Mayor Todd Gloria delivers 2023 State of the City address at the Civic Theatre on Jan. 10, 2023.
Mayor Todd Gloria delivers 2023 State of the City address at the Civic Theatre on Jan. 10, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

San Diego City Councilman Kent Lee has found himself on Mayor Todd Gloria’s shit list for a series of questions he asked the mayor’s staff last week during a hearing to consider a proposal from the mayor and Councilman Stephen Whitburn to prohibit homeless encampments in most public spaces.  

Lee’s questions weren’t particularly savage or harsh. They helped reveal that we may be entering a new chapter of the ongoing, very sad story about homelessness in San Diego.  

We could call this the “Mayor Has Had It” chapter.  

The ordinance would ban homeless encampments within two blocks of schools or shelters, at transit hubs and other sensitive areas at all times. It would ban encampments elsewhere on public property only when there is shelter where people can go.  

Councilmembers Stephen Whitburn (right) and Joe Lacava (left) before discussing the proposed encampment ban ordinance on April 13, 2023.
Councilmembers Stephen Whitburn (right) and Joe Lacava (left) before discussing the proposed encampment ban ordinance on April 13, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Whitburn and Gloria first proposed it as a package that not only would include the prohibition on camping but also major increases in the safe spaces and shelter where people could go. And they said they would soon present a ballot measure that would help make it all possible by cutting red tape. We’re still waiting on what the ballot measure would do.  

It was not a new idea. We reported last year that former Mayor Kevin Faulconer was making calls to put something on the ballot that would force the city to provide more shelter for homeless residents and then to sharply increase the enforcement that would keep encampments from forming everywhere else. But Faulconer has so far been unwilling to say people who still tried to camp would face misdemeanors or worse.  

Gloria was clearly trying to pre-empt Faulconer’s initiative, and he may have succeeded. Faulconer’s promised petition has not circulated weeks after he said it would start.  

But as we’ve now seen in the last couple weeks, Gloria is also trying to communicate something new or at least differently. He’s trying to tell unsheltered people they are not welcome in San Diego. He just hasn’t quite mustered the motivation to say it that clearly. That’s what, however, he is communicating.  

That’s what Lee’s questions revealed. 

The most important exchange on this point occurred when Lee asked the mayor’s staff how a homeless person would know where they could camp. It was an insightful observation: The law would make it illegal to camp near schools, for example, at any time. But some areas of town would allow encampments as long as shelter is unavailable. So, how would a person without a home know when they’re allowed to camp there? 

Would there be some kind of app that updated shelter vacancy numbers? Billboards? Some other way to know if camping was allowed one day or not based on shelter capacity.  

“I’m wondering if by nature this would deter encampments in any public space. Simply because nobody would know if there’s any available space at any given moment,” Lee said.  

Jessica Lawrence, the mayor’s director of policy, responded.  

“It’s important to note that the existing municipal code bans encampments in all public spaces. What this ordinance will do is help provide clear rules of the road and help provide clarity on where people can and cannot be. The hope is that through additional signage education and training that there will be a deterrent in certain sensitive areas,” she said.  

View of a homeless encampment on Commercial Street in downtown on March 30, 2023.
View of a homeless encampment on Commercial Street in downtown on March 30, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

The city already has a law prohibiting encampments. What exactly are we doing here? 

A city attorney sitting next to Lawrence confirmed her assertion and added that the new ordinance would clarify the city’s approach to legal settlements that, in short, prevent the city from enforcing its ordinance if there is not adequate shelter available. But they can prohibit camping in certain areas regardless of shelter.  

In one exchange, then, we got the actual point of the ordinance. The point is not to create a new city law to prohibit camping. City law already prohibits camping. The point is to send a message: Do not camp here.  

Councilman Kent Lee during a City Council meeting on Jan. 10, 2023.
Councilman Kent Lee during a City Council meeting on Jan. 10, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Lee’s questioning only clarified that the “here” in that message is essentially the entire city of San Diego.  

