Most homeless people who enter East Village Market want to buy something and go about their day, said one of the store’s managers, David Gabreli. But, fairly frequently, interactions spin out of control. 

Once, a man blocked the door and wouldn’t let people come or go. Gabreli tried to get him to move along, he said, but the man claimed he owned the entryway. Gabreli called the police. The man showed Gabreli a knife and told him to back down. Gabreli told the police to hurry and put down the phone. He and others continued to try to move the man along. 

The confrontation boiled on for 30 minutes before cops arrived. “I’m not lying to you. That’s how long it took,” said Gabreli. 

Gabreli’s story isn’t extraordinary; in fact, it’s typical for workers in Central San Diego. Workers, managers, and owners told us it is not uncommon for them to feel scared or that their lives are in danger. But when these crises arise, they frequently get passed from 911 to non-emergency lines. Sometimes no one picks up that line, they said. And when they do, dispatchers ask tedious questions. Sometimes cops show up in 30 minutes. Sometimes it takes hours. Sometimes no one shows up at all, they said.

Most workers said they empathized with the struggles of their unhoused neighbors. Many work minimum wage jobs themselves. Just a small minority of interactions, they said, threaten to turn violent. But even still, those events are common, happening on a daily basis inside many shared spaces across the city – leaving accumulated trauma for everyone involved in their wake.

San Diegans are left with no clear sense of what to do or who to call. They know only that their government appears incapable of handling the problem. 

“I don’t understand. Does someone have to die?” asked Jerry Enriquez, a security guard at a nearby grocery store in East Village. Enriquez called days earlier when someone was blocking the doorway and yelling. “I waited for them for 25 – no, 27 minutes.”

It’s not just workers who are having trouble getting police to respond. 

Emad Mirgoli lives in University Heights. In December, he was trying to cross the Vermont Street pedestrian bridge. A man using drugs on the bridge tried to attack Mirgoli, he said, and then four people followed him as he walked home. 

Emad Mirgoli at home in University Heights on March 3, 2023.
Emad Mirgoli at home in University Heights on March 3, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Mirgoli said he called 911, and the dispatcher asked if he wanted the police department’s phone number. He hung up and tried to get to safety.

At a University Heights community meeting that Mirgoli attended, San Diego Police Department officer David Surwilo, offered advice on just these types of situations. 

“The biggest thing that I’m always telling everybody … if you are out on the street and you are seeing something, I would try not to get involved with it,” said Surwilo. “I would try to walk around it.”

But Mirgoli was being followed. He couldn’t just get away from it, he said. 

“To me there is no police force left,” said Mirgoli. “You gotta take the law in your own hands or run away.”

Surwilo told the crowd that what one citizen sees as an emergency may not be the same thing to a police officer.

“Not all calls, just because you may think that it’s an emergency – lights and sirens, everybody needs to stop everything they are doing and run to you – are all those types of calls,” Surwilo told the crowd.  

Exactly what role police are supposed to play, or what San Diegans should expect from them, in emergencies that involve houseless residents depends on which police officer you ask – as exemplified at a recent City Council committee meeting. 

City Councilman Kent Lee addressed SDPD Police Chief David Nisleit: “We sort of assume that both San Diego Police Department and law enforcement generally does not want to be the first line of response for homelessness.” 

“No I disagree,” responded Nisleit. SDPD’s “homeless outreach team and neighborhood policing division are already doing this work and we’re doing it with compassion.” 

“Given the shortage of sworn officers we have and the challenges with emergency response as it is, have we considered other non-police interventions?” Lee asked.

“We have those resources,” said Nisleit. “They’re still here with the police department. We still have officers riding with psychologists, riding with nurses, with social workers. There’s our homeless outreach team. We’re doing this work.”

The contradiction is stark. At neighborhood meetings, officers tell residents not everything is an emergency and to walk the other way. At City Council hearings, the chief tells the Council that cops are exactly the people who can and should respond first to incidents with homeless people. 

The chief’s suggestion, that police are ready and able to handle these situations, is out of touch with the daily reality faced by workers in the city center, they say.

‘If They’re Not Brandishing a Weapon, No One Is Coming’

View of downtown on May 12, 2023.
View of downtown on May 12, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Three baristas at a downtown Starbucks get by with dark humor after some of the traumatic events they’ve experienced. They all laughed when asked about police response times. 

“It takes them forever to act, but they’re always first in line for their coffee,” one said. 

Once a person died in their bathroom. People have used it as a place to have sex. The baristas described a time their store was robbed a year and a half ago. 

A man who appeared to be homeless came inside the store and shoved his fist into the tip jar, then walked around the counter and started jamming buttons on the register trying to get it open. 

