When the San Diego City Council narrowly passed a camping ordinance in June, Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe was one of four “no” votes. At the time, she said she felt the ordinance – which bans homeless camps when shelter is available and at all times when no shelter is available in certain areas near schools, parks and shelters – wouldn’t accomplish what proponents said it would accomplish.
During Politifest’s Board of Supervisors debate on Saturday, Oct. 7, Montgomery Steppe, who’s running for the board’s fourth district, took her opposition one step further.
Telling individuals to leave a certain area if they aren’t going to take advantage of offered resources made sense, Montgomery Steppe said. But she said that was different than what’s currently happening.
“What is happening on our streets right now? It is criminal, and I’m not going to support that, and I never will. But I do support order and structure as long as it is fair,” Montgomery Steppe said.
In a follow up interview, she said she specifically opposes enforcing the ordinance when shelter is not available.
“If you are not able to offer a resource that is available, like a bed, and you are continuing enforcement, then that is a problem,” Montgomery Steppe said.
That question is at the heart of a legal case that may work its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2018, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an Oregon city’s camping ban, ruling that western states could not cite homeless people for sleeping outside when no shelter options are available. The city, Grants Pass, has requested the Supreme Court step in. San Diego recently signed on to the case as a “friend of the court,” meaning it can submit arguments supporting Grants Pass. Attorney General Rob Bonta expressed worry about the possibility of a “pendulum swing” toward more punitive responses to homelessness due to a Supreme Court decision, even as he said he hoped it could offer clarity about the legality of such ordinances.
Montgomery Steppe defended her opposition to the camping ban by saying San Diego won’t be able to police its way out of the homeless crisis and that shelters are routinely near capacity as it is. Given the disproportionate percentage of homeless people who are Black, she also expressed concern about the potential uneven enforcement of the ordinance.
“Structure is important, rules are important, and laws are important,” Montgomery Steppe said. “We also know that the same system that puts out these laws do not apply them to every person equally.”
She also said she believes the majority of the enforcement being done was possible even without the ordinance. Thus far, ordinance related citations have been rare. From the end of July when it went into effect to early October, police made one arrest, wrote seven citations and gave 135 warnings for the offense. In August alone, police made nine arrests and wrote 39 citations for encroachment, or blocking a sidewalk.
Still, the enforcement of the ordinance, or the threat, seems to have already pushed some people out of downtown, where for decades homeless services have been concentrated.
“We are seeing … encampments in a lot of our different neighborhoods where folks do not have the resources that they would’ve otherwise had in downtown,” Montgomery Steppe said.
Instead of ordinances like the camping ban, she floated what she called “affordable solutions” like rent subsidies for seniors at risk of falling into homelessness. The county launched a pilot program that did just that earlier this year and received ten times more applications than they were able to fund. Montgomery Steppe also stressed the importance of building new housing and the need to cut the red tape around housing construction.