A homeless camping ban set to go into effect later this summer is likely to fuel more police interactions with Black San Diegans.
Six percent of the city’s overall population is Black per the latest U.S. Census estimates, but Black San Diegans made up 27 percent of the city’s unsheltered population according to the latest annual homelessness count.
That disparity shows up in enforcement data. A Voice of San Diego analysis showed people identified as Black were on the receiving end of nearly 28 percent of arrests and citations for encroachment from 2018 through May 2023. Encroachment – essentially, blocking a sidewalk – is now the foremost charge the city uses to police homelessness.
Now, with a new law that will make it easier for police to sweep encampments, advocates and City Councilmembers worry it will have an even more disproportionate impact on Black San Diegans. On top of that, Black people are disproportionately represented on homeless shelter do not return lists, complicating offers of shelter
Those stark realities provoked a tense conversation as the City Council considered the camping ban last month. The City Council ultimately agreed to track enforcement in a way that could spur more uncomfortable conversations when the ordinance goes into effect.
Police leaders say the disparate numbers aren’t an issue of bias. Existing enforcement data closely aligns with Black San Diegans’ representation in the unsheltered population and they say the focus should be on what’s fueling disproportionate Black homelessness. They say officers receive training to combat racial bias and that the department is working with the city’s Department of Race and Equity to enhance that work.
Police are for now set to begin enforcing the camping ban after it takes effect July 29. The ordinance bars unsheltered people from setting up camp on public property when shelter is available and at all times in areas including certain parks and within two blocks of shelters and schools.
City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera last month successfully pitched an amendment to the ordinance requiring police to supply monthly breakdowns to the City Council of arrests and citations and the races of those receiving them.
“I think we need to be honest with ourselves about the impacts of additional ordinances, with the respect to the racial impacts those might have, and so the first amendment I’d like to put forward is one that aims to make sure that we’re not being blind to the disparate impacts that this ordinance might have,” Elo-Rivera said during the June 13 City Council meeting.
Things got tense when Councilman Stephen Whitburn, who introduced the ordinance, wasn’t immediately willing to embrace Elo-Rivera’s initial proposal that the monthly breakdowns include stop data – meaning, all people contacted rather than simply those ultimately cited.
After a brief recess requested by Whitburn, Council President Pro Tem Monica Montgomery Steppe questioned Whitburn’s hesitation.
“I would just think that there would want…you would want to have something that tracks racial data with us understanding what the issues are if we’re gonna pass this. That’s all,” Montgomery Steppe said. “And I just wanted to know what the hesitation…it’s like, I just hope what I’m thinking right now is not true.”
Whitburn said his reservation was about the process of adding amendments one by one rather than the substance of the proposal. He later agreed to track citation data after police officials said state Racial and Identity Profiling Act reporting doesn’t currently allow them to easily clarify whether someone is being stopped because they are homeless.
Elo-Rivera and Montgomery Steppe ultimately voted no on the ordinance. It passed on a narrow 5-4 margin.
Some don’t think the final amendment tracking enforcement goes far enough.
Curtis Howard, a formerly homeless and incarcerated San Diegan who serves on the Regional Task Force on Homelessness’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Addressing Homelessness Among Black San Diegans, believes police will use the ordinance as a reason to stop more Black San Diegans and to pursue other criminal charges. He thinks stop data would shed more light on that dynamic.
“The ordinance is just a justifiable way to cite a reason for stopping someone,” Howard said.
San Diego police Capt. Shawn Takeuchi, who leads teams of officers who will enforce the ordinance, said officers receive training every two years to combat bias and that most homelessness-related enforcement is now complaint-based. He argued that minimizes the likelihood of bias and urged San Diegans to report concerns about being targeted to police.
“If a person feels that there’s enforcement activity upon them because of their race, I would want to know about that as a captain,” Takeuchi said.
Many unhoused people of color have for years shared stories with me about what to them feel like instances of bias based on their race. In some cases, police encounters left them feeling traumatized.
Anthony Gissendanner, who is Black, Native American and Filipino, last year fled Balboa Park where he had been staying after being rocked by an encounter with police and the threat of arrest. He for a time lost contact with the service provider trying to help him move off the street.
“I’m constantly being bothered, and it bothers me and it’s not fair,” Gissendanner said.
Tracy Bennett, 53, who stays near the downtown post office, recounted recently having a police officer approach her and first question why she wasn’t in shelter during a sidewalk cleaning operation.
Bennett, who is Black, had already taken down her tent and moved across the street to allow workers to clean. She leaned her tent up against an electrical box while she waited for the workers to finish, thinking she had gotten out of their way.
So Bennett said she was caught off guard when the police officer ordered her to remove the poles from her tent so it could fully collapse in keeping with a largely unenforced mandate that unsheltered residents take down their tents during the day. Bennett had kept the tent’s poles erect so she could more easily set up her campsite once workers finished cleaning. Bennett questioned the rationale behind the police officer’s order – and his focus on her.
“You’re bothering me because of what?” Bennett said. “You’re just gonna talk to me?”
Mayor Todd Gloria has argued that the camping ban and existing police involvement in tackling homelessness is meant to persuade more unsheltered residents to move into shelter or new safe campsites and to minimize public health and safety concerns tied to encampments.
Takeuchi has also cheered the opening of a new safe campsite – and another coming later this year – to give officers other options to offer homeless residents who may have reservations about traditional shelters.
But a 2022 San Diego State study suggested increased police encounters could discourage Black San Diegans and others from seeking shelter.
“Enforcement of anti-homeless laws creates a context in which homeless individuals have frequent police interactions that cause material and emotional harm,” the SDSU researchers wrote. “When individuals face apathy, discrimination, and disrespect, the result is a reluctance to seek services until problems become emergencies.”
Ann Oliva, who wrote the city’s 2019 homelessness plan and now leads the National Alliance to End Homelessness, argued that the new ordinance will exacerbate racial trauma in populations that disproportionately experience homelessness – even with the addition of new shelter options.
“It reinforces systemic racism in a way that is deeply unhelpful,” Oliva said.
Elo-Rivera is hopeful monitoring who is being impacted by the ordinance will ensure better outcomes for Black homeless San Diegans.
“On a monthly basis, the Council will be told what those numbers look like,” Elo-Rivera told Voice. “I truly believe that any institution, any department – not just the police department but any department – that knows that racial disparities will be consistently and continuously seen is going to be more conscious about how their work is done.”