Mayor Todd Gloria began the summer with an edict: The city was cracking down on homeless camps.
And it did. In June, San Diego police issued dozens more citations for the most frequent violation aimed at homeless residents than they had in any single month since the start of the pandemic.
Data obtained by Voice of San Diego shows police that month wrote nearly 240 tickets for encroachment, a violation usually aimed at homeless camps blocking sidewalks. Sixteen people were also arrested for encroachment and two for setting up a tent without permission. Officers also issued hundreds of tickets for a vehicle violation that often affects people living in large vehicles including RVs, also a marked increase from the months before.
As police bore down, some homeless residents scattered elsewhere, including to other San Diego cities and areas including Balboa Park and the San Diego River. Some relocated only to be ordered to move again. Some never reappeared, losing touch with service providers trying to move them off the street. Others who fled elsewhere have returned or relocated nearby. And some, just as the mayor had hoped, moved into shelters – though exactly how many were prodded to do so by enforcement and how many remain there is unclear.
But in the months after, enforcement ramped down. Some focal points of the crackdown were again lined with tents by early October.
Gloria stands by his enforcement push, despite backlash from homeless advocates and testimony from prominent experts on homelessness solutions that it’s the wrong approach.
Meanwhile, others, including basketball legend Bill Walton, have argued the city isn’t cracking down enough.
Gloria spokeswoman Rachel Laing said the mayor’s team agrees with residents who believe the city isn’t doing enough enforcement – and that the mayor plans to direct stepped-up ticketing again when police staffing allows it.
Last week, at Gloria’s direction, the city reinstituted a past policy requiring homeless residents to take down their tents during daylight hours and initially requested voluntary compliance. Those who refuse could face tickets or an eventual arrest.
“We have an obligation to all San Diegans to make the city safe, livable and hospitable and to enforce our laws, and that means we cannot let encampments grow unchecked,” Laing wrote in an email.
A few months after the summer enforcement spike, some blocks on the edges of downtown where police focused the most attention looked much as they did before the crackdown. As of Friday morning, sidewalks were packed with tents and trash that spilled onto the street.
A business manager and residents of nearby apartments told Voice enforcement had for a time cleared a stretch near 16th Street and National Avenue, but the encampment and the safety and quality-of-life concerns they had before it had roared back after police action decreased.
Liliana Diaz, who lives in an apartment complex at the corner of 16th Street and Logan Avenue, recalled her neighbors enjoying more time outside and being able to safely walk with their dogs and children before tents again covered sidewalks.
By the time school started, Diaz said, schoolchildren were walking in the street again.
“We cannot use the sidewalk,” Diaz said last month.
Indeed, a downtown business group’s latest monthly census tallied a record 1,623 people living on the streets downtown and areas just south of it that include Diaz’s block.
For some homeless residents, the impact of enforcement has been more enduring.
Though many of the cases have yet to go to court and some have already been dismissed, homeless residents who have failed to appear for cases that have moved forward have been saddled with fines and at least a handful had warrants issued for their arrest.
The crackdown led others to make decisions that came with other costs.
Housing navigator Levi Giafaglione of the National Alliance on Mental Illness San Diego was unable to find three homeless clients who had been staying downtown when they were matched to housing that could have ended their homelessness. Before they disappeared, Giafaglione said two complained of police enforcement and the other, a woman in her late 70s who kept three dogs for safety, was often flustered when she was forced to move.
“I could not find them in 14 days, so they dropped those matches,” Giafaglione said.
Giafaglione said he spotted others who had been staying downtown as far away as La Mesa.
Anthony Gissendanner, 40, who had been staying near the War Memorial Building in Balboa Park, said he was so rocked by an August encounter with police and the threat of arrest that he’s since constantly moved from place to place on his bicycle. For a time, Gissendanner was without a phone and lost contact with a city-funded homeless outreach worker who once regularly visited him at the park.
“My case worker was looking for me and I didn’t know,” Gissendanner said.
