San Diego police have cleared multiple blocks of homeless encampments – that included dozens of tents and individuals – on the edge of downtown.
Police officials said the street sweeps were routine, but the timing is uncanny. This weekend, a controversial new encampment crackdown, pushed by Mayor Todd Gloria, will go into effect. Cops have always had the power to clear encampments, but the new ordinance clarifies that homeless people will not be able to camp near schools, homeless shelters or certain parks at all times.
Over the past two weeks, police have used the city’s encroachment law – essentially, blocking a sidewalk – to clear Commercial Street, National Avenue and 16th Street of encampments.
Robert Brown, a San Diego High School graduate, has been homeless since 2020. He watched the camps get cleared.
“Street by street, they just wiped these places out,” Brown said. “I’ve seen lots of crying and screaming. The cops come out of nowhere and then people have nowhere to go now.”
He watched many old and sick people be evicted, he said, with nowhere to go.
“It’s horrible,” he said, then repeated himself solemnly: “It’s horrible.”
Brown’s own story is instructive. When the sweeps started, he managed to secure a spot in one of the homeless shelters downtown to get away from the crackdown. That is exactly what Gloria has said he wanted to accomplish with the ordinance: to push people into shelters.
But Brown was lucky. Far more people ask for shelter than is available. An average of just 23 shelter beds are available on any given day, Voice of San Diego previously reported.
Some 3,285 people live without shelter throughout the city, according to January’s annual homeless census.
Most people have been displaced, said Michael McConnell, a homeless advocate, who spends a lot of time around the encampments that were cleared. He frequently films encounters between homeless people and police.
“Where do those people go? A lot of them are just a few blocks away,” he said.
Late Thursday, there appeared to be an increased number of people and tents settled on nearby bridges and blocks surrounding a parking lot across from the Metropolitan Transit System’s downtown headquarters and a post office on E Street in East Village.
McConnell said he had seen sweeps like this many times over the years. People get moved. They come back. The cycle continues. He wasn’t convinced this latest sweep was related to the start of the new ordinance.
“It’s certainly possible they’re getting a jump start. I don’t know the motivation,” he said. “The enforcement was very aggressive. I’ve seen it aggressive before. But it was more aggressive than I’ve seen in a while.”
The multi-block encampment on the border of East Village and Barrio Logan had grown larger in recent months, McConnell said.
Police officials said it was a safety hazard.
“The area posed a public safety hazard to pedestrians, vehicles, and public transit operating in the area. Teams began working in the area over the weekend to clear paths of travel and ensure safety of all residents,” wrote Ashley Bailey, a spokeswoman for the city, in an email.
Police gave a similar rationale in May when they cleared the Commercial Street underpass once packed with tents.
The new ordinance, set to go into effect this weekend, bans all camping in the city when shelter space is available. It bans camping in certain areas – at transit hubs, near schools and homeless shelters, and within some parks – 365 days a year.
Under the new city law, homeless tents will be banned in the area where police have cracked down recently, which is close to both Alpha Project and Father Joe’s Villages shelters.
Brown, who grew up in Golden Hill, does not have positive predictions for how it will play out.
“I think crime will go up, because people will get more desperate,” he said. “People will be more hungry. When people don’t eat, they do desperate things. Right now, they can get services.”