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.
As the San Diego City Council considers an ordinance to ban camping and communicate that saying no to shelter is no longer an option, vulnerable people who struggle with existing shelter options are unsure what’s going to happen.
Take Jamie Slack, 36. She is paraplegic and has frequent epileptic seizures. She lives in a tent on the outskirts of downtown, where she and her boyfriend set up camp because it’s close to public restrooms, Father Joe’s Villages’ health center and other amenities.
Slack fears what will happen if the ordinance is approved. She said she can’t accept shelter without her boyfriend and caregiver who knows how to care for her when she has a seizure and helps her bathe and change clothes. Existing city shelters typically require couples of different genders to stay in different areas. It’s for those reasons that being on the street, though difficult, is a better option.
“What do they expect me to do?” Slack said. “I can’t go to the bathroom like normal. I can’t shower like normal.”
The controversial ordinance pushed by downtown City Councilman Stephen Whitburn and Mayor Todd Gloria would bar camping in public spaces when shelter is available. It also would bar camping at all times in certain areas including within two blocks of schools and shelters. Per those rules, people who refuse available shelter or to relocate would be cited or even arrested.
Gloria’s team plans to present a strategy to add more shelter options – including for seniors and people with disabilities – and to open two safe campsites that could potentially serve unsheltered residents.
Others, in the meantime, worry about the potential impact on people with health challenges who may relocate to places where they have less community support and that are further from public view and more perilous to avoid contact with police. They are an especially vulnerable group of the unsheltered population, one that often has no viable option other than the street. That exposes them to harsh weather, disease, assaults and the inability to rest.
But shelters often can’t meet their needs, a reality that can keep them outside or force them back on the street.
Assistant Police Chief Bernie Colon said last week that police don’t plan to cite people with health and mobility challenges if they can’t offer shelter or other services tailored to their needs, a stance the City Attorney’s Office recommended in a recent legal memo.
But Colon also said police would still try to relocate vulnerable unsheltered people from areas where camping is banned at all times. Gloria’s office said the same.
“We will find a service to help that person move somewhere else,” Colon said.
That assumes there is a service available. Unsheltered seniors and people with disabilities could remain on the street if the city and county don’t dramatically increase options for them – and unprecedented numbers of seniors and people with disabilities are for now stuck there.
The region’s latest point-in-time count showed a countywide spike in unhoused seniors and people with disabilities who have been unsheltered for at least a year. The number of seniors sleeping outside spiked 46 percent from 2022 to 2023 and the number of chronically homeless people living outdoors more than tripled.
It’s now common to encounter homeless residents who live in tents and rely on wheelchairs or walkers to get around.
Roberta St. Denis, who is in her 50s, is now in the hospital but until recently, slept on a corner near a women’s shelter where she once stayed. She relies on a walker, but still struggles to move. St. Denis had a swollen stomach, painful blisters on her legs and sunburn on her nose so severe that sores had developed when I met her earlier this month beside her tent.
St. Denis desperately wants shelter but needs a bottom bunk and extra help from shelter staff, two needs that severely limit already limited shelter access. St. Denis said she recently left The Alliance shelter at the Old Central Library after having panic attacks and growing frustrated with the facility’s lack of onsite showers or food, and the need to share a space with nearly two dozen other women.
Now service providers are trying to help her get into a skilled nursing or recuperative care facility when she leaves the hospital.
“I don’t want to be out here ever again,” St. Denis said.
Serving Seniors CEO Paul Downey, whose nonprofit runs a city-funded shelter for seniors, said seniors and people with disabilities are now turned away from many city shelters if staff determine they can’t live independently. That could mean individuals who may need help going to the restroom or getting dressed.
“Right now, the option of just saying, ‘Sorry, we can’t have you come in’ means the most vulnerable folks are the ones out on the street,” Downey said.
That’s because shelters often can’t offer that level of care.
Hanan Scrapper, regional director for homeless-serving nonprofit PATH, acknowledged her organization’s downtown shelter can’t provide the same level of care as a board-and-care or nursing home.
“We’re just not equipped to have that staffing level nor the expertise to do that,” Scrapper said.
Danisha Jenkins, nursing practice director for the American Nurses Association California who volunteers to aid unsheltered people with health conditions on the street, said she’s concerned the ordinance if approved could cause the health of people with already serious conditions – including heart failure which may not be obvious to police officers – to deteriorate because of forced moves.
At the same time, Jenkins said, the city has far from enough shelter beds to serve seniors or people with health challenges who often rely on others on the street to care for them.
“The camping ban is not a plan to address what’s happening,” said Jenkins, whose organization has formally opposed the ordinance.
Downey said the city must consider seniors and others with mobility issues and other challenges as it plans additional shelter options.
“It needs to be part of the conversation, particularly if you’re going to be forcing people to move off the street,” Downey said. “You’ve gotta make sure that it meets their needs, or you’re bound to failure.”
City officials are set to present a comprehensive shelter strategy to the City Council on Tuesday that highlights the need for more beds for seniors and people with disabilities.
The strategy suggests 548 beds are needed for seniors, 1,324 for people with disabilities and 799 beds for homeless people recovering after hospital stays. The report identifies potential locations for additional shelters though the timing and funding for those potential new resources is unclear.
The city already plans to open two new safe campsites in Balboa Park that could serve at least 536 people with access to bathroom, food and other services but it’s not yet clear how accessible they will be for seniors or people with disabilities.
Gloria and his team argue the campsites will be better equipped to serve seniors and people with disabilities – including Slack and St. Denis – than city sidewalks and that their plight points to the need for the camping ban.
“The anecdotes you provided about extremely vulnerable people living on the street with insecure access to bathrooms, showers and support make a clear case for this ordinance,” Gloria spokeswoman Rachel Laing wrote in an email. “These folks should not be living in sidewalk encampments and would be far better served in shelters or safe sleeping sites with access to services provided at these sites.”
Yet the specific capacity of the new shelter options to serve vulnerable people matters.
Bridget Naso, a Whitburn policy adviser who has led his homelessness initiatives, said the downtown councilman plans to press for more shelter and care options for unsheltered people with health issues after the City Council votes on the camping ban.