into office promising to overhaul the city’s approach to tackling its homelessness crisis.
As a mayoral candidate, Gloria criticized Faulconer’s focus on enforcement affecting homeless San Diegans, which the former mayor ratcheted up amid a deadly 2017 hepatitis A outbreak fueled by unsanitary conditions in homeless camps.
During his failed bid for governor this year, Faulconer repeatedly declared that he did not allow homeless camps on city sidewalks during his time as mayor (some indeed remained) and touted a controversial policy of forcing homeless people to accept services or face consequences from police.
Gloria’s team says the new mayor has changed the city’s approach, including deploying non-police homeless outreach workers with nonprofit People Assisting The Homeless to lessen the role of law enforcement in those efforts, as suggested by the city’s 2019 homelessness plan. They also note Gloria’s work to provide a broader array of shelter options, including a safe haven shelter expected to open in the Midway District later this year, among other new investments.
“What you’re seeing here is persons experiencing homelessness are actually given more opportunities and more connections to resources, and more chances,” Kaka said.
Gloria this spring also ordered several changes to city policies on controversial homeless camp clean-ups to make them more orderly and compassionate.
The enforcement and clean-up operations that drew controversy when Faulconer was mayor have continued since Gloria took over, though both have been scaled back.
Police data obtained by Voice of San Diego after public-records requests shows police enforcement affecting homeless San Diegans has decreased on Gloria’s watch, compared with Faulconer’s pre-COVID approach.
In 2019, the year before the coronavirus pandemic forced police to reduce enforcement of low-level crimes, San Diego police wrote more than 2,800 citations for encroachment, a violation previously aimed at wayward trash bins that has for years been the most common charge directed at homeless San Diegans. Police also made 727 arrests for the violation.
In September 2019 alone, police wrote 313 encroachment citations and made 26 related arrests. With pandemic-related restrictions in effect in September 2020, police wrote 71 encroachment tickets and made no arrests.
On Gloria’s watch last month, police data shows officers wrote 83 encroachment citations and made 10 arrests for the offense.
Police Capt. Shawn Takeuchi, who leads the division focused on homelessness and quality of life issues, said many of those arrestees were likely not booked into jail as people who receive low-level violations associated with homelessness are now usually cited and released even when the encounter is recorded as an arrest simply because police filed a report.
Yet Takeuchi acknowledged police began ramping up enforcement in August, a month after the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department allowed city police to resume misdemeanor jail bookings that largely stopped during the pandemic.
Takeuchi said the increased enforcement followed rising complaints from community members and businesses, a spike in crimes targeting homeless people and city concerns about safety risks tied to growing homeless camps.
“In August and September, now into October, what you’ve seen is this increase of our outreach and our enforcement to ensure that we have a safe community within the unhoused community, to protect (the city) from any type of hepatitis A outbreak and any other type of disease that might occur again,” Takeuchi said.
The increased enforcement also followed an unprecedented homeless outreach campaign downtown in July that connected hundreds of homeless San Diegans with shelter beds.
Since the increased enforcement began, county health officials have reported that 15 homeless residents staying in central San Diego – including some who were sheltered – have contracted shigellosis, a highly contagious intestinal infection most often spread via contaminated food and water and sometimes person-to-person. The latest outbreak again highlights the sanitation challenges the city and vulnerable homeless San Diegans were confronted with in 2017.
Homeless San Diegans have varying takes on what’s been happening recently though most who have spoken with VOSD in the past few months have agreed there have been changes recently.
Sean Davis, 51, and Terry Young, 53, who were each staying in East Village in August told VOSD they noticed enforcement had spiked that month. Both noted that enforcement had fallen significantly during the pandemic.
“Now they’ve come back with a vengeance,” Davis said.
Davis received an encroachment ticket in early August despite not having a tent and was concerned he could go to jail if he encountered police again. He said he would accept shelter in the future to avoid that outcome and had already let an officer know he was interested.
Jose Rodriguez, 38, said this week that the increased enforcement has continued in the area but mirrors what homeless San Diegans have seen for years.
“It’s still the same bullshit,” Rodriguez said.
Brad, 33, who declined to share his last name, told VOSD he has also noticed enforcement rising but said police have seemed less aggressive recently.
“I haven’t been harassed by the police like I normally have in the past,” he said.
Until police enforcement increased in August, 33-year-old Tosha Alvarado and her boyfriend stayed on Commercial Street across the street from Father Joe’s Villages homeless service campus. The area has for months been packed with tents, drawing frustration from nearby residents and businesses.