Paul Armstrong of the San Diego Rescue Mission said his team was caught off guard when a group staying on a Second Avenue bridge they had been building rapport with disappeared in early July. The Rescue Mission was about to help one of the men, a homeless veteran with a housing voucher, connect with another nonprofit to help him find a home. Another seemed like a good candidate for the Rescue Mission’s 12-month residential program. Then they scattered.
Heather “Mama Heather” Bacon said she moved from National Avenue to Chula Vista’s Harborside Park when she began noticing increased enforcement in late May. Then she and others got evicted from the Chula Vista park, forcing her to move yet again. The 60-year-old’s tent now sits steps away from the spot she left months ago.
Early Thursday, Bacon said police ordered her to take her tent down until 9 p.m. Bacon, who has several health issues including arthritis, took her tent down but plans to remain for now.
As a mayoral candidate, Gloria was critical of homelessness-related enforcement that increased on his predecessor Kevin Faulconer’s s watch and promised to “stop criminalizing the existence of San Diego’s poorest and sickest residents.”
After he became mayor, Gloria decided some enforcement of laws associated with homelessness was needed to maintain public health and safety. He decided to stick with the “progressive enforcement” model created under Faulconer calling for officers to offer shelter beds and to first issue warnings, then citations and finally to make an arrest.
Until June, officers wrote far fewer tickets each month under Gloria than they did when Faulconer was mayor. That’s when Gloria held a press conference to confirm and defend his plan to ratchet up enforcement.
“We’re not going to be a city that’s content with leaving people to live on our streets, our sidewalks and our riverbeds and our canyons,” Gloria said in June. “Doing so is far less compassionate than the dangers that they face and the unsanitary conditions that pervade and the challenges that it presents to the overall public health and safety of San Diego.”
He noted that the city was adding hundreds of new shelter beds to better serve populations such as women and people with behavioral health conditions and that it has poured more resources than ever into homeless services, including non-police homeless outreach.
At the time of Gloria’s announcement, data shows the city also intensified enforcement of its oversized vehicle ordinance, an offense often aimed at people living in RVs. In June, officers wrote more than 400 citations – up from an average of about 170 a month the previous five months.
As enforcement spiked in June, City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera sent a memo to Gloria calling for the city to address the possibility that enforcement could push homeless San Diegans to canyons and hillsides that could result in “increased health and safety risks” and prioritizing enforcement against camps that posed health and safety risks and instances where criminals preyed on homeless residents.
He also cited a 2021 research review by USC’s Homelessness Policy Research Institute which noted that enforcement and camp clean-ups generally had a negative impact on homeless residents and did more to lead them to move to less patrolled areas than to increase moves into shelter.
Interestingly, city data shows controversial homeless camp clean-ups conducted by the city’s Environmental Services Department, which require homeless residents to temporarily relocate and can lead to citations for folks who don’t move to accommodate city workers, did not spike in June. There were actually fewer clean-up operations in June and July than in prior months. The clean-ups instead spiked in August.
Police enforcement impacting people living outside that had surged in June, meanwhile, began to ramp down in July before falling to more typical levels in August.
As Gloria increased enforcement in the summer, he said he hoped more homeless San Diegans would accept shelter offers.
Data from the San Diego Housing Commission shows police made 174 shelter referrals in the first three full weeks of June when enforcement peaked, up from 102 referrals the previous three weeks. Referrals by the city’s homelessness response center and homeless-serving nonprofits totaled 656 during the same period.
Sixty-four of the 174 shelter referrals by police resulted in a shelter placement.
Robert Fausto, 61, said he moved to a Father Joe’s Villages shelter in June after receiving an encroachment ticket and a warning that he could be jailed if police encountered him again. His girlfriend breaking up with him the next day was the last straw.
“The cops chased me off the street,” Fausto said.
But Fausto, who uses a motorized wheelchair, said he’d still be living outside if he could charge his wheelchair on the street. He isn’t convinced the shelter will lead to housing.
He has reason to be cautious.
