A prominent homeless advocate and pro-bono lawyer who has challenged police crackdowns of homeless residents and the city’s now-former red-light camera program wants to oust sitting Councilman Stephen Whitburn.  

Photo of Coleen Cusack.
Photo of Coleen Cusack. / Photo by Logan Goverman

Longtime North Park resident Coleen Cusack, 56, announced Tuesday that she will challenge Whitburn when his first term ends next year. Whitburn now represents the City Council District 3, which includes downtown, North Park and other central city neighborhoods. 

Cusack, a Democrat, said she decided to run after other encouraged her after Whitburn announced a camping ban that the City Council narrowly approved in June

The camping ban, which was introduced by Whitburn, bars camping on public property when shelter is available and in areas including certain parks and within two blocks of schools or shelters even when it’s not

Cusack has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the camping ban and has said she plans to challenge it in court after police cite or arrest her unsheltered clients. She has long been critical of the city’s homelessness response and its use of police to try to combat the crisis as visible homelessness has boomed

“We’re the eighth largest city in the U.S. and this is the level we can produce for the most vulnerable?” Cusack said. “Homelessness being the No. 1 issue, and all they come up with is handing tickets to people for occupying public space when (unsheltered people) have no other option.” 

Cusack faces tough odds. Incumbents like Whitburn are historically challenging to unseat and many San Diegans back the city’s plan to clear more homeless camps – or at least the idea of it. 

Cusack is no newcomer to high-profile City Hall debates like that one. She’s become a thorn in the side of Mayor Todd Gloria and his staff, on Twitter and in real life in court and at City Hall.  

Two decades ago, the attorney who now serves as a substitute teacher to finance her pro-bono work attacked San Diego’s now former red-light camera program. After later stints overseeing programs to assist with bail reductions and representing people who received low-level infractions, Cusack began representing unsheltered clients. Many of them have been for offenses tied to their homelessness. Those cases have led Cusack to battle the city and the Metropolitan Transit System over their reluctance to release police body camera footage, the City Attorney’s Office decision not to assign city lawyers to low-level infraction cases and most recently, over the city law now most commonly aimed at homeless residents. 

Homelessness isn’t Cusack’s only platform. 

If elected, Cusack said she’d push for police to be required to obtain warrants to view streetlight camera footage, urge the city to take a greater role on local education issues, improve conditions for small businesses and rally the city to do more to address its housing shortage. She’d also like to get the City Council to get the City Attorney’s Office back on infraction cases and to order the release of body camera footage automatically to anyone charged with a crime. For now, police often don’t, particularly in infraction cases. 

“Our elected leaders have made horrible choices to land us where we are today,” Cusack said. “I would be content to sit back and elect somebody else who would do what needs to be done but nobody else is stepping up.” 

So Cusack is. 

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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  1. She wants to improve conditions for small businesses but she wants to end crackdowns on drug camps. We can title this article “Seriously Confused Attorney Tires of Substitute Teaching, Seeks Job”

    1. Try Re-reading this article.
      This time more slowly.
      Perhaps out loud.

  2. Pro vagrant, anti police woman is in a strong position…”if you don’t elect me , I ‘ll keep teaching your children” Nooooooooo!

    1. Hi, I was unhoused for almost 7 years due to a violent home. I am NO vagrant, not a drug user, and really resent your lack of information. Do you know you sound uninformed, uneducated and cruel?

      1. Civil society doesn’t allow people to camp, urinate, defecate, inject drugs and trash public streets and parks. Results in crime and epidemics (e.g. Hep A, etc). This must stop and soon.

      2. The vast majority of “unhoused” are drug addicts and/or mentally ill, that’s a fact. If I am cruel, it’s because years of worthless humps making my life worse has hardened me.

        1. No, Cruella, it’s not a fact. I was homeless and my only ‘mental illness’ is clinical depression. Which doesn’t get any better if you don’t have a safe place to sleep, in case you’re wondering. And I was far from the only non-addict.

          The totality of homeless are … homeless. Criminalizing the actually mentally ill who can’t find or maintain housing isn’t the answer. Neither is ‘send them all away’ because that way lies penal colonies and concentration camps. (No, I’m not catastrophizing.)

          1. Not only do I support sending them all away, I also support sending away anyone who has “catastrophizing” in their vocabulary.

      3. Then you are a prime candidate to get help and actually get your situation fixed. The junkies and grossly mentally ill need far different solutions than being pandered to. They are the problem. Not real people struggling, who genuinely want to improve their position.

    2. She wins cases in court, Ace.
      The teaching is on the side.
      Perhaps It’s not too late to educate yourself!

  3. Anyone can see that the homeless crisis is worsening in San Diego. Liberal policies on camping have been disastrous and have attracted more drug addicts and mentally ill who wander our once safe neighborhoods like zombies. This must stop and Coleen Cusack is clueless.

  4. Come on! We need to hear new solutions!
    What does Cusack propose to do instead?
    Why does the article only mentions what Cusack is against.
    We need interested groups to sit and talk it out and find real solutions to the problem homeless face. Stirring anger around doesn’t accomplish anything. Many of these citizens need long-term care facilities to deal with mental illness, not prisons or death on the streets!

  5. I am not a republican but I have seen what a Democrat mayor can do in a short time to destroy a city! The city is being over run by the homeless and the business community terrorized by their crimes of theft and violence. The last thing we need is this quack joining the other radically crazy Democrat city council members. I bet she would support the Protect Act which will really wreck our city.

  6. The label of “homeless camping” makes it sound like recreation or fun. It is not.
    It is at best survival efforts.
    Let’s be honest: What we are actually doing is attempting to hide
    The problem.
    Not all homeless are drug users, alcholics,
    Or mentally ill.
    So why use the same
    Label for all?
    Where are solutions
    For these diverse problems? A good start might be to hire licensed Social Workers rather than totally unqualified people and giving them the titles of “Case Managers”.
    Lots of Federal and State funding just being dumped into a big pot. Lots of money for some participating businesses and politicians here.
    Solutions or accountability?

  7. In America, a man running for council with a funny name cannot be elected as he loses all credibility by a provincial group of dumb voters. These voters like sheep follow their nose in electing precisely what they complain about thereby defining hypocrisy in no uncertain terms. Dan Smiechowski is a candidate for San Diego Mayor. I’m not going away kids and you certainly will never deter my efforts.

    1. At, Caramba! You couldn’t run a faucet, amigo. You are muy loco!

  8. No thankyou to any candidate who has the interests of violent street addicts ahead of everyone else who lives downtown thanks. She’ll just make the situation worse. We have enough trouble with poor elected officials who pander to the problem, rather than real solutions instead.

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