Some of the baristas were trapped behind the counter with the man. They called 911. A dispatcher asked if the man had a weapon. He did not. The baristas realized this meant it was not a priority call. 

“If they’re not brandishing a weapon, no one is coming,” one said. 

One barista grabbed a plunger and started backing the man outside. She did not touch him, she said. He went out the front door. 

Cops showed up more than an hour later. As far as the baristas knew, no one ever got in trouble – at least not for the robbery. 

The barista who managed to steer the man out with a plunger was written up by Starbucks. 

“They said I should have stayed still and let him take what he wanted,” she said. “I guess you have to let someone punch you in the face before you can do anything.”

We agreed to withhold the employee’s name and from identifying the specific store location, because she feared further write-ups from her employer. 

Data backs up city workers’ claims that cops are slow to show up. Police response times have soared in eight of the city’s nine police districts, as Voice of San Diego previously reported. 

The increase in SDPD response times has coincided with staffing shortages and an uptick last year in officers leaving the force.

In absence of police help, some have resorted to vigilante action. 

In April, a man who appeared to be homeless tried to steal a bag of chips from a store in Mission Hills. When the store owner approached him, the man punched him in the face and pushed him to the ground. 

The owner of Ibis Market, who showed us pictures of his face after the incident, declined to give his full name. 

The homeless man left and then tried to re-enter the store, but a crowd that had formed kept him from coming back inside. The man taunted the people in the crowd, while they tried to convince him to leave, as seen in a viral video of the encounter. A large man with long hair and no shoes steps out and says, “You want some?”

The larger man circles around the homeless man, punching into the air. The homeless man tries to run. But the larger man forcibly kicks him into a fence. People start yelling for him to stop. 

“I can’t believe the police haven’t come yet,” says a man in the recording in disbelief. 

The larger man pushes the other man to the ground and violently slams his head into the sidewalk and then casually walks away as the police pull up. 

The store’s owner said it took the police 10 or 15 minutes to arrive. Frustrated, still visibly shaken, he said he was pleased someone took the law into their own hands. 

Workers are coming up with their own strategies for safety when threatening situations emerge. 

David Flores, a manager at Grocery Outlet in East Village, told us it’s unfortunately common for people to come in the store and “get really aggressive.” 

He and his coworkers now gather together as a group in order to defend themselves. They try to herd threatening people out of the store as one unit in order to stay safe. 

“All of us act together, as one group,” he said. “It’d be a lot better for our safety if we didn’t have to do that.” 

Gabreli, the manager at East Village Market, has decided the only way to get anything out of a broken system is by gaming it. 

He knows the cops won’t come unless there’s a weapon involved. And he knows it’s risky – that cops could escalate the violence. “I lie to them,” he said. “I say, ‘It looks like they’re pulling a gun out of their bag.’”

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at

Andrea Lopez-Villafaña, Managing Editor, Daily News Andrea oversees the production of daily news stories for Voice of San Diego. She...

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  1. I would bet $100 USD that none of the people interviewed used the term “unhoused neighbors” and the authors of this story inserted it to mislead readers about the sentiments of those interviewed.

    1. nor was that phrase included in a quote; the writers used that description as well as others including “a man using drugs” and “threatening people.” so who’s misleading readers, Lol?

      1. It would take me 3 or 4 sentences to explain why inserting that phrase the way they did is inappropriate in a way that you might understand, but I’m reluctant because you don’t matter.

  2. Thank You for this reporting. The abject failure of our society & government at all levels to provide the safety net for residents who are desperately poor, malnourished, dehydrated, physically and/or mentally ill or disabled, has brought us to this. And then we have today’s reporting that San Diego County has stolen over $3 Mil from foster children by taking Social Security survivor and other benefits owed them, many of whom wind up homeless. WHO are the real thieves?

  3. The situation with San Diego police remind me of the “Arsonist’s Dilemma”, an anecdote about firemen who believe that they are not respected or paid enough by the public. So to get more respect and money, they begin setting fires they can rush to put out. The idea is that if there are more fires, and it takes too long for firefighters to get to fires and put them out, the city budget more money to pay firefighters salaries and to hire more firefighters.

    The same motivations and incentives appear to be a play with delays in police responses to 911 calls outlined in your articles. If police stop responding to 911 calls, or take top long to respond, city hall politicians hear from voters, and question the police chief, who typically tells them the solution is to give him more money to hire more cops and pay them more. If the politicians cave to this kind of extortion, the delays or ignored calls will only increase, since by failing to do their job, the police are more likely to get a bigger budget, more staff and higher pay.

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