Members of the Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team talk with a woman living in a tent on Commercial Street just after sunrise on Monday, June 13, 2022. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego
Members of the Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team talk with a woman living in a tent on Commercial Street just after sunrise on Monday, June 13, 2022. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

The city quietly made plans to set aside more homeless shelter beds for San Diego police referrals last month as officers continued to ramp up enforcement of the city’s camping ban. 

Starting Sept. 20, the city directed nonprofit Father Joe’s Villages to gradually fill 50 beds at its city-funded Golden Hall shelter with people referred by police as other shelter residents departed. As of this week, police have reserved 45 of the shelter’s 324 beds for single men at the City Hall complex. Forty-one of those beds were filled on Tuesday. 

Once the process is complete, police will have 150 set-aside beds at three shelters operated by Father Joe’s and Alpha Project, potentially paving the way for more enforcement of violations tied to homelessness including the camping ban. 

The change will translate into reduced access for some people now clamoring for shelter. It means fewer beds will be available for unsheltered people who regularly line up outside the downtown Homelessness Response Center seeking shelter or for outreach workers to claim for people they encounter throughout the city. 

Housing Commission data shows the police already had a better shot of helping someone get shelter even before a few dozen additional beds were set aside for them. In the last six weeks, just 18 percent of shelter referrals from parties other than San Diego police resulted in a person obtaining a bed at a shelter overseen by the city’s housing agency. Police had a 42 percent referral success rate during the same period, an outcome that reflects officers’ access to both reserved beds and the city’s other shelter beds. 

Setting aside beds for police isn’t a new city tactic. For nearly a decade, the city has formally reserved beds for police referrals, largely to ensure officers could offer shelter before ticketing homeless residents. That’s because both a past legal settlement and a 2018 Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling bar citations if shelter isn’t available. 

The city’s new camping ban increased the pressure to ensure there is shelter to offer. The controversial new law allows crackdowns on homeless camps on public property across the city if there are open shelter beds. Police have initially focused on areas where the ordinance bans camping even when shelter isn’t available, such as in certain parks and near schools. 

Rachel Laing, a spokeswoman for Mayor Todd Gloria, said the city’s move to reserve more shelter beds for police referrals allows officers to provide less punitive alternatives to homeless residents they encounter and that the set-aside beds equate to a small fraction of the city’s roughly 1,990 shelter beds. 

“Having beds reserved for SDPD is helpful to the mission of addressing homelessness by giving the Homeless Outreach Team and officers responding to calls about encampments a more productive alternative to citations or jail,” Laing wrote in a statement. “The set-asides ensure officers know whether there is availability when they conduct enforcement of our laws against encroachment or the Unsafe Camping Ordinance.” 

Ian Wiggill, 42, snacks on fruit in his upper bunk at the Golden Hall men’s shelter area on April 8, 2022. San Diego’s homeless shelters present a variety of opportunities for people experiencing homelessness, and an equal number of restrictions for residents there. The pandemic, rising housing costs, and competition for low-income housing all conspire to put the focus on how to house the growing number of people who fall through the cracks. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego
Ian Wiggill, 42, snacks on fruit in his upper bunk at the Golden Hall men’s shelter operated by Father Joe’s Villages on April 8, 2022. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego

Yet beds set aside for police referrals haven’t always operated as efficiently as others in the city’s shelter system.  

Historically police beds often sat empty, experienced more turnover than others at the same shelters and helped a lower percentage of homeless residents move into permanent homes.  

When police are the ones offering shelter, many unsheltered people are also more reluctant to accept it or feel forced to accept a resource they aren’t sure will help them. These dynamics helped inspire the authors of the city’s 2019 homelessness plan to urge the city to dial back the role of police in homeless outreach and increase its non-police corps of outreach workers. 

In more recent history, police have kept more of their set-aside beds full. On Sunday, for example, all but one of the 145 beds now set aside for their referrals were full per a Housing Commission report.  

By Tuesday, there were five open beds.  

City spokeswoman Ashley Bailey-Nicholes wrote in an email that the city monitors the use of beds reserved for police and will direct others to fill them if there are “continual” vacancies. 

Increased turnover and lackluster housing placements have continued to plague police beds – even when compared with beds in the same shelters. 

Housing Commission data shows 16 percent of single adults who exited shelters overseen by the agency in the first nine months of 2023 moved into permanent homes. By comparison, 7 percent of people who left beds set aside for police moved onto permanent housing.  

And in fiscal year 2022, Housing Commission data showed homeless residents who moved into the police beds left after an average of about two to three weeks – compared with an average stay of just over two months for other single adult shelter beds.  

The staying power of the new police-reserved beds is also in question. 

Gloria’s office earlier this year announced it planned to move homeless residents out of Golden Hall by the end of 2023.  

The city’s permit to operate a shelter at the Golden Hall event center was set to expire early this month but Bailey-Nicholes said the city recently secured a three-month extension.  

The extension and the move to reserve more beds for police come as the Housing Commission continues to monitor Father Joe’s progress addressing a series of issues the housing agency demanded the nonprofit resolve earlier this year, including client complaints and facility issues at Golden Hall and a lengthy service suspension list that disproportionately bars Black San Diegans. 

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. The city ought to remove SDPD from the equation. We should install a special forces group specifically to eradicate homelessness which includes policing. It is much more cost effective. The SFG would wear orange uniforms and patrol the city. The mentally ill by court order would be forcibly incarcerated in wards. Able bodied men would be offered remedial work and basic housing within sanctioned camps. Smiechowski is an old man running for San Diego Mayor.

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