In the first seven months of this year, the Housing Commission reported only 14 percent of people who exited city-funded shelters moved into permanent housing. The rate was lower for the 100 beds at city shelters set aside for police referrals, though people referred by police can also move into other programs. Housing Commission data also shows that homeless residents who moved into the police-controlled shelter beds in the last fiscal year exited those beds after an average of about two to three weeks – compared with an average stay of just over two months for other single adult shelter beds.
Gloria’s office said the mayor has heard from formerly homeless residents over the years who said they accepted shelter to avoid “law enforcement consequences or to avoid the hassle of disruption” and were ultimately grateful they were pushed to change their circumstances.
The leaders of homeless-serving nonprofits Alpha Project and the San Diego Rescue Mission have also said enforcement can spur someone to accept shelter or services – if suitable options are available.
Two of the nation’s most prominent homeless service experts discourage using enforcement as a tool to reduce street homelessness.
The city’s 2019 homelessness plan called for the city to establish a “balanced plan to reduce criminalization of persons experiencing homelessness.”
Ann Oliva, the lead author of that plan and now CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said she would urge the city not to continue with the summer enforcement push.
“Criminalizing and ticketing already-traumatized people who do not have money to pay rent is not a strategy or a solution. In fact, it runs counter to the city’s vision as expressed in its Community Action Plan,” Oliva wrote in a statement. “Without safe and affordable housing and services, people will continue to perish on the streets, no matter how many times they are arrested or ticketed.”
Jeff Olivet, who leads the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, made a similar point in a Sept. 19 presentation to the City Council.
“Criminalizing people because they don’t have a home is simply not effective,” said Olivet, whose organization coordinates the federal response to homelessness. “Arresting people and creating an arrest record and failure to appear in court and bench warrants and putting that on top of somebody who already doesn’t have money and already doesn’t have a home isn’t a solution to homelessness.”
Laing said that the Gloria administration doesn’t view the city’s enforcement of offenses such as encroachment or camp clean-ups as tactics to address homelessness.
“The goal of these operations is to enforce the city’s laws, keep the public right of way safely passable, and avoid public health crises like what we saw in 2017 with Hepatitis A,” Laing wrote.
Yet it’s also clear Gloria hopes the enforcement will spur more people to enter shelter.
“There is help available,” Gloria said, addressing homeless San Diegans in June. “I ask you to please use it.”
Ryan Clumpner, vice chair of the city’s Housing Commission, which oversees most city shelter contracts, argued enforcement and camp clean-ups aren’t the most effective way to spur moves into shelters.
“There are real public health and safety measures that sometimes require environmental cleaning actions or police involvement, but those concerns need to be very carefully balanced against the impact such actions have on our ability to do effective outreach,” Clumpner wrote in an email. “I’m deeply skeptical of police enforcement as a tool to increase participation in shelters.”
He suggested steps the city is taking to diversify its shelter offerings are far more likely to encourage homeless San Diegans to take up the city’s offers.
Police enforcement and city clean-ups at a Midway District camp on Sports Arena Boulevard that was once home to dozens of tents led 44-year-old Chye and her husband Chino, a 43-year-old with stage 4 cancer, to move to an area along a nearby San Diego River trail rather than into a shelter.
“We would go, but we have to stay together,” Chye said.
No city programs allow Chino and Chye, who is her husband’s caregiver, to sleep in the same area of a shelter.
Chino received an encroachment ticket in July and panicked after police said he could be arrested the next time they encounter him. The couple said they also lost many belongings, including Chino’s cancer medication, during a city clean-up operation.
So Chye and Chino joined some others who previously lived on Sports Arena Boulevard, making the descent down a path along the San Diego River.
The Midway camp they left behind fell to about five tents.
Soon after Chye and Chino moved, they were hustling to move again. Police showed up along the riverbed, ordering folks to relocate. Advocates later helped put the couple up in hotel rooms for a time.
Last Tuesday, they were deciding where they might settle again. Chye said she expected to return to the riverbed – at least for now – rather than the Midway camp that had about 15 tents last week. She wasn’t confident she and her husband could avoid police.
“Everywhere we go, there’s cops there again,” Chye said.