Raymond Hill stands near an Alpha Project shelter in the Midway District on June 5, 2023.
Raymond Hill stands near an Alpha Project shelter in the Midway District on June 5, 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.

For almost two weeks starting last month, Raymond Hill was on a mission to get a shelter bed.  

For 10 days in a row 53-year-old Hill started his day at the city’s Homelessness Response Center downtown, except on Sunday when it was closed. He set up his tent across the street so he’d be one of the first in line before it opened at 8 a.m.  

When I met him last Thursday, Hill told me he woke up at 3:30 a.m. to get the second spot in line behind a man who slept at the doorstep of the Imperial Avenue complex. Nearly 30 people stood in line behind him.  

That day – his ninth visit to the center – Hill didn’t get the news he wanted. 

Hill’s experience illustrates a harsh reality. There aren’t enough city-backed shelter beds to accommodate all the unsheltered San Diegans who want them.  

A Voice of San Diego analysis of San Diego Housing Commission data reveals that in the last three months an average of 23 shelter beds were available each day for an unsheltered homeless population totaling 3,285 citywide per January’s point-in-time census.

Graph by Ariana Drehsler

And in the first five months of the year, commission data shows only about 32 percent of shelter referrals by Homelessness Response Center staff, outreach workers and police resulted in a shelter placement. An average of 231 referrals went unfulfilled each week. 

A push by downtown City Councilman Stephen Whitburn and Mayor Todd Gloria to crack down on homeless camps must attack this challenge to have the dramatic impact on street homelessness they seek. 

Whitburn’s proposed ordinance, which the City Council will consider on June 13, would ban camping on public property when shelter is available and in some other locations even when it’s not.  

For now, shelter often isn’t available. 

“No beds today,” Hill texted me Friday, his tenth day visiting the Homelessness Response Center. “Try again tomorrow.”

Gloria has said he expects to open two campgrounds in Balboa Park that could supply as many as 500 tent sites for unsheltered residents.

City officials are set to present a comprehensive shelter strategy to the City Council next week that also calls for adding hundreds of shelter beds for seniors, people with disabilities or recovering from health issues, domestic violence survivors, youth and people with behavioral health challenges. It also suggests possible locations and budgets, though it doesn’t outline how the city will pay for new shelters that aren’t already close to opening. 

People that are unhoused stand outside of the Homelessness Response Center in the East Village waiting to see if they will be able to stay in shelter on June 5, 2023.
People that are unhoused stand outside of the Homelessness Response Center in the East Village waiting to see if they will be able to stay in shelter on June 5, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

For now, the city funds 1,784 shelter beds, including 930 beds at seven shelters that will need to relocate by the end of 2024. 

“We need to add more shelter and more places for people to go. That is key to the whole thing, to get people out of the canyons, out of the parks, off the sidewalks,” Whitburn said earlier this year. “We need other places for them to go.” 

The lack of shelter also complicates police enforcement of violations tied to homelessness. 

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.  

In a legal analysis released last week, City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office recommended that the city offer shelter that individuals can accept based on their needs to ensure compliance with the federal court ruling if the City Council approves the ordinance. 

“For example, the city should not conclude that an unsheltered woman who cannot physically access a top bunk has been offered available shelter if the only shelter beds available at the time are top bunk beds or in a men-only shelter,” Chief Deputy City Attorney Heather Ferbert wrote in the May 30 memo

The example Ferbert highlighted has been a consistent challenge. 

Voice’s analysis of Housing Commission data showed that the city on 50 of the last 90 days had no bottom bunks to offer unsheltered women who are seniors, have disabilities or request a bottom bunk. 

Bottom bunks are typically required for people 55 and older and requested by others who may have mobility issues or other health challenges. 

PATH Regional Director Hanan Scrapper, whose organization runs the Homelessness Response Center, offered a snapshot of how this gap plays out in a typical week. 

From May 30 through June 3, 49 people who visited the Homelessness Response Center requested bottom bunks. Just seven got a bed, Scrapper said. 

During that same period, Scrapper said a total of 118 people visited the downtown center seeking shelter. Just 15 received a bed, including the seven placed in bottom bunks. 

PATH, Scrapper’s nonprofit, also serves as the city’s foremost homeless outreach provider. From May 29 through June 4, PATH outreach workers sought shelter for 21 people. None of them got a bed, Scrapper said. 

“It’s really heartbreaking to see the human suffering that our teams see every day without us having immediate viable options for people,” Scrapper said. “It’s truly sad.” 

Despite repeated struggles to access shelter, some like Hill keep trying. 

Last Friday, Hill said he stayed up all night so he could be among the first in line at the Homelessness Response Center on Saturday morning. 

That morning, Hill finally got the news he’d been waiting for. 

“When they called my name, I was actually surprised,” Hill said. 

He’s now staying at an Alpha Project shelter on Pacific Highway.  

Correction: An earlier version of this post included an incorrect number of unsheltered people counted in the city during the annual homeless census. It was 3,285.

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. Well, I guess it is now official, between the RTFH San Diego homeless count of 10,264 a 22% increase over last year, and the Downtown Partnership count of 2,100+ living on the streets of downtown, an new record, our city leadership has failed in its response to homelessness.

    Mayor Gloria, you said this was going to be your #1 Priority. I was in the room when you said that. You have failed, your announced plans are too little and too late or in the case of the camping ban, going to make the problem worse. It is evident that you have no clue.

    It’s time to resign.

  2. It was in fact not a “federal court ruling” it was ONE liberal federal judge in Denver who threw common sense out the window. It’s far past time to ignore these insane rulings from lunatic judges. Prop 187 comes to mind. There are endless charges that could be brought against these vagrants. $1000 fine for littering. Defecation/urination/masturbation in public also come to mind. Throw them in jail. Let them sober up and see which ones are truly off their rockers. We have 20,000 spare prison spaces and dems are talking about closing more prisons! This is the definition of insanity

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