A San Diego Police officer picks up a bag of trash while conducting a homeless encampment sweep along 17th Street in downtown San Diego in August 2021. / File photo by Adriana Heldiz
A San Diego Police officer picks up a bag of trash while conducting a homeless encampment sweep along 17th Street in downtown San Diego in August 2021. / File photo by Adriana Heldiz

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.

Eight months ago, Mayor Todd Gloria gave police a directive: Order homeless residents to take down their tents during the day. 

For a handful of days, police gave those commands. Tents never came down on a broad scale and they returned to sidewalks in Barrio Logan and East Village within days of the initial orders. There is now no indication, anywhere, that the mayor’s directive resulted in any sustained police action. 

Police in the time since have emphasized a staffing shortage as police response times balloon. Police have said they didn’t have the bandwidth to consistently enforce the order. 

Yet police say they plan to enforce an ordinance pushed by downtown City Councilman Stephen Whitburn and Mayor Todd Gloria – and that elements of the proposal will make it easier for them to police homeless encampments. They also have some ideas on how to address staffing challenges that have long hampered their efforts to clamp down on homeless camps. 

“This will give us an opportunity to do a more thorough enforcement along with, the idea is to try and use existing patrol officers to help maintain once it’s been cleaned out,” Assistant Police Chief Bernie Colon said Wednesday.  

The proposed ordinance would ban homeless camps in public spaces at all times when shelter is available. When shelter isn’t available, tents would still be banned within two blocks of schools or shelters as well as in parks, canyons and along transit hubs and waterways.  

If the City Council approves it next Tuesday, Colon said police expect to first order unsheltered people staying in tents to leave parks and areas within two blocks of schools. 

For now, officers in the police department’s Neighborhood Policing Division typically lead enforcement of offenses involving homelessness including encroachment. They first offer shelter and warnings, then citations and arrests if unsheltered residents refuse. 

After NPD officers crack down in a particular area, they typically quickly refocus on another area, allowing encampments to build back up.  

Colon said patrol officers will now follow up in areas where camps have been cleared to ensure that doesn’t happen – and that the more expansive language of the ordinance will ensure police can force folks to move. 

An encampment on the corner of National Avenue and 14th Street in the East Village on May 19, 2023.
An encampment on the corner of National Avenue and 14th Street in the East Village on May 19, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Encroachment, a violation years ago designed to combat errant trash bins, is now the foremost violation police use to crack down on homeless camps. It simply bars blocking sidewalks. 

That means someone can’t be cited for setting up camp in a park or near a school unless they’re specifically blocking a sidewalk. Whitburn’s ordinance could change that. 

“It’s much easier for the officers because it’s simple,” Colon said. “It’s a two-block area. They can’t camp in this area. They can’t have an encampment there.” 

Colon said he expects the city’s plan to open two safe campsites will aid in urging unhoused people to move on too. 

If unsheltered people don’t accept offers of shelter or a spot at one of the safe campsites, they will be cited or arrested. 

Police also hope to have some staffing reinforcements.  

Colon said San Diego police want to partner with officers for school districts within the city since the enforcement will presumably help their schools and students. 

Police have also been talking to the City Attorney’s Office about what it will take to ensure citations and arrests result in successful prosecutions, Colon said. 

In a City Attorney’s Office memo issued last week, Senior Chief Deputy City Attorney Heather Ferbert recommended police adopt procedures to ensure enforcement complies with a 2018 federal appeals court ruling barring municipalities from citing homeless people for sleeping on sidewalks if no other shelter is available. 

Ferbert called for police to create a training bulletin to establish required documentation and “assist in gathering evidence necessary for successful prosecution.” 

Colon said police are in talks with the City Attorney’s Office.  

Last week, Gloria told Voice of San Diego that the ordinance won’t have an “overnight” impact throughout the city if it’s enacted.  

Colon shared that sentiment. 

“We have to pick a spot and start,” Colon said. 

If the ordinance is approved by the City Council, a second reading will be required, Gloria will need to sign it and then there will be at least a 30-day waiting period before it’s enacted. 

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. No mention at all about how the offer of the safe camping sites cannot be justification to arrest if declined? This is in the City Attorney memo and I explained this to you, Lisa. The beds must be indoor. No push back on their contradictory conclusion?

  2. The 2023 PITCount only makes the question “Where Do They Go?” much harder to answer: at least 6.5K houseless residents of @CityofSanDiego, only 1440 City Shelter Beds after impending closure of Golden Hall Shelter, maybe 500 Safe Sleeping tents by Fall. Where do 4K people go?

  3. We have a shortage of sworn police officers, so Gloria is having them schlep around the belongings of homeless people? And the Council can’t understand why SDPD has a recruitment and retention problem.

  4. “Colon said patrol officers will now follow up in areas where camps have been cleared to ensure that doesn’t happen” … in other words, SDPD patrol officers will be busy doing this rather than deterring real crime by their patrol presence and responding to 911 calls.

  5. In a sense, this is all reminiscent of the Daley machine in “Shy Town” during the 1968 Democratic convention. San Diego, a city run amok by poor leadership supported by dumb and ignorant voters; Dan Smiechowski is a candidate for San Diego Mayor.

  6. With a $1.9 Billion dollar budget would think San Diego could plan better than to push homeless into residential neighborhoods, tie up the police force, and spend taxpayer money on jails (average per person $106K /year). Would be better to do something constructive.

    Suggest reading “The Obvious Answer to Homelessness…And why everyone’s ignoring it”

  7. i don’t understand why homeless is banned within 2 blocks of a shelter. the shelter can be used as a bathroom, showers, food or ?? it seems to be the opposite of what is needed. citing a homeless person who has no money is stupid. i saw this with my homeless mentally ill son. kept getting cited for sleeping on the ground near the train station in Oceanside. he could never pay the stupid fines. now they are over $2,000. if arrested it would cost the county or city much more than a hotel room. Buying a hotel is totally absurd. it will become a drug haven and destroy the buildings. find land and out in mini homes at half the cost and house mo repeople. use old metal containers refurbished so you get your own place and it can be done very quickly.

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