A man walks past a mural on Commercial Street in downtown on May 18, 2023.
A man walks past a mural on Commercial Street in downtown on May 18, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

This post originally appeared in the May 19 Morning Report.

For months, the Commercial Street underpass on the edge of East Village has been packed with homeless camps that surround passersby as they drive or walk through. Now both sides of the street are empty.

Police spokeswoman Ashley Bailey said the city began clearing the area last week for safety reasons.

“The area along Commercial Street posed a public safety hazard to pedestrians, vehicles, and trolleys operating in the area,” Bailey wrote in an email.

She also shared a video showing camps blocking the sidewalk and portions of the street that she said forced vehicles to drive on trolley tracks. Bailey could not immediately say how many unhoused people were arrested or cited as the city cleared the area.

View of a homeless encampment on Commercial Street in downtown on March 30, 2023.View of an empty Commercial Street in downtown on May 18, 2023.
Views of a bustling Commercial Street underpass on March 30, 2023, and an empty underpass on May 18, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Rachel Hayes, 56, who has slept under the bridge for the past few months, was skeptical of the city’s explanation. She said groups had been dropping off food donations there and disputed the city’s explanation about safety concerns. Since the operation, Hayes said, people who had been staying under the bridge have dispersed to nearby areas and have struggled to connect with people who had delivered food.

“Cut us a break,” Hayes said. “We’re doing the best we can out here.”

Related: Councilman Stephen Whitburn and Mayor Todd Gloria are pushing a controversial ordinance that would ban camping along the Commercial Street corridor – which is a couple blocks away from the St. Vincent de Paul campus and along a trolley line – at all times. More than 160 local professors and researchers have signed a letter urging Gloria and the City Council not to proceed with the unsafe camping ban that would also bar people from staying on public property when shelter beds are available.

“We write to express our strongest opposition to the proposed expansion of the encampment ban ordinance,” the group of academics wrote. “If enacted, this ordinance is likely to be ineffective, harmful to public health and the natural environment, and expensive to enact and enforce.”

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. Lisa,
    In the interest of factual reporting I think
    The number of people from South of the border being dropped here by the bus load should be included in reported homeless statistics. A lso we need more focus on causes of homelessness,
    Not just the ugly aspects of it for our
    Cities and country.

    1. the plain truth of the matter is that this is an unsolvable problem. As a fourth generation San Diego native it just is. San Diego and by extension my home state of CA are just phenomenally OVER crowded. That’s the sad fact. Most everyone I know who lives here came TO CA – from somewhere else – for whatever the reason – and stayed. I expect the same is true of the homeless as well.

  2. San Diego candidate for mayor–CBS Local NEWS 8 to air story on exploits of Danny Smiechowski 1-million-mile club endurance sometime next week or thereafter.

  3. No quotes from anyone who lives nearby or runs a business nearby? Residents and businesses trying to break their leases because of this very condition have been written about and interviewed on local news, it would have been easy to follow up with someone and ask if they’re happy the streets were cleared. Instead, we have a quote from a 56 year old woman who has been sleeping under a bridge for several months which is, allegedly, the best she can do. Fascinating.

  4. I would like to comment about the city of SD buying the junk hotels for the
    homeless,these people were homeless n surely cannot avail to maintain it, feed themselves. The city should buy a rural area or develop a new community n make these people work n rehabilitate themselves..find big companies to sponsor, rehabilitate, teach farming, educate, provide simple living atmosphere. IT’S A big question if the city will provide their daily needs, meal, n how will these homeless, keep their grooming n essentials to maintain these most awarded renovated hotels.

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