View of parking lot at Balboa Park's Inspiration Point on Feb. 3, 2023.
View of parking lot at Balboa Park's Inspiration Point on Feb. 3, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!

Councilman Stephen Whitburn next month plans to unveil proposals to crack down on street homelessness and accommodate hundreds of unhoused people in a parking lot near downtown. 

The city’s housing agency is now evaluating whether Inspiration Point, a long-underutilized corner of Balboa Park, could potentially support a large shelter tent and safe camping sites that the downtown city councilman envisions.  

Whitburn shared his vision for both a large shelter and safe campground at a University Heights Community Association meeting Thursday night but didn’t specify a location. Moving forward with his pitch, Whitburn said, would let the city enforce an ordinance he plans to propose that bans camping on public property. 

“We need to add more shelter and more places for people to go. That is key to the whole thing, to get people out of the canyons, out of the parks, off the sidewalks,” Whitburn said. “We need other places for them to go.” 

Then, Whitburn said, the city can require unhoused people to move off the street.  

Councilmember Stephen Whitburn for District 3 during a meeting for the Informational Update on Civic Center Revitalization Project. (District 3.) in downtown on Oct. 17, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler
Councilman Stephen Whitburn during a City Council in downtown on Oct. 17, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Whitburn’s comments on the need for more shelter options to allow stepped up enforcement reflect legal realities. A 2018 federal appeals court ruling barred citing homeless people for sleeping on sidewalks if no other shelter is available and a  2007 legal settlement prevents police from ticketing or arresting homeless San Diegans if shelters are full. 

For now, the city has nearly 1,800 shelter beds. By comparison, a downtown business group’s late January tally of people sleeping on the street downtown and its outskirts alone hit a new record of 1,939 and a regionwide point-in-time count last year tallied about 2,500 unsheltered residents. 

Yet Whitburn said his proposed ordinance will also call for bans on settling in some areas such as canyons and near schools even when there’s no shelter space available, a move that the city councilman representing downtown and central city neighborhoods said was legally defensible due to public health and safety threats. Similar policies have been pursued elsewhere. Los Angeles last year passed a ban near schools and day cares while Sacramento voters approved a policy allowing the city to clear more homeless camps absent available shelter in some instances, and called for the city to deliver hundreds of new shelter beds.  

Whitburn told Voice of San Diego last month that he was working with City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office on a proposal to address the challenges the city now faces using encroachment and illegal lodging laws not written to directly address the situations now playing out in the city. He noted that Elliott’s office has often declined to prosecute those cases and that judges often throw them out.  

“We need rules that speak to the issue at hand and are clear for the people most affected, are clear for the community and are clear legally so that is what I am working toward, a legal framework that hopefully is better for everybody,” Whitburn told Voice last month. 

As he worked on that ordinance, Whitburn said he had identified a half dozen sites near downtown he planned to analyze early this year to see if they could house a large safe camping site, including an often largely vacant parking lot at Inspiration Point. 

Housing Commission Chairman Mitch Mitchell said agency staff are now assessing Inspiration Point, a site that the nonprofit Lucky Duck Foundation also recently pushed as a possible shelter site.  

“The Housing Commission is evaluating the site and what potentially could work so we can begin having those conversations with the mayor and City Council,” Mitchell said. “We would like to provide them with as much detail on the site, the possibilities, the constraints and the cost to operate the site overall.” 

View of parking lot at Balboa Park's Inspiration Point on Feb. 3, 2023.
View of parking lot at Balboa Park’s Inspiration Point on Feb. 3, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

He said the Housing Commission is also discussing other possible sites but is for now spending most of its time analyzing the possibilities at Inspiration Point. Mitchell said the agency ultimately wants to deliver a plan to add hundreds of additional shelter options that also includes multiple other locations to address the needs of different segments of the unhoused population.

The revelation of this work comes about a month after the Housing Commission was forced to put its plan for a pilot safe camping lot at a small Cortez Hill parking lot on hold. 

