View of homeless encampments on National Avenue and Commercial Street on May 19, 2023.
View of homeless encampments on National Avenue and Commercial Street on May 19, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

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. 

People take photos from the bridge in Barrio Logan on Chicano Park Day on April 22, 2023.
People take photos from the bridge in Barrio Logan on Chicano Park Day on April 22, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

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. 

A view of a homeless encampment on Commercial Street in Barrio Logan on May 19, 2023.
A view of a homeless encampment on Commercial Street in Barrio Logan on May 19, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

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. 

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. “even as the city has opened hundreds of additional beds on Gloria’s watch. ”

    In spite of what Gloria has done, during his tenure the downtown homeless population has exploded. From 656 in 2020 to 1,958 as of April’s count. An increase of 198%

    Gloria has not made homelessness his #1 Priority as he promised, he as added beds in dribs and drabs, there has been no coordinated policy and the results show the consequences of this neglect.

    1. I enjoy watching your comments on SD Trib get torn apart. Nobody agrees with you. You’re misguided and whatever hole you are trying to fill in your life, this is not the way.

  2. It’s very misleading to say that safe camping spots will be added and not mention that Golden Hall (500 beds) and one of the tent shelters will be closed this year. That means a net loss of beds NOT an increase.

  3. Meanwhile instead of building more beds in communal housing to provide the homeless with safe, warm, dry places with access to food and hygiene, we spend almost $400,000 per unit on other forms of housing.

    The UT article below says we’re spending $170M on such housing. The VOSD’s 10/22 article says we were short about 800 beds at that time.

    $170M/800 = 212,000 PER BED to spend if we wanted to spend it that way. I suspect even with government incompetence in project management we could likely spend significantly less than that and use the remainder for mental health, addiction, and other services to help the homeless back into society.

    But then we wouldn’t have a “crises” to make hay with, would we?

    1. I am literally praising you out loud Right now🙌 if people did their research and realized that places like father Joe’s have dbas for alcohol brewery companies and they give themselves 900k dollar salary increases. The ceos of these “charities” are making 1.4 million a year!! But the shelters are closing for deplorable conditions 🤯🤯🤬
      It’s so easy to sit around and sheepishly follow everything they tell u in the news but to go research and look at the Financials talk to the people they “help” THAT’S TO MUCH WORK AND FREE THINKING.. THE “CHRONICLLY HOMELESS” they speak of has nothing to do with drugs. This is how it works you go in a shelter you spend a year do what they tell you to do they either like you and place you into a housing unit or they don’t and you’re back on the street but when they do place you it’s going to be about 85% of your income in rent and people that are on disability or retirement Etc are not going to be able to pick up a side job to pay the bills so they become in debt and evicted and back in the streets or the shelters then they get to check the box that says that they house somebody check another box that says that they sheltered somebody more than once and then mark them as chronically homeless and on drugs not true they’re not properly housing anybody you cannot expect for anyone to live with a 15% income it’s irresponsible to place people in the housing that they cannot afford and then blame them for not being able to maintain it father Joe has one of the highest eviction rates.

      The amount of money that they spend or they claim that they spend on homeless Services, they could have housed them in homes three times over with the amount of money they spend and all you have to do is look at the math
      If people are not aware and they continue to just eat off of the spoons that they’re being fed from these Crooks it will never change because it doesn’t benefit them as long as you have to drive or walk down the street and see the tents the money keeps coming in for services and if it continues this way it’ll always be how it is or worse because they’re not held accountable nobody holds homeless service providers accountable in fact nobody even knows who’s responsible for what that’s a guarantee you can call any one of the Housing Commission public housing authority HUD housing nobody will be able to tell you who even runs coordinated entry, i know, i can speak from experience because I have been on this coordinated entry system for a year and a half and for the duration of that year and a half I have been labeled and active five times and have never left the shelter so how am I inactive if I have monthly case management meetings CES update meetings Home Inspection meetings and we talk about this for the most part everyday how am I inactive it’s because they don’t want to house me and when you call to find out who’s doing what and why they are labeling you inactive over and over nobody can even tell you who’s in charge it’s been a year and a half and I don’t know who’s in charge.. so bottom line is until we figure out who’s accountable and hold them accountable for that nothing will change it will only get worse.

