Update: The San Diego City Council on June 13 approved a version of the ordinance that calls for parks to be covered by the ban only if the city determines “there is a significant public health and safety risk” and signs are posted. Read the latest here.
For decades, East Village has been the epicenter of the region’s homelessness response.
It is there where unhoused residents can access shelter, restrooms, meals, showers and other resources. Hundreds have set up camp in the area for that reason.
The concentration of services is by design, the result of decades of deliberate decision making by San Diego officials.
But a controversial ordinance pushed by downtown City Councilman Stephen Whitburn and Mayor Todd Gloria could transform the area at the front lines of the region’s homelessness crisis, a hub the city itself created years ago.
Whitburn’s proposed ordinance, which the City Council will consider on June 13, would ban camping on public property when shelter is available. Camping would be barred at all times within two blocks of shelters and schools, and in parks plus in open spaces, along waterways and at transit hubs.
Map by Nate John
That means unsheltered people would not be allowed to camp in an area spanning from K Street in East Village to Beardsley Street in Barrio Logan. The area is now home to hundreds of unsheltered people and their tents. Large camps, unsheltered residents’ belongings and trash spill over sidewalks and onto the street in the area. Residents are often forced to walk in the street and there are frequent tense encounters between housed and homeless residents.
As unsheltered residents have become aware of the ordinance, they are feeling under siege.
“They’re pushing us away from here,” said 35-year-old Tosha Alvarado, who lives and sleeps on the outskirts of East Village. “They’re taking our sense of security away. This is our sense of security.”
Indeed, living on the street is often perilous. Unsheltered people face myriad hazards – from disease outbreaks to assaults.
But for Alvarado and others, the area offers more security in the form of resources like restrooms and fellow homeless community members who have long stayed in the area. Alvarado and others often rely on street families who look out for each other, watching each other’s belongings during appointments and reversing neighbors’ overdoses with naloxone.
Bob Link, president of the East Village Residents Group, believes the ordinance and a couple safe campsites the city plans to open on the edges of Balboa Park are crucial for the future of the neighborhood.
“The focus is gonna be on recovery for both the unsheltered population whose plight has been overlooked for too long and recovery for the community, for the housed population and their expectations for safety, and the ability to live downtown and make a viable city,” Link said.
The current state of East Village – and its future possibilities – are hitting up against past city policy decisions that made the neighborhood San Diego County’s homeless service hub.
The sidewalks of East Village and north Barrio Logan lined with tents that surround shelters and other homeless services hearken back to the city’s mission in the 1980s to revitalize the Gaslamp Quarter.
At the time, the city told homeless-serving nonprofits they could get permits to serve their clients, regardless of zoning, in East Village.
“We looked at relocations and just sort of forced everybody down there,” Mike Stepner, once an assistant director in the city’s planning department, told me in 2016.
He said downtown had a significant homeless population even then and city leaders didn’t think other neighborhoods would welcome nonprofits that served them.
Here’s what East Village looked like at the time.
Father Joe’s Villages, Catholic Charities and others moved into East Village and Barrio Logan over the years following the city’s directive. The trend continued about five years ago as the city rushed to open additional shelters and services.
Fast forward to 2023. East Village is now dotted with high-rise condos and apartments, trendy restaurants and other businesses and more people — both housed and homeless.
Gloria and Whitburn argue the current state of East Village and other communities with large unsheltered populations is unsustainable and unsafe. Both emphasize that the city has worked to ramp up shelter offerings at a significant cost the past couple years and that unhoused people have an obligation to accept those new resources.
Whitburn said two planned safe campgrounds on the edges of Balboa Park expected to accommodate hundreds of unsheltered people will provide safer outdoor options that come with restrooms, meals and links to other services – and hopefully will lessen street homelessness in areas now home to hundreds of people living in tents. He said those locations were also chosen given their proximity to services in East Village.
Gloria believes the longtime proliferation of encampments in East Village and Barrio Logan have discouraged other communities from welcoming homeless-serving projects.
The transformation of San Diego’s homelessness epicenter will come at a cost, homeless advocates argue. The ordinance will drive displacement that complicates efforts to move unsheltered people off the street – and could move them away from essential amenities including bathrooms.
The Regional Task Force on Homelessness and more than 160 local professors and researchers penned letters opposing the ordinance, arguing that it will simply push unhoused people further from help and do nothing to help address their homelessness.
Both letters cited a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found that involuntary displacement of unsheltered people was “estimated to worsen overdose and hospitalizations, decrease initiations of medications for opioid use disorder, and contribute to deaths among people experiencing homelessness who inject drugs.”
Tara Stamos-Buesig of the Harm Reduction Coalition of San Diego, which distributes overdose reversal drug naloxone in East Village, said she fears a concentrated segment of the unhoused population there who have been hammered by the fentanyl crisis could be in peril.
“If you move people out of there, they are going to die,” Stamos-Buesig said. “They are going to be removed from access to services. There are going to be barriers for them.”
Outreach workers for a handful of homeless service providers who work in the city told Voice of San Diego they are also bracing for the impact if the ordinance passes.
Craig Thomas, an outreach supervisor for nonprofit Alpha Project, said based on past experience that he expects homeless clients his team is trying to move off the street to disappear when the city cracks down. He believes people now staying in areas like East Village will move near freeways or to other areas where they are largely out of sight.
“It’s unfortunate because people are camping out in areas where they feel safe,” Thomas said.
But Whitburn said the unhoused people are now living in inhumane conditions on city sidewalks and must be persuaded to find a safer option.
“People in encampments are hit by cars, attacked by passersby, and sickened by disease,” Whitburn wrote in a statement. “Tents block the sidewalks for pedestrians and people using wheelchairs. No one should be allowed to camp on the sidewalk when we have offered them a safer, healthier place to go.”
Absent the new safe campgrounds, the city now rarely has enough places for those who want shelter.
In the first five months of 2023, Housing Commission data shows an average of more than two thirds of shelter referrals didn’t result in a homeless resident moving into a shelter bed in a typical week. An average of 231 referrals went unfulfilled each week.
More than 850 of the city shelter beds that unhoused people vie for daily are in the East Village and Barrio Logan neighborhoods where the city once told service providers to move.
In the more than seven years I’ve written about homelessness in San Diego, countless unsheltered people in the area have told me they stay there because it ensures easier access to resources that can be harder to get elsewhere.
Jonathan Rosita, 46, told me last month that staying on the outskirts of East Village means he and his girlfriend are close to Father Joe’s Villages restrooms. If his girlfriend who is paraplegic and has other health conditions gets sick, he can easily take her Father Joe’s health clinic.
Eagle Beyb, 36, had a similar take.
“Everything’s in one area,” Beyb told me as he checked in at Think Dignity’s 16th Street storage center on a recent morning. “Everything’s real close.”
Michael Luke, 52, for a time stayed on Commercial Street behind Father Joe’s Villages’ St. Vincent de Paul campus – an area where camps would be banned under the ordinance – so the Father Joe’s case manager he’s working with could easily find him.
“It’s easy to lose somebody,” Luke said. “You could be a block away and you wouldn’t know it.”
After he was assaulted on Commercial Street, Luke and his dog began staying elsewhere in East Village. He’s since misplaced his Social Security card and ID. He’s also lost many cell phones over the years. Repeatedly losing those necessities has made it more difficult for him to move off the street. Luke regularly checks in at Think Dignity’s East Village storage center and relies on access to showers and meals in the neighborhood.
If the camping ban is approved, Luke believes unhoused residents will only initially scatter once enforcement picks up.
“People are creatures of habit,” Luke said. “They’re gonna be back.”