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.
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.
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.