Trash can be seen of what is left from a homeless encampment underneath a freeway on Commercial Street on May 18, 2023.
Trash can be seen of what is left from a homeless encampment underneath a freeway on Commercial Street on May 18, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

In a couple of days, the San Diego City Council will make a big decision on a proposed ordinance to ban camping. The meeting will likely be hours long. And if it passes, its impact is still TBD.

The ban aims to prevent homeless people from camping on public land. There are specifics that I’ll get into lower in this post. But the reality is that this decision will impact everyone’s life. From the person camping on the street to the pedestrian in downtown who has to step into the street to avoid an overflowing encampment.

Our reporter Lisa Halverstadt this past week published a series of stories on the proposal. I’ve rounded up what you need to know ahead of the vote.

First, the proposal: The ordinance would make it illegal to camp anywhere in the city when there are shelters available. This goes to messaging Mayor Todd Gloria has shared about not allowing unhoused residents to turn down shelter offerings. The proposed law would also ban camping at all times — regardless of shelter space — two blocks from shelters and schools, and in parks, open spaces, along waterways and transit hubs.

We created a map of areas in downtown that the law would ban at all times if the ordinance passes.

And because of that, Lisa saw a story.

East Village Is the Way it Is by Design

The ordinance, if it passes and police enforce it, would push people away from East Village. If you’ve been in this area before, you’ve likely seen the hundreds of tents along sidewalks. As Lisa reports, unhoused people stay in the area because they can be close to resources.

That centralization of resources by those in charge did it by design. Many years ago, those in charge decided that East Village would be the city’s homelessness epicenter and allowed service providers to set up shop.

But the neighborhood now, is very different than it was when that happened. And now, it’s past and future are colliding with our region’s greatest crisis.

So, Out of East Village But Into Other Neighborhoods

Naturally, that first story posed another question. Where would people go?

Remember, the proposal is for the entire city. But if there isn’t shelter available, police can’t really enforce some areas. But two blocks from shelters and schools, and parks, open space and transit hubs is a different story.

Our map reveals that some neighborhoods near East Village will have areas that won’t be covered by the encampment ban unless there are shelter beds available.

That includes parts of Barrio Logan, Golden Hill, Logan Heights and Gaslamp Quarter.

This observation isn’t new, as Lisa writes, “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.”

While on the Subject of Police

This proposal, and what it’s aiming to do, plus the consequences of it, are not going to happen if police can’t enforce it. We’ve written about how police are already struggling to respond to calls — even violent ones involving homeless people.

So, how will they do it?

An assistant police chief told Lisa that they plan to first focus on people staying in parks and areas within two blocks of schools. They also expect to have staffing help from patrol officers, to keep cleared encampments from returning.

Gloria and police acknowledge there won’t be a change overnight. But they have to start somewhere. Read her full story here.

And What About Shelters

For the city to enforce the proposed ordinance in all public spaces, there needs to be shelter available. As we have reported before, there aren’t enough beds for the people who want them.

Lisa shared the story of a man who wanted shelter but could not get it. For more than a week, he started his day outside the city’s Homelessness Response Center in downtown trying to get a bed.

Read his story here.

Homeless Count

Aside for the stories on the city’s proposed ordinance, Lisa also covered the new tally of homeless people in the region. The count revealed that the homelessness crisis has gotten dramatically worse, Lisa writes.

Here’s an overview of the numbers: The January point-in-time count tallied 10,264 homeless residents (this includes people on the street and in shelters), but half of those, about 5,171, were sleeping outside.

Read more about the data here.

A Page From Lisa’s Notebook

By Lisa Halverstadt

A rush of seniors have been among San Diego County’s new and newly chronically homeless residents. Volunteers during this year’s census engaged with 1,500 people who were 55 and older living outside.  

Forty-six percent of those seniors reported they were homeless for the first time, a data point that illustrates the system’s current inability to step in and prevent them from falling into homelessness. Others are aging on the street.

The results are not surprising to homeless service providers. They are noticing the ages of the people they serve climbing and also that there’s a crush of people who have been on the streets for a longer period of time. 

Indeed, this year’s point-in-time count showed the number of people considered chronically homeless — which means they have a disability and have lived outdoors for at least a year — more than tripled.

“With the chronically homeless, it’s just much worse,” said Sebastian Martinez, executive director at Chula Vista-based Community Through Hope. “All of our programs are over-indexed right now.” 

Martinez’s nonprofit also has seen a spike in newly unhoused seniors, including a 90-year-old woman who until recently was living in her car in the wake of her husband’s death and a significant rent increase. 

Friends wanted to take her in but didn’t have the bandwidth to help, Martinez said.  

She also didn’t have any family members who could help. 

Martinez said his nonprofit ultimately called essentially everyone in the woman’s phone contacts to find a friend who could take her in. 

“I wish I could say that was a rarity but that’s been a lot of our cases right now,” Martinez said. 

Andrea Lopez-Villafaña, Managing Editor, Daily News Andrea oversees the production of daily news stories for Voice of San Diego. She welcomes conversations...

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