Sigma stands outside his tent in the East Village on June 14, 2023.
Sigma stands outside his tent in the East Village on June 14, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

On Wednesday morning, Michael Johnson and Monroe Irving were waiting on the corner of 16th Street and National Avenue. It was drizzling, and Johnson was sitting on a fold-out chair, huddled under a foil blanket. He used to be homeless, but now lives nearby in a studio apartment that he rents for $925. Still, Johnson visits the corner once a week to get supplies from volunteers.  

“We’ve got to be the first in line to get the good stuff,” he said with a laugh.  

The night before, San Diego’s City Council approved a ban on camping pushed by Councilman Stephen Whitburn and Mayor Todd Gloria. 

San Diego’s political world has for years been increasingly subsumed by a single issue — homelessness. A sharp increase in the number of people living on the street in the latest homeless census added extra gravity to the situation. 

A view of a homeless encampment on Logan Avenue in the East Village on June 14, 2023.
A view of a homeless encampment on Logan Avenue in the East Village on June 14, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Whitburn’s ordinance has for weeks divided San Diegans. The council meeting was proof of that division. The narrow approval came after a marathon 10-hour meeting that included hundreds of public comments, heated exchanges between councilmembers, amendments and failed amendments. 

The version of the ordinance that the City Council approved bars 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, shelters, canyons and along transit hubs and waterways. 

“It passed?” Johnson asked with surprise, shaking his head. He heard about the ordinance but hadn’t known all of the details. When told that in some areas, like this corner, people wouldn’t be allowed to stay regardless of shelter availability he let out an, “Oh shit. Wow.” 

“It’s going to be crazy, because where are these people going to go?” Johnson said.  

“You’re trying to get these people off the street, but you’ve got people every day becoming homeless,” Irving said. “There’s no real solution unless you build one of these skyscrapers to put everyone in.” 

He motioned toward the towers that line East Village. 

“Even though you’re gonna tell these people to take their tents down, and they’re probably going to take them down, but then they’ll put them right back up,” Irving said. 

Johnson hopes the ordinance will force case managers to connect people to housing more quickly, but he’s not optimistic. People he knows in shelters have been waiting months to get housing. And that’s if they can get into shelters in the first place. Data shows there simply aren’t enough shelter beds in San Diego for all those who seek them. 

“First thing they should do is give out storage vouchers because where are all these people’s stuff gonna go? That tent over there has a generator!” Johnson said. “A lot of people don’t go into the shelter because they don’t want to get rid of their stuff.” 

Brian Byrd stands in front of his tent with his dog on 16th Street in the East Village on June 14, 2023.
Brian Byrd stands in front of his tent with his dog on 16th Street in the East Village on June 14, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Around the corner on 16th Street, Brian Byrd was just waking up. He’s hearing impaired and a sign in front of his tent reads, “Silent Deaf Warrior.” He leans in as we speak.  

His past experiences with shelters have been bad, he said. He wants another option  – specifically to move into a safe camping spot like the one slated to open in Balboa Park at the beginning of July. Gloria has said another will open this fall in a lot south of the Naval Medical Center. 

“That’s what we’re praying for,” he said, petting his dog, Chelsea. 

Robert Fausto lives in the tent with the generator with Benji, his small dog. Benji barks for a moment before resting his head on Fausto’s lap. He’s calm, but still vigilant.  

Fausto’s lived in San Diego basically all his life. His tent is decked out in Chargers gear. He even has bolts tattooed on each side of his head. Fausto rented a room in a house on Market Street for 10 years, but when the previous owner sold it, the new owner kicked everyone out. He has been homeless since. 

Fausto hadn’t heard of the ordinance, but it worries him.  

“I’m in a wheelchair and if I can’t have my tent, that means my stuff ain’t safe and people could just steal it,” he said.  

View of a homeless encampment on 16th Street in the East Village on June 14, 2023.
View of a homeless encampment on 16th Street in the East Village on June 14, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Like Byrd, he had bad experiences with shelters. He said he was kicked out of one for accusing a staff member of stealing from him. He isn’t interested in going back. Also, like Byrd, he’s open to moving to a safe camping spot.  

But what Fausto really wants is a permanent home. He gets disability payments, but they’re not enough to afford his own place.  

“If I could find somewhere I could afford to move into I’d be happy to move. I’d start packing right now,” he said. 

This isn’t an easy life, Fausto said. But it’s all he can manage at the moment.  

“If I had my way about it, the councilman and whoever else, I wish they would come out here and spend one night on the streets with us,” he said. “They think everybody that’s out on the streets are drug addicts. Me personally, I’ve been clean from narcotics for over 21 years.”  

Sigma, who prefers to use his street name, lives a couple tents down from Fausto. He said one night isn’t enough. He wants officials to spend a week on the streets.  

“Most of the City Council has forgotten that we are still their constituents, that they still work for us,” he said. “They just tried to appease the masses rather than trying to bridge the gap.” 

