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

Balboa Park organizations have come out against putting a safe campground for unsheltered residents in an often-overlooked lot at the edge of the iconic park. 

The Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, made up of about 25 park institutions, has informed City Councilman Stephen Whitburn, who represents the park and has championed the concept, that it doesn’t support a campground at a typically underutilized parking lot at Inspiration Point. The city is also considering other sites. 

The campground is a central piece of Whitburn’s broader proposal to also bar camping on public property when shelter options are available, and to ban homeless camps at all times within two blocks of schools and shelters, in parks including Balboa Park and along trolley tracks. Whitburn and Mayor Todd Gloria last week detailed their plans for the proposed ordinance and the yet-to-be-sited campground to accommodate unhoused residents uncomfortable with traditional shelter options. 

Whitburn said city workers recently visited Inspiration Point to assess its suitability as a camp site but they haven’t decided to proceed.  

Paola Avila, Gloria’s chief of staff, said that if the city moves forward at Inspiration Point it now expects to set up 200 to 300 camp sites in southern-most parking areas now adorned with solar carport canopies. Whitburn previously said he’d back both a large shelter and a safe campground at a parking lot near downtown, though he did not identify Inspiration Point until recently. 

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

The Cultural Partnership told Whitburn it was opposing his proposal during a Feb. 24 Zoom meeting. The group hasn’t changed its tune. 

“Inspiration Point is really the front door to Balboa Park, and we always want to make sure that Balboa Park is a safe and welcoming environment for the guests who come to the park, for the volunteers and the paid staff and the schoolchildren who visit the park every day,” Peter Comiskey, the Cultural Partnership’s executive director, told Voice of San Diego late last week. “I think that’s a really good reason that Inspiration Point is a site we would not be able to support for this opportunity specifically.” 

In a separate statement, the Cultural Partnership said it could not support “the vague proposals being discussed” and that it believes park organizations, visitors and other stakeholders should get a chance to participate in a public process surrounding the proposal. 

Whitburn said he has tried to be transparent with the Cultural Partnership and expects a formal process once the city decides whether it can proceed for what he’s calling his safe sleeping initiative. If the city proceeds in Balboa Park, Whitburn said he will fight to design the project to succeed inside a popular tourism destination.  

“If we move forward with safe sleeping at Inspiration Point, I would want to examine ways in which we could visually screen that site so that there was privacy for the people staying there and that there was not a significant visual impact on the park,” Whitburn said. 

Whitburn envisions the site providing restrooms, food and services. 

He’s drawing on Denver’s safe campground program, known as Safe Outdoor Spaces, which serves up to 60 people at multiple sites and has been expanded to include more locations since an initial rollout. Portland also approved a camping ban late last year and is also now pursuing city-sanctioned campgrounds as part of that initiative.  

Whitburn wants San Diego to test the concept in his district, which includes downtown and Balboa Park, and then explore more sites. He has advocated using lots near downtown that aren’t close to residential areas. 

Whitburn and Mitch Mitchell, chairman of San Diego Housing Commision, a city housing agency that has been analyzing shelter sites and costs, said they hope Balboa Park organizations will recognize their support is needed. 

Mitchell said he recently received a call from a person affiliated with a park organization he declined to identify who said they would oppose moving unhoused people to Inspiration Point and rally others in Balboa Park against the project too.  

“That conversation broke my heart because we are supposed to be a community that comes together, makes suggestions and solves big problems. In that one conversation, what I realized is that there are those that are only going to say no, and unfortunately saying no is not a solution,” Mitchell said. “The entire community has to think about what the right solution is that allows us to build the infrastructure necessary to address this crisis knowing that it’s not going to happen overnight and that we need a window of time to make progress.” 

Mitchell said the Housing Commission, which previously saw an envisioned safe campground project fall apart, is excited to be reviewing options with Gloria’s office in hopes of moving forward within four months. 

Whitburn and Gloria spokesman Dave Rolland, however, were hesitant to estimate a timeline since the city has yet to officially select a site.  

Regardless, Rolland said, the city will work “as quickly as possible.” 

Whatever happens, the City Council vote on Whitburn’s proposed ordinance will come first. In most areas, the city won’t be able to crack down on unhoused campers unless shelter is available, but unhoused people who have for years congregated near downtown shelters and in parks could be impacted as soon as the ordinance goes into effect. 

The likelihood that the ordinance will proceed before the safe campground has riled some who might support the concept on its own. 

John Brady, a consultant who once lived on the street in East Village, and his firm previously surveyed unsheltered San Diegans to gauge interest in a safe campground. They came away convinced that some unhoused residents would appreciate the option. 

Last week’s announcement demoralized Brady. 

“The fact that the ordinance is coming before the safe camp says everything about what the priorities are,” Brady said. “Where are people gonna go? Let’s get serious about this.” 

Thirty-five-year-old Tosha Alvarado, who would be forced to move from the area near the Barrio Logan shelter where she now sleeps outside if the City Council approves Whitburn’s ordinance, is also upset. 

Alvarado said she’d consider a move to the safe campground but isn’t certain what will happen to others staying near her who can’t or won’t abide by the rules of the camp. 

“Maybe they should work on that first before moving us all,” Alvarado said. “They’re gonna basically give us no option but jail.” 

Whitburn acknowledged the city needs to move quickly to provide more spaces for unsheltered San Diegans.  

“(Alvarado’s) concerns are at the heart of the reason why I am working so hard to open a safe sleeping site because people like her deserve to have a place to go where they feel safe and stable and have access to resources,” Whitburn said. “I hope to get something like that up and running as soon as possible to help alleviate her concerns.” 