      I spoke with James Carter he works for the city of San Diego his job title is director of homeless strategies and solutions I spoke with him directly today and he told me to call 211 because he had no idea who’s in charge of homeless housing he doesn’t know what to tell me and maybe I can try 211 or Jewish Family Services if this man is being paid I’m sure six figures to be the director of Homeless Solutions and strategies how is it he doesn’t know who runs the housing program for homeless if you don’t have a solution or a strategy why do you get to be the director of strategies and solutions that is the type of thing that needs to change or shut up because you like it

      1. More needs to be done for the PEOPLE that live in San Diego, who work, pay taxes and monetarily pay for all of this. I see what MOST of the homeless do in our city..garbage, stolen items, robberies, physical threats to total strangers. Not interested in helping anymore,

    2. The local media is full of stories of homeless who travel from areas with lower costs of living but less hospitable weather (Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Maine, Oregon, etc.) or fewer services (Hemet, Vista, El Cajon, etc.). These unhoused then become San Diego’s problem because the weather is nice and especially downtown because services are provided in East Village. They are, for all intents and purposes, unhoused tourists.

      How about if the City of San Diego focuses on providing services to the “non-tourists,” those who can prove they were actually housed residents in the city before becoming homeless? The unhoused “tourists” who became homeless elsewhere could be provided a one-way bus ticket back to where they became homeless and where it is undoubtedly much easier to find affordable housing options.

  4. Unfortunately the able hide among the disabled. And the able people far out number the people that can’t take care of their obligations to society. As a society we expect the able to take care of their own responsibilities. Drugs and alcohol use is a choice, my friend works in a major rehab center and calls it the prison re entry program. They don’t want to do what it takes to function in society, they just want to get drunk or stoned and escape.
    We need to seperate the people that actually need, and will accept our help, the mentally ill, the drug and alcohol users that are willing to get sober, from those that are just plain lazy. And just as working societies of the past, banish or turn away from them till they cooperate and willingly take responsibility for their lives instead of being voluntary beggars. It is unfortunate that a previous governor closed most state mental institutions under the guise that the patients were not a danger to themselves or others, but what do you call it when someone drinks or drugs themselves into comatose states everyday? Or is off their meds because they don’t like them? Clearly a danger to them selves. Re open the public mental institutions, give help and housing to those who need it, and let the rest go to jail when they break the law.

  5. It’s a start.
    Next step , no vagrants within 8 blocks of anyone who pays taxes.

  6. I agree with Kev. Help the people who want help – go ALL IN for them. I’m all for spending money in this area. CA is expensive and getting behind can snowball a person’s downfall. I’m also for offering education and housing those who truly need help. However, for those who are mentally unable to function in society, they need to be institutionalized. They are hurting themselves and those around them. Closing mental institutions is a primary reason for the mess we have. For those who simply want to be homeless and are able-bodied, we need to stop enabling them. The goal should be to make their life so difficult to stay in San Diego, they either take responsibility or leave.

    For those of us who have focused on raising families, being productive for society, and giving back to the community, we have a right to walk our streets in safety and pride. When homeless rights trump paying citizen rights, we are clearly doing something wrong.

  7. VOSD plus everyone on this thread are much better Americans than some old dumb guy named Smiechowski who just happens to be running for Mayor of San Diego.

  8. Follow the MONEY people! Anytime you hear the buzz words Homeless,Affordable housing and Imagination your tax dollars are being scammed by politicians with these so called crisis. Time to vote out this current bunch of elected representatives and seriously fact check these so called advocates.

  9. A mandatory registration BEFORE THEY GET FREE FOOD. would be a start. A QR code for each person to track their successful access to programs, bathroom facilities, medical help, beds and showers, help with addiction. Not punitive but supportive. It’s all about trust. Those that do not get free stuff because they don’t want to register, may decide to move on. The cards must have a photo ID. and be used to monitor what services the homeless person has actually utilized. Best case scenario, this card, along with a cell phone can be used to remind the person that they can make an appointment to be seen by a specialist, go to a laundry, take a shower all at the same time, and location and move into their shelter…. The card, is the ticket to a way out. It can even provide a free transit ride once a week. When filling out the card, it would be great if a next of kin, or special person could be identified. Accidental death, serious illness or injury really presents a problem for everyone involved. This information needs to be vetted. If they cant provide it, NO CARD! Then we help them find the person they have lost contact with…. etc. I WOULD DONATE TO A PROGRAM LIKE THIS… A SOLUTION, NOT A BED! BEDS ENABLE AND ARE NOT A LONG TERM SOLUTION.

  10. Do the Math, now w/ 2023 Pt In Time Count: 6.5K+ houseless residents of
    @CityofSanDiego. 1,440 City Shelter Beds after the impending closure of Golden Hall Shelter. Maybe 500 individual tents in “Safe Sleeping Areas” by Fall. Where do 4,000+ people go?

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