Danny R. Avitia lives in downtown San Diego. Mr. Avitia is the president of the San Diego Downtown Democratic Club.
The San Diego encampment ordinance aims to address the issue of encampments in the city. However, a closer examination of the available data and community feedback reveals significant shortcomings in this approach. The ordinance fails to address the underlying causes of homelessness and lacks sufficient support and resources to get people off the streets and into homes.
Homelessness is not merely an issue of public nuisance or safety; it is a humanitarian crisis that requires a compassionate and empathetic response. Criminalizing homelessness only exacerbates the suffering of homeless individuals, pushing them further into the margins of society and perpetuating a cycle of poverty, addiction, and mental health challenges.
The first major flaw of the ordinance is the lack of adequate shelter beds to accommodate the unhoused population. According to a recent analysis conducted by Voice of San Diego’s Lisa Halverstadt, on average, only 23 shelter beds are available daily for a citywide unsheltered population of over 3,200 individuals. This data was obtained from the San Diego Housing Commission. The analysis takes into account the information provided by the January point-in-time census, which recorded a total of 3,285 unsheltered homeless individuals throughout the city. Implementing a ban on encampments without providing sufficient alternative shelter options would leave many individuals without any place to go, worsening their already dire circumstances.
According to Halverstadt, an analysis of data from San Diego’s Homelessness Response Center reveals that only about 32 percent of shelter referrals result in actual shelter placements. Additionally, an average of 231 referrals go unfulfilled each week, indicating limitations in the shelter system’s capacity; it is clear that the current system cannot meet the demand for shelter beds. Banning encampments without simultaneously addressing the underlying issues and expanding shelter capacity will only perpetuate the cycle of displacement without providing meaningful solutions.
Enforcing the encampment ordinance would likely face significant legal challenges as federal appeals court rulings prohibit citing unhoused individuals for sleeping on sidewalks if no alternative shelter is available. Attempting to remove individuals from encampments without providing viable alternatives could result in a revolving cycle of displacement without addressing the root causes of homelessness.
Criminalizing the unhoused through misdemeanor citations and incarceration only exacerbates the challenges faced by individuals experiencing homelessness. Misdemeanor charges can lead to fines, court appearances, and even incarceration, further entrenching individuals in the cycle of poverty and preventing them from accessing employment, housing and essential services.
The timing of the ordinance, months before an election, raises concerns about the politicization of homelessness. Playing with people’s lives for political gain undermines the urgency and sincerity required to implement effective and compassionate solutions. The high unhoused population is a complex issue that demands thoughtful, long-term strategies, not short-sighted policies driven by political expediency.
The encampment ordinance fails to provide real solutions to address the unhoused population effectively. Instead of investing in resources that offer support and assistance, the focus is solely on banning encampments and pushing people out of public spaces. To address the crisis, the city should prioritize comprehensive solutions, including increasing the availability of affordable housing, working with the county to expand access to mental health services and substance abuse treatment programs, and investing in job training and employment opportunities.
Assigning law enforcement officers the responsibility of addressing homelessness through the encampment ordinance places an unnecessary burden on an already strained police force. Police officers are not equipped to address the complex issues surrounding homelessness, and diverting their attention from public safety concerns strains resources and hinders effective crime prevention.
Rather than adopting an antagonistic approach, the city should foster collaboration with San Diego County, community organizations, nonprofits, and individuals with lived experiences of homelessness. This collective effort can lead to the development of innovative and effective solutions that prioritize compassion, dignity, and long-term success.
The city of San Diego encampment ordinance presents an ill-conceived approach to addressing the complex issue of homelessness. Insufficient shelter bed availability, the ineffectiveness of shelter referrals, legal constraints, and inadequate funding for shelter expansion all contribute to the flaws of this ordinance. Instead, the city should prioritize comprehensive strategies that tackle the root causes of homelessness, expand shelter capacity, and provide supportive services to address the needs of the unsheltered population. It is essential to invest in sustainable, compassionate, and evidence-based solutions that offer long-term stability and opportunities for those experiencing homelessness.