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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  1. Do San Diego voters understand English. OK. then continue reading. A few days ago, I participated in the Chocolate Run downtown. This event is national and huge as there were over 10,000 runners from all over the United States. As I approached the starting line at around 0630h, I was at ground zero of the homeless tent city across from the main library along with 10,000 other people. Except there were no homeless, none! Can you read English San Diego? NONE! WHY? LMAO Do you take me for a fool? I ran twice for SDCC. The voters are really dumb!

    1. TO consider:
      Another issue with inspiration point is the new parking dilemma. The City just removed about 300 parking spots in Balboa park along Park Blvd. Inspiration point has become the last best option for parking in the park, and during events, So EVERYONE visiting will go directly to where these encampments, or even just people living out of cars, are staying. Not such a safe space anymore.
      Parking is already proving nearly impossible for exhibitors to find near their events, and it has caused gridlock traffic up and down the Blvd the whole length of the park – more than 1 mile. Were we to give up those parking spots in addition, it would certainly be the death of many events and community gatherings at the Park. There have been plans to expand parking in the past, but they’ve been 86d, so unless the City council decides to build options, like a parking structure behind and under the Organ Pavilion, it’s basically destroying the park for the purposes of public events. Now, I agree it’s a problem to solve, but we’re not actually solving the problem of homelessness, just putting a bandaid on it. Further, there’s a distinction to be made between sacrificing some, which we should do, and sabotaging plans that have already been put into motion. The City claims they want to make the park more accessible, but at the same time, removing MORE parking makes it nearly IN-accessible. So, there is clearly a lack of thought in regards to these projects, and conflict of agenda.

  2. Inspiration point is used by the high school students. It’d be unfair to take that pathway that many kids use to get to/ from school to house the unsheltered. The facility on B Street that was used a few years ago seems like a good option as long as those staying have rules and are respectful to nearby residents; I am a nearby resident as well.
    There are also empty lots near commercial where many tents are already set up.

  3. Why don’t you ever get a reaction from residents on the street? Are you afraid of what they’ll say?

    1. Hi, I’m the reporter who wrote this story. I did quote an unhoused woman toward the end of the story and spoke with a formerly unsheltered advocate who has surveyed many currently unhoused folks on this topic. I expect to do more street reporting on this topic in the weeks to come. Stay tuned!

      1. Yes, but you do not quote any residents. You never do. Quote a person pushing a stroller, quote a person walking in the street to avoid the sidewalk, quote a person who lives across the street from a drug camp. You never do that because what they’re going to say does not fit with the way you see things.

        1. Exactly. This “Voice of San Diego” is nothing but a puppet paper for our “Mayor” and City Clowncil. Most of the residents affected are Latino so that also tells you what this publication thinks about diversity and the actual residents (who pay rent and mortgages) who have to live amongst the filth and drugs that these homeless garbage people bring to the neighborhood.

  4. More like un-safe camp and they will have to change the name to invasion point.
    Send em to Borrego to see the flowers.

  5. Sure let’s take the jewel of San Diego and make it a bigger homeless camp than it already is. These “unhoused” people need mental health and addiction treatment, not permission to live in public parkland, which is illegal by the way. I hope Whitburn realizes this will be the nail in coffin of his hopes for re-election.

  6. I suspect that the Cultural Partnership is worried about the same thing that I am: that allowing hundreds of the homeless to stay at Inspiration Point will not prevent–and may even encourage–more homeless folks to be in and around the areas of Balboa Park frequented by the public, due to the proximity of the two areas.

    By the way, the recent removal of street parking along Park Blvd has increased the demand for off-street parking for Balboa Park, such as in the lot at Inspiration Point.

  7. “ Inspiration Point is really the front door to Balboa Park” hooey. It’s the forgotten piece if the park. No tourist or local goes to Balboa Park to visit the parking lot. Give me a break.. Nimby

    1. No but visitors do park there. Especially now that our city officials moved hundreds of parking spaces from Park Blvd. It’s a terrible idea.

  8. Please just let us enjoy our city for once! Why is it that the homeless have more rights to it than the rest of us??

    Homeless encampments *are not* safe for the residents that live by it. This will not be safe for people visiting the park.

    Find an actual secluded location on the way toward escondido. Of all places, our city’s number one attraction…

    1. It might have something to do with them being San Diegans, too.
      Do you want the research I did a year ago to back that up?
      Beyond that, there are pesky things like human rights and the 14th Amendment rights….

  9. First, using Balboa Park land, dedicated parkland under the City Charter, would be a violation of Section 55 of the City Charter.

    In addition, as mentioned by another commenter here, many SD High School students park at Inspiration Point and use the pedestrian walkway from the southwest part of the Inspiration Point parking lot to reach the high school. I would think that the southwest part of Inspiration Point parking lot would qualify as being “within 2 blocks” of a school.

    1. San Diego High School is within (2) blocks of Inspiration Point. I’m June, 2023 there will be major construction at the school and parking is being affected. School offices and student parking is being relocated even closer to Inspiration Point. I represent the SDHS Foundation, Inc. and I’m on campus often and strongly oppose this option!

  10. The homeless problem worsened when law enforcement’s hands were tied. They are the only entity legally responsible to hold people accountable for their behavior. Talk to any downtown resident — they have been forced to adapt to the tents, the filth and the dangers of large numbers of homeless on the streets. One could make the case that tying the hands of law enforcement is at least partially responsible for the increase in number.

    The city should focus on the economically displaced and the elderly. Those with mental health and drug problems need an intervention; they do not focus on finding housing. And they must not be permitted to be a threat to law-abiding residents or a detraction to one of the most iconic tourism destinations in California.

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