This also helps explain another surprise. Many of us thought the mayor would present the ordinance as part of a package – a huge expansion of the safe places, shelters and homes to which people could move at the same time he ramped up enforcement of the places you could not be. Whitburn had presented the ordinance as packaged most prominently with a plan to set aside some major spaces within the city of San Diego where people could safely camp. He made no secret of the fact that he was eyeing Inspiration Point and its giant parking lot at the edge of Balboa Park.  

In short, he was saying, ‘Yes, I’m going to make people leave encampments, but I am going to make sure they have a place to go.’ The city notoriously has far more homeless residents than it does shelter spots and more who have requested shelter than it has beds to offer them.  

But the ordinance went to the City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee without any new information on major increases in shelter capacity. The plan for Inspiration Point is obviously delayed. Whitburn’s staff listed the many things the city has done from converting the old Central Library to a temporary shelter to pursuing safe sleeping sites, which their colleagues and the mayor’s staff were working on “as we speak.” 

That’s fine, turning a vast city parking lot technically on Balboa Park land is undoubtedly a complicated and challenging proposal to advance. However, it was supposed to all be part of the same deal. You can’t go here, you can go there.  

To advance the ordinance that prohibits camping (more than it is already prohibited) without a companion “here are more places you can go” piece is further proof that all of this is meant as a message to both the housed and unhoused in San Diego.  

And what’s that message? To the homeless it’s, you need to leave or find a really good hiding place. To the housed, it’s “we’re pushing them along and you’re welcome.”  

Gloria is clearly feeling like the city is close to its max and he isn’t going to push hard for too many more safe spaces for homeless residents to go.  

Last week he reacted sternly to a reporter’s query about why there were no major shelter spaces or safe spaces opening up in conjunction with this ordinance to (further) ban camping.  

“I will not house the homeless population for every other city in the county of San Diego. A part of this enforcement ordinance is about making sure we are taking care of our people, because we are compassionate folks, but I’m not going to be mopping up the messes in other people’s cities,” he said.  

He’s clearly frustrated that the number of shelter beds the city has added has not ameliorated the problem. And now it’s time to tell them to move along.  

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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  1. Gloria spent years collecting twitter points instead of doing the job of the mayor, now he woke up before reelection and has decided he wants to play mayor for a while. Lee is brand new and thought he too could spend years collecting twitter points but found his timing to be suboptimal.

    There are so many articles from VOSD trying to put the battery in Lee’s backpack, the editors are apparently miffed by the city simply banning open drug camps from sidewalks. Have you too not received enough twitter points yet?

      1. I have lived downtown since 1987 west of Horton Plaza and saw the area bloom from strip clubs, tattoo parlors and homeless into the beautiful, vibrant, tourist attracting Horton Plaza and the renovation of the ramshackle historic courthouse, along with new restaurants, services and safe walking everywhere. Now it looks like 1987 only WORSE with all that city improvement money from taxpayers being squandered. BILLIONS. Tax paying citizens can’t even safely walk to THE PUBLIC LIBRARY. War zone. Why do all the drug addicts have expensive French bulldogs??? It is WEIRD. Amazing how much time is spent at meetings and by reporters agonizing over just enforcing the laws already on the books. Foul garbage closes our beaches from Coronado through Santa Monica, the homeless make vibrant city living impossible and criminals take precedence over the citizenry. Soon tourists will declare San Diego “ruined” and then call us Land of the Zombies. YOUR VOTE had consequences. Congratulations.

        1. Perfectly said! Too bad only the decent law-abiding, TAX PAYING CITIZENS understand this! WHY IS THIS SO HARD for others TO ACKNOWLEDGE and UNDERSTAND? TAX PAYERS ALSO HAVE RIGHTS! Where would this Country, State, City be without US? HMMM? It’s time for OUR rights to be honored! Enough of the users and abusers draining and destroying this Country because of their BAD CHOICES!

  2. Todd does nothing, he’s a lame duck.

    Look at the electric scooter industry, failing, equipment doesn’t comply with a city contract and he lets them unsafely operate on sidewalks endangering all pedestrians. They are making no money for the city and are just as much a eyesore as the homeless.
    Easy solution but Todd choses the $ over public safety and clean streets.