Whitburn’s pitch to crack down on unhoused residents and a plan potentially allow hundreds to settle in Balboa Park is likely to face scrutiny from both his City Council colleagues and advocates who have for years criticized enforcement affecting unsheltered San Diegans

Attorney Scott Dreher, who has filed suits against the city that have resulted in multiple settlements dictating how the city conducts enforcement and clean-up operations at homeless camps, said Friday that Whitburn’s proposals could be a positive step. After all, Dreher said, the premise is that there will be a place for people to move. 

But he said the details matter. For example, Dreher said, will the proposed changes make it easier for unhoused people to access a safe space to stay and eventually move into homes or will they be enacted in a punitive way? 

“My fear is this is just an ordinance that’s got no substance except it’s a different excuse to give the same people different tickets,” Dreher said. 

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...

Join the Conversation


  1. At least 4.8K unsheltered residents pending latest PITC, 1784 shelter beds, 1/2 unusable by Sr’s & disabled persons. They’re going to come up w/ at least 3K new shelter spaces throughout @CityofSanDiego? That’s what “banning camping” means, Councilmember Whitburn.

  2. Inspiration Point in Balboa Park is dedicated park land. Use for housing homeless individuals would violate Section 55 of the SD City Charter. Housing of any sort, temporary or not (and who believes this would be temporary) is illegal on dedicated park, open space or cemetery land in the city.

    Article V, Section 55, SD City Charter: “All real property owned in fee by the City heretofore or hereafter formally dedicated in perpetuity by ordinance of the Council or by statute of the State Legislature for park, recreation or cemetery purposes shall not be used for any but park, recreation or cemetery purposes without such changed use or purpose having been first authorized or later ratified by a vote of two-thirds of the qualified electors of the City voting at an election for such purpose.”

    1. I think this ship sailed when the navy hospital was allowed to be built on dedicated park land……

      1. Carrie – the Section 55 regarding dedication of park land and a 2/3 vote required to modify it postdates the original Naval Hospital. The current Naval Hospital was built in the park because the U.S. government used Eminent Domain to seize the Florida Canyon land.

  3. The various legal rulings & lawsuits that prevent the city council from managing the homeless crisis are an abomination. They are based on the premise that the homeless (regardless of their mental health, criminal record, or employnent history ) are beyond the law. This is magical thinking at its most dangerous.

  4. The idea of placing shelters for 500 people at Inspiration Point was proposed months ago by LuckyDuck Foundation?
    How is this suddenly a new idea “envisioned “ by Whitburn? Just recently, a small safe campground for seniors proposed at Cortez Hill was canceled. Due to the City not willing to pay Alpha Projects price quote to operate it.
    What was the City’s response to LuckyDuck proposal?
    And who does Whitburn “envision “ operating this large project?

  5. Whitburn, when all the dust settles is guided by the bread-and-butter folks who rule the downtown roost. Just five short years ago this thinking would have been politically incorrect. I should know, I ran twice for city father except without a high-priced consultant and nice name to please all of you good Americans. Afterall, you folks are good Americans like my mama’s apple pie and pudding. This essentially was my plan, yes, I proposed this way back eight years ago, but San Diego is too smart for Smiechowski. Anyway, it is all too ironic that now the do-gooders may be unemployed. Whitburn pulled a great Mickey and San Diego bought it hook line and sinker. LOL

  6. This is really sad, shuffle homeless from one bad situation to another and destroy Balboa Park in the mean time. How do you propose keeping people in the “unused” area of the park? With no services? How about food and water? Just find a real solution like helping this who can work find a job, maybe supplement their income and rent for a while, next have temporary housing like tiny homes or FEMA trailers in a designated location away from downtown, but have services for substance abuse, health care, mental illness support etc. Might as well use Sports Arena for this…Oh! Wait, that was already ear marked for development by Todd Gloria’s top donor.

Leave a comment

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.