San Diego police officers issue citations to homeless residents staying in the Midway District on Sept. 28, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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Two attorneys formally demanded the city cease enforcement against homeless residents at a Midway District homeless camp this weekend, before police resumed ticketing Monday. 

Attorneys Scott Dreher and Coleen Cusack on Saturday sent Mayor Todd Gloria and other city officials a letter informing them that they are representing homeless San Diegans staying at the Midway camp that has grown dramatically over the last year. They warned the city not to proceed with a plan to enforce crimes tied to homelessness there this week, alleging that the expected crackdown would violate residents’ constitutional rights and interfere with the region’s Feb. 24 homeless census. 

The city still took enforcement action Monday, citing four people for crimes tied to homelessness and warning eight others.  

But Gloria has agreed to meet with the attorneys this week at their request and a spokesman said the mayor had already directed police and city workers to halt enforcement and homeless camp clean-up operations a few days ahead of next week’s point-in-time count, before receiving the Saturday letter. 

The attorneys’ letter followed a warning late last week that police would resume ticketing and arrests at a camp on Sports Arena Boulevard after weeks of halted enforcement amid a spike in COVID cases in city-funded homeless shelters led the city to stop welcoming newcomers. Early last week, the city reopened shelters, paving the way for enforcement to resume citywide since officers must have shelter beds to offer before proceeding. 

The two attorneys and other advocates have for weeks monitored clean-up operations and enforcement at the camp between Rosecrans Street and Pacific Highway that at one point was home to an estimated 183 people and 94 tents. As of Monday morning, advocates estimated the population at the camp was down by roughly a third following stepped-up city cleaning efforts and the warning that officers would be cracking down this week. The city this month began twice-weekly clean-up efforts at the camp. 

Cusack and Dreher, who has filed lawsuits against the city that have resulted in multiple settlements that dictate how the city conducts enforcement and clean-up operations at homeless camps, warned Gloria, City Attorney Mara Elliott, Police Chief David Nisleit and City Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell that homelessness-related enforcement at the Midway camp would put the city in legal jeopardy. 

“We believe these clearance and enforcement actions, and threats thereof, violate the constitutional rights of these homeless inhabitants of the Sports Arena Boulevard encampment, because they have nowhere else to go or be,” Dreher and Cusack wrote. 

In their letter, the two attorneys argued that proceeding with enforcement would contradict the Martin v. Boise federal appeals court ruling requiring that cities have adequate shelter for homeless residents before citing them, multiple legal settlements previously negotiated with Dreher and public health guidance discouraging enforcement during the pandemic. 

The attorneys also raised concerns that the enforcement could hamper the region’s Feb. 24 homeless census by dispersing residents the week before the count. Advocates – and Gloria himself – raised similar concerns after the 2019 census when police dramatically increased enforcement downtown in the days before the count.  

“Please cease all encampment clearances at least until the Feb. 24 (point-in-time) count is complete and forego any and all criminal enforcement actions (citations, progressive enforcement, orders to evacuate, etc.) against the homeless for being homeless,” Dreher and Cusack wrote in their Saturday letter. “Then let’s sit down and talk about some of these actions and solutions. That way we can avoid litigation which will undoubtedly be resolved like the Martin v. Boise case – costing the city money, time, and respect.” 

Gloria spokesman Dave Rolland wrote in an email that Gloria had already directed city police and environmental service workers to stop enforcing laws tied to homelessness and homeless camp clean-ups from Feb. 21 through Feb. 24 because the mayor “wants an accurate count of people experiencing homelessness.” 

Rolland wrote that the mayor last year directed police not to enforce illegal lodging and encroachment – laws associated with tents and tarps in public spaces – when no shelter beds are available. But he said the mayor stands by using law enforcement when beds are available. 

“When shelter is available, the mayor believes the city should do everything it can to help people to accept it – because in addition to keeping folks safe from the dangers of life on the street, shelter and the social services that come with it represent a pathway to permanent housing,” Rolland wrote. 

Dreher and Gloria’s office confirmed that they are now set to meet. 

“They have reached out to meet and I hope the meetings can be productive,” Dreher said. 

Two San Diego Police officers watch as two residents gather up their belongings during a homeless camp clean-up on Sept. 28, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Leslie Wolf Branscomb, a spokeswoman for Elliott, said the City Attorney’s Office was “working with its client” to address the issues raised in the attorneys’ letter. 

By Monday afternoon, city spokeswoman Ashley Bailey said three people staying at the camp received infraction tickets and one was given a misdemeanor citation. Eight were given verbal warnings for illegal lodging or encroachment. Each action is part of the city’s so-called progressive enforcement model. A fourth interaction with a person who does not accept an offer of an open shelter bed can lead to an arrest. 

Bailey wrote in an email that another four people of the 17 people police interacted with Monday morning were driven to city shelters.  

She said police are only ticketing homeless residents when they refuse open shelter beds, and that enforcement stops each day when shelter beds are full. 

Bailey also noted that the city oversaw a stepped-up outreach effort at the Midway camp over the past month, offering shelter to dozens of residents staying at the camp.  

“The city continues to emphasize a compassionate approach; however, it will balance that with the need to address the health and safety issues that persist in encampments,” Bailey wrote. 

Gloria’s office late last month tweeted that his team was determined to proceed with a large-scale clean-up in the area after outreach workers learned multiple people had a stomach illness and reported that residents were “living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.” 

Midway business and property owners  had also raised concerns for months. 

A handful of residents at the camp previously told Voice of San Diego they wanted to move off the streets but were concerned city shelters wouldn’t fit their needs – or didn’t want to leave behind pets or friends in the camp. 

Bryan “Cowboy” Rhoades, 51, said he was concerned a packed city shelter wouldn’t be a good fit for his beloved dog or that other residents might steal his belongings. 

“I don’t want to be housed with a bunch of people,” Rhoades said. 

But Anthony Cooper, 51, and fiancée Elizabeth Shaw, 34, were preparing to move into an Alpha Project shelter Monday after interacting with police. Officers helped load their belongings into a pickup truck where they could move some items into storage. 

Cooper said the couple had been at the Sports Arena camp for three months but had not been offered shelter. 

“We’ve been trying to get help, but nobody’s helped us,” Cooper said. 

Cusack on Monday looked on as the couple collected their belongings and police gathered around tents. She handed out flyers explaining the implications of the Martin v. Boise case, public health guidance and homeless residents’ constitutional rights. 

Cusack sent a separate memo on Monday to San Diego police laying out the shelter options that 30 homeless clients who have stayed at the Sports Arena camp would accept. She also listed constitutional violations she alleges would be associated with enforcement actions. 

“Please take notice that I have been retained by the following individuals to represent their legal interests in conjunction with the threatened criminal enforcement action at the Sports Arena encampment wherein each resides out of necessity, having no legal non-public option that is safer,” Cusack wrote. 

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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