“None of us asked to be in this position,” he said. “I worked up until Covid. Then I lost everything, ended up on the streets and have been fighting to get back on my feet since.”  

Sigma recently got a job offer for a night manager position at a group home in Santee, though. 

He said the ban has been on most people’s minds. He even spoke with Councilwoman Vivian Moreno recently, who visited the encampment with city-contracted PATH caseworkers, and was happy to hear she voted no.  

“That ban did not need to go into effect. It doesn’t help anybody,” Sigma said. “They’re enacting a ban without having really a viable plan. A lot of us aren’t sure what we’re going to do. I know my plan is to stand my ground. Basically, peaceful protests. They’re going have to take me away in cuffs.” 

It would be his first offense, he said. “But I will gain a record, if I have to, standing up for what I believe in.” 

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @jakobmcwhinney. Subscribe...

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  1. I understand what these street people are saying but they need to understand that they brought this on themselves not because they are homeless but because they take over streets and neighborhoods, leave trash all over the place, poop and pee wherever they like, and act like their rights are more important than everyone else’s, they act entitled. Of course the people who live and work in these areas are going to be upset, what did you expect?? These street people may not like the ordinance but maybe it could have been avoided if they hadn’t acted as they do. Think about it! It’s hard to feel sorry for someone when they choose to do those things I describe. People are frightened of you! Think about how you present yourselves. It’s not all about you.

  2. Bottom line! No civilized society allows human beings to live like wild animals on public streets. Get these people mental help in the ward on Midway. Dan Smiechowski is a candidate for San Diego Mayor.

  3. Only interviewing people living in tents because you’re afraid that average folks do not agree with you. Instead of asking your neighbors what they think, you get quotes from the mentally ill to support your articles.

      1. Majority of them are mentally ill, or moving that way, thanks to their addictions. We need to force them into treatments, and stop others on their downward spiral before they get to the streets.

        We’ve tried ultra liberal “just leave them be”. It’s now time for some tough love. For their own good. The rest of us are tired of bearing the brunt of living in an open air asylum.

  4. The city has a total of 2,400+ beds. The report by the Mayor’s office to the City council shows those shelter beds are taken by 10am each day. We are thousands of beds short of what is needed to enforce the ordinance. The City will enforce the ordinance anyway, there is no point to the ordinance if they do not. To save their jobs they must be able to point to a clean and shiny downtown.

    Enforcing the ordinance will create internal refugees. The refugees will be forced out of downtown and into the rest of the city because there are no beds available. We will become just like a 3rd world Tyrant who pushes the poor out of the capital so it is clean and shiny, that way the rich and powerful don’t have to look at “Those People.”

    1. Instead of feeding and enabling these homeless garbage people, why don’t you take as many of them as you can to camp in your front and back yard. Your neighbors there on 46th Street will LOVE you and at the same time you will finally be educated about this issue. These trash people cannot continue to destroy our city so educate yourself before you post ridiculous comments.

    2. Sure, keep spewing your garbage. Instead of enabling these “people” every weekend, take a dozen or so of them to camp out there on 46th Street. Your neighbors will love you more than they already do…

    3. I’m guessing you don’t live downtown.

      Yes, move them out to manageable, contained areas. And so what if suburban people finally have to see a little of what people who live in the heart of the city deal with each day? It might actually change their voting… imagine that…

  5. Whatever happened to that program where the vagrants were hired to clean up after the other vagrants?
    Did it run out of money? Did the vagrants refuse to work? Did they join a union and we can’t see them as they are on break or paternity leave?
    Inquiring minds want to know.

  6. If you can live in a tent on a sidewalk, you can live in a tent in one of the safe parking lots.

    1. Well said. Imagine being able to walk on the sidewalk again? Imagine disabled people being able to use their wheelchairs again?! How regressive!

  7. Start by getting your act together. Society is offering you for the most part the tools so use them and get off the street like a human being.

  8. Deport them to the states from which they originated. Why must California carry the burden of other states’ homeless folks.

    1. As a family member in California. I too once was homeless. There are far better ways to reduce waste, furniture, and tents. Reminded of how much I carried TWO BAGS AND BACKPACK. THATS ALL I carried with me. I uses the laundry and the access to get my ID and social security card and birth certificate due to theft. It’s sad we see homeless with so much stuff.pleasejust downsizeplease.

  9. This is hilarious as just this morning, getting coffee, I’m pretty sure I saw the fellow in the main image, in a fentanyl haze, outside the Albertsons in East Village. Can’t be sure, but his necklace and hair look very similar, though his head was down in his drug stupor, dead to the world.

    Please get these people away from everyone else. We are tired of dealing with folks who should be in institutions and forced rehab, instead of just outside our doors, screaming, relieving themselves, fighting & all sorts of stressful dangerous things.

  10. Not sure what they’re going to do? Get out of Downtown and shooting up, defecating in the streets, one hopes.

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