Alvarado said police told her to move her belongings across the street before an August city clean-up operation or be ticketed. She said she started crying as she hurried to pack up her belongings, fearful her property could be tossed.
Alvarado said this week that she and her boyfriend hadn’t resettled in the area since and instead have set up camp on Caltrans-owned property near Chicano Park where San Diego officers can’t crack down.
Alvarado’s move followed the sort of homeless camp clean-ups that also ramped up on Faulconer’s watch.
The city has for years posted notices before clearing camps in what city officials have described as a bid to maintain public health and safety. Homeless residents who don’t move elsewhere can be cited for failing to move when city crews show up. Police assist with the operations led by city workers and contractors who pick up items they deem to be trash and debris after homeless people relocate.
Data released after a public-records request shows the long-controversial clean-up operations have happened less frequently since Gloria became mayor. From July through November 2020, the city conducted an average of 250 clean-up operations a month. During Gloria’s first nine full months in office, the city proceeded with an average of 152 camp clean-ups each month.
There have been sharply different reactions to Gloria’s approach with both clean-ups and enforcement.
Bill Geppert, a longtime Downtown San Diego Partnership board member, is among those who have raised concerns about the buildup of tents. He believes Gloria’s response to homelessness must include both enforcement and homeless camp clean-ups to address public health and safety concerns – and has noted the rise in tent camps since Gloria took office.
“I think that Mayor Gloria took a much different and vocal position about allowing people and he believed that it was compassionate to let people be in tents and in encampments,” Geppert said. “I think that Mayor Faulconer felt that it was not compassionate to do that.”
Some advocates for homeless San Diegans and criminal justice reform, meanwhile, have attacked Gloria for doing too much. In August, activists protested outside the mayor’s Mission Hills home holding signs that, according to the Union-Tribune, urged the mayor to “end police terror on the houseless” and “stop the sweeps.”
Michael McConnell, whose near-daily tweets about police enforcement and homeless camp clean-ups are often broadly shared, has tracked what he said initially seemed like reduced enforcement under the new mayor. He also captured footage of city workers putting tents and other items into a garbage truck during a September Midway camp clean-up, a situation that McConnell and others flagged to question whether the changes the mayor had ordered for those operations had been put into effect.
McConnell, who endorsed Gloria for mayor in part because he spoke out about enforcement of crimes tied to homelessness, is now disappointed. He recently posted a photo on Twitter of an infraction ticket a homeless San Diegan received after accepting a shelter bed that turned out to be unavailable.
“This is exactly what criminalizing homelessness is,” McConnell said. “There’s no way to get around that. You’re giving people tickets for being on the sidewalk and not having a lot of good options for people.”
Takeuchi confirmed to VOSD that police were giving tickets to document violations of laws such as encroachment and illegal lodging, or settling somewhere without permission, when shelter wasn’t available. He said SDPD was not arresting anyone who accepted shelter.
“We’re documenting on that citation a person accepted shelter so the city attorney has all the information available to her so that then they can make the best decision possible whether or not to proceed forward with charges,” Takeuchi said.
A spokeswoman for City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office this week noted that her office does not handle infraction tickets, which police often issue for homelessness-related violations, but would not clarify whether prosecutors would decline to file charges in cases where shelter was accepted.
“Our office uses discretion in evaluating each case for prosecution,” Elliott spokeswoman Hilary Nemchik wrote in an email.
A Gloria spokesman later told VOSD that the mayor had ordered police to halt the practice Takeuchi described – and that the mayor had previously reiterated his direction to ensure city crews take care with homeless San Diegans’ possessions during camp clean-ups.
Whatever the form enforcement takes on Gloria’s watch, former U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness chief Barbara Poppe said his administration’s move to continue enforcement of crimes related to homelessness is misguided.
“This is an ill-advised and punitive strategy that is being employed that is not going to result in reductions to homelessness,” Poppe said. “It’s only going to make it tougher for San Diego to get to solutions.”
Gloria stood by his administration’s overarching approach to enforcement and homeless camp clean-ups. He argued that those who suggest he halt enforcement altogether aren’t grappling with the realities of balancing public health, safety and compassion.
“Progressive engagement in concert with progressive enforcement provides a pathway to shelter and services,” Gloria said. “Allowing encampments to proliferate on our streets does not.”