  3. I believe Scott is right about the Mayor declaring war on the homeless. When Todd Gloria campaigned for Mayor he took then Mayor Faulconer to task for his lack of action on homelessness. He promised that he would make homelessness his #1 Priority. I was in the room when he said that.

    Instead he has wasted his first two years in office by pandering to the developers and wasting the opportunities that were available to build housing for the homeless. He is doing it again with his handling of the former Ritz-Carlton lot. As a result the homeless population has exploded by over 160% during his term. The voters are mad as a result and justifiably so.

    The Whitburn proposal will do nothing to solve the problem of the homeless downtown. To put it simply, we do not have the room to house the 1,700+ homeless on the streets of downtown. We don’t have the shelter space, we don’t have the housing, the rehab facilities are full, the mental health treatment facilities are full, the city has dithered on creating Safe Camping locations, and let trailers given to the city by the federal government rot away for years in a storage yard. Not even the jails have the room to take the number of people needed to clear the streets.

    The inaction by the Mayor and City Council created the problem with the homeless and now they are trying to save their jobs by using the police to chase the homeless from street corner to street corner, but there is still no where for them to go.

    1. Nobody agrees with you. You were in the room but have no influence.

      I’m not paying for apartments for drug addicts, you can call them “homeless,” you can call them “vulnerable LGBTQ youths,” but we are talking about the same thing. They should be in prison, not in apartments provided by taxpayers.

      1. Good Luck, who pays for the prisons you want to send the homeless to? Are they designed, built, and run by private citizens, or are they really just extremely secure ‘apartments paid for by taxpayers?’

      2. Not all r druggies. Let’s see how long u will last out here if your in our shoes. I hope u never have to experience this In your lifetime but u never know your job or money could be gone tomorrow and u have nothing to fall back on. Good luck to u.

  4. War on the homeless? I’m in!

    “Affordable” housing (I.e taxpayer-subsidized housing)? No!!

    Buses to Arizona? Yes please!

  5. That’s the first time I’ve heard anyone prominent acknowledge that the unhoused on San Diego’s streets are not all formerly housed San Diegans. It makes sense to tell unhoused “visitors” who stay-‘presumably because it’s better/nicer here than wherever they were–to move along so that San Diego can focus on providing services and housing to the unhoused from our city. (And considering what it costs to provide those services, the cost of a one-way bus ticket to anywhere in the U.S. is a bargain–not to mention, the cost to provide services and housing to the unhoused is a lot less expensive in most other states.) But talk is cheap. How do these words translate into action?

    1. Of course, its obvious we inherit the homeless from other less “survivable” cities. It shouldn’t be San Diego’s problem to spend my taxes to help outsiders! …and let’s be blunt. I’m tired of having MY rights trampled on. I’m entitled to have a safe, clean environment! I’m entitled to not compensate spending more money just so they can steal, damage, and destroy all we’ve built in this fine city! Its illegal to charge me more for the same services, just to compensate for those that can’t! The fact is, we have all the laws already in place (been there for years!) that just need to be enforced! No excuses… no emotional exceptions. This society of emotional wrecklessness has got to stop!

    2. I agree with this comment. After living downtown San Diego for a few years, wow, has my attitude changed.

  6. As a resident of Lemon Grove, shall I shake my head in disgust because the County hasn’t done a good enough job of dealing with the homeless? Now, guess where all the homeless will move to? They will move to the cities and unincorporated areas bordering the City of San Diego. The City & County bullies small cities and this is just further proof. We will be punished for their incompetence. Again.

    1. What exactly would they do in Lemon Grove? Wander from strip mall to strip mall? There aren’t even contiguous sidewalks there, they will not be able to move their garbage caravans around. Where would they get their meth and fentanyl? I don’t see it happening.

      When someone is arrested in Lemon Grove, do you know where they are taken? When they are released, do you know where they are released? What you have described is the exact opposite of reality. When your special lemon grove police force arrests someone, they are brought to downtown SD and when they are out, they are released there right on the MTS line.

