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.
It’s a familiar reality for homeless San Diegans and housed residents of communities surrounding downtown: When police crack down on homeless camps in the area, unsheltered residents relocate – at least temporarily.
A camping ban proposed by City Councilman Stephen Whitburn and touted by Mayor Todd Gloria could cause more frequent and sustained moves into neighborhoods near — or even far from — downtown that lack the public restrooms, services and other amenities unhoused residents cluster around.
Whitburn’s ordinance, which the City Council will consider June 13, would bar camping on public property when shelter is available and within two blocks of shelters and schools, parks, open spaces and along waterways and transit hubs even when it’s not.
The city could use the ordinance to transform swaths of East Village and Barrio Logan that have long been packed with homeless camps given their proximity to shelters and other services. Now those very services – particularly, shelters – will mean unhoused residents can’t set up their tents within two blocks even when there aren’t open shelter beds for them, likely leading many to relocate elsewhere.
Meanwhile, a map created by Voice of San Diego reveals that large areas including parts of Barrio Logan, Golden Hill, Logan Heights and even Gaslamp Quarter wouldn’t be covered by the encampment ban unless there are open shelter beds. A lack of bed availability has for years hampered enforcement efforts – even as the city has opened hundreds of additional beds on Gloria’s watch.
That’s because a 2018 federal appeals court ruling barred the citing of homeless people for sleeping on sidewalks if no other shelter is available. A 2007 legal settlement also prevents police from ticketing or arresting homeless San Diegans if shelters are full.
Barrio Logan resident Philomena Marino was initially excited to hear about the ordinance she thought might help her neighborhood. Marino like many others in Barrio Logan and Logan Heights has for years been desperate for a reprieve from the increased homeless population in her community, and the diminished quality of life that comes with it.
Then Marino, 53, took a closer look. She realized many parts of Barrio Logan won’t be covered by the ordinance when shelter beds aren’t available. Now she’s concerned the area could see more homeless residents.
“If you don’t include my area, guess what? You just funneled them into my area,” Marino said.
Homeless residents who spoke to Voice of San Diego expect large-scale moves too.
“A lot of people are just gonna be shifting to places they can sleep in,” said 62-year-old Michael Papadelis, who now stays in East Village.
Whitburn and Gloria argue that hundreds of unsheltered residents will be offered spaces at two new safe campgrounds that could collectively accommodate 500 tents and that there are plans to add more shelter beds too. Whitburn notes the new campsites were chosen for their proximity to East Village.
“When we have safer, healthier options like congregate and non-congregate shelter and safe sleeping sites, it is reasonable to expect that people will take advantage of them,” Whitburn said.
Whitburn also said he doesn’t expect tents to pop up en masse on sidewalks in other areas since his ordinance also bans setting up camp during the day citywide.
Enforcing that is likely to be challenging. Gloria last year directed police to order unhoused residents to take down their tents during the day. Police staffing challenges, however, have kept officers from regularly enforcing that directive.
Police have yet to detail their plan for enforcing the proposed ordinance but have said they will do their “part to ensure its success.”
Gloria told Voice last week he doesn’t expect tents to disappear “overnight” and instead expects enforcement to ramp up gradually in different areas through downtown and the rest of the city.
For the past two years, an untold number of unsheltered residents have told me they’d be interested in a safe campsite outfitted with restrooms, services and other amenities.
More recently, others have said they aren’t certain about the large-scale campsites the city is planning. Some unsheltered residents say they are concerned about the size of the projects while others have questions about potential curfews and other rules.
“It just reminds me of a FEMA camp,” said 52-year-old Michael Luke, who now sleeps in East Village.
Luke expects others staying in areas where tents could soon be banned to try to relocate to the outskirts of downtown and Florida Canyon in Balboa Park despite the ordinance’s ban on camping in parks.
Manny Rodriguez, executive chairperson of the Downtown Community Planning Council, is concerned the ordinance could lead unsheltered residents to cluster in areas of downtown where the camping ban won’t be in place at all times.
“It’s gonna have the effect of concentrating people and creating Tenderloin areas in the downtown,” said Rodriguez, referencing the San Francisco neighborhood most packed with homeless camps.
Fellow Downtown Community Planning Council member Terry McCleary, president of the East Village Association and owner of MAKE pizza+salad in East Village, supports the ordinance and appreciates city plans to add more shelter options for unsheltered people. He hopes discussion about the ordinance will spur the city to provide additional services throughout the city so other areas other than downtown are better equipped to serve unhoused residents.
“I think that our city deserves better than what’s happening out there right now, and I understand there’s a lot of things that have to align in order to solve this,” McCleary said.
Yet he wishes the ordinance would cover more ground, particularly barring camping near colleges including those close to his restaurant. The current version of the ordinance simply bans camping within two blocks of K-12 schools.
Josh Coyne, vice president of policy for the Downtown San Diego Partnership, also doesn’t believe most unsheltered residents staying downtown will move out of the area.
The business group’s latest monthly census tallied 1,958 unsheltered people sleeping downtown and in its outskirts.
Coyne said the Downtown Partnership’s homeless outreach experience suggests there won’t be massive movements. He suspects people will be reluctant to leave downtown because they lack information about other areas.
“I don’t think we’re gonna see 2,000 people move outside of downtown,” Coyne said.
He’s hopeful the city will coordinate enforcement and outreach efforts to ensure crackdowns don’t lead unsheltered residents who relocate to lose contact with those trying to move them off the street.
But Tamera Kohler, CEO of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, worries the ordinance will move unsheltered residents to farther-flung areas that are out of sight and more difficult to access, including for emergency responders who might respond to fires.
“To survive, people need ways to have food, prepare food and we’re just pushing people out from some of the basic needs that are really critical and important,” Kohler said.