  7. It is a bigger problem than just adding more beds. The more beds might be misinterpreted by homeless communities nearby San Diego that this city is the place to come to. To be direct – more beds equal more homeless encampments will be poppin up. The problem needs a solution that might feel unfair – but necessary. We the taxpayer deserve better that this. I did not cause homeless encampments to sprawl all around downtown San Diego, but this city wants me to pay higher taxes to fix the problem. There needs to be a more inclusive taskfore that involves citizens input to come with a different kind of approach to getting rid of the pronlems arising from the encampments rather than adding more beds.

  8. Where is the safe space for taxpaying citizens ? It’s certainly not downtown.
    If Gloria starts enforcing the law on drugged out vagrants, I say welcome aboard the bandwagon…but I’ll believe it when I see it.
    VOSD and Lee are chief enablers and cheerleaders for the bums, but I don’t see any invites to camp on their lawns.

  9. Just so I’m clear, this is Scott Lewis’s editorial about the new policy? How is he so sure of the motives and thought process, and details of execution of the policy (that were not described in the article)? I’m not sure this does anything to move the discussion forward, but does seem mostly inflammatory against the city.

  10. Commenters do not offer realistic solutions, prison and jail…really. Tax payers pay for that too. Lol. Gloria is in re-elect mode, Whitburn is in elect me for mayor in the future mode. Lee is doing his best to stay human. Result is no real progress, humans perish on the streets of our fine city.

    1. Honestly not everyone on the street is evil. Believe it or not, even some of the “druggies” are actually level headed individuals, who really try to be good people. They really just spend their day minding their business only for people to come along and act like beavers when they see running water ( “beaver : “ABSOLUTELY NOT!!”). “Taxpaying-individuals” perhaps you should try to spend some time talking to any one of those unhoused people for just a little bit and you might feel a little bit different

  11. This cat Lee or whoever he is reminds me of a shell-shocked Army recruit on the front lines. Send the kid to Patton for a little recollection. Anyway, Gloria has got it right! Most of these sorry souls are mentally ill and need medical, psychological help not to mention 24-hour care. Expand the ward on Midway to take them in and care for these helpless people. I don’t blame the mayor! San Diego has had enough! These are very sick people. Lee is just a little fly in the ointment. When the drug addicts converge on little Saigon, Lee will be on his knees begging to lock em up. Send in the chopper!

  12. Gloria has been ineffective and naive about solving the homeless problem.
    It’s ruing the entire city. Filth. Feces. Danger. Ugliness. Everywhere.
    Converting cheap motels into homeless camps is like putting bandaides on a gunshot victim.
    Hire smart people. Put up the money. Take a decisive strong action. Clean up San Diego. Do it now.

    1. Todd Gloria’s Nine trailers got nine families off our streets This is the NEW SAFE PARKING SITE
      A few shower Trailers for the other 9000 Homeless and a few GARBAGE TRUCKS to visit the emcampment Are Too hard to come by for TODD GLORIA

  13. Homeless Encampment:
    Should not be considered a normal lifestyle,
    In the communities/ neighborhood.
    This is where everything is going wrong. The homeless encampment syndrome became acceptable/ tolerated. There should be no tolerance of any human living on the street. Organizations, committees & agencies, including municipal, need to start cooperating with each other, to resolve this crisis. They have the resources & funding, it’s getting displaced all over the place, rather one simple direct solution. The multi level housing complexes, getting built all over the place, in San Diego, is not a solution. People are still left out in the streets. These multi level housing projects don’t provide shelter for any homeless, they can’t afford to move to them. Neither can an average income family. Instead of constructing, overwhelming, expensive housing, use buildings, that are vacant, reconstruct those & make it affordable. For homeless, build an actual facility, they can go to anytime, without being on waiting list. To get services: For, addiction, mental health, physical disabilities, financial hardship, displaced from natural disaster. Make the facilities a place they can stay in, until the person(s) are recovered to live on their own.

  14. If you build it they will come. Self Fulfilling Prophecy 101. It’s totally obvious that the more money spent, the more show up. Stop supporting homelessness and they will stop coming, and the true needy will be easy to see/help

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