Ocean Beach Town Council hears new approach to dealing with homeless camps

A San Diego police officer tapes a notice of cleanup to a tent belonging to a homeless couple in Ocean Beach in April 2019.
A San Diego police officer tapes a notice of cleanup and property removal to a tent belonging to a homeless couple in Ocean Beach in April 2019.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A change in the processing and handling of reports of homeless encampments through San Diego’s Get It Done app led to a robust discussion of police-related matters during the Ocean Beach Town Council’s September meeting.

Instead of getting a police response, all complaints of homeless camps will be routed to PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), an organization partnered with the city, which will have up to four days to make contact with people in the camp to begin resolving problems.

The goal, according to police Officer David Surwilo, is to get more cooperation from homeless people by sending professionals trained in working with them and prevent potential resistance to and confrontation with law enforcement.

“I know there was a lot of talk in the past that police officers should not be making contact first, that it should be outreach to be offered,” Surwilo said. “So here’s our opportunity to see how this works.”

PATH, which launched in Los Angeles in 1984 and now operates in 140 cities across the state, said it established an outreach team in Ocean Beach in early March.

Primed with $1.5 million in city funding, officials from People Assisting the Homeless sought to inspire hope at the Ocean Beach Town Council’s March meeting by presenting their approach to tackling the homelessness issue at the community level.

April 7, 2021

Under the new policy, PATH will have 24 hours to make contact with members of any homeless encampment reported on Get It Done. If unable to meet that obligation, PATH will be granted a 72-hour extension almost automatically, according to Surwilo.

If PATH does not contact the camp within the allotted time, the Homeless Outreach Team in the Neighborhood Policing Division will assume responsibility for the response. However, when PATH does make contact, it will not be required to share information with police about the people contacted and any progress achieved.

“Hopefully, this new method with PATH will work and then [the police] can go on to other things instead of dealing with the homeless issue,” Surwilo said.

“I know there was a lot of talk in the past that police officers should not be making contact first [with homeless people], that it should be outreach to be offered. So here’s our opportunity to see how this works.”

— San Diego police Officer David Surwilo

Surwilo emphasized that the new rule applies only to reporting a homeless camp. People still should call police if they notice any suspicious or dangerous activity in the camp, he said.

“If you see an encampment that’s in a canyon and they’re lighting a fire, I wouldn’t use Get It Done for that,” Surwilo said. “I would actually call dispatch and let them know because that’s a fire hazard. That’s maybe not criminal, but that’s something we should probably be checking up on and trying to address.”

Some audience members expressed reservations about the new approach. Denny Knox, executive director of the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association, told of how her organization had struck a deal with PATH to assist homeless people out of the OBMA offices once a week, only for the program to end after a few weeks.

“I’m hesitant to say that I don’t think [the new policy] will work, but it was a disappointing experience for us because we were overwhelmed for a while and had [homeless people] lined up outside our office, which was way over our head,” Knox said.

Homeless camp
All complaints of homeless camps in San Diego will be routed to PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), an organization partnered with the city, which will have up to four days to make contact with people in the camp to begin resolving problems.

Surwilo advised patience with the new policy, saying that even for police, disassembling a homeless camp is time-consuming. For instance, people’s personal possessions have to be collected, tagged and taken to storage when impounded, even if they may seem like “junk” to an outside observer.

He added that the time is ripe for a new direction because police have been ordered to reset their “progressive enforcement” model with the lifting of some COVID-19 restrictions. Misdemeanor suspects, including those who are homeless, can be arrested by their fourth contact with police, after three previous engagements have produced warnings, citations and an offer of services.

But Town Council trustee Aaron Null expressed concern that the new policy might delay addressing the homelessness issue because PATH doesn’t have nearly the resources available to police.

“I’m worried that the timeline ... is going to double because now we have to wait for PATH and then it gets to [police],” Null said. “Hopefully we can work out a way that the system works smoothly.”

COVID-19 vaccinations

The discussion broadened to other police issues. On Facebook, Daniel Grofer noted a recent survey that indicated 90 percent of San Diego police officers opposed a COVID-19 vaccination mandate and 65 percent said they would consider quitting the force if one were imposed.

“How is this protecting and serving the public?” Grofer said.

Surwilo defended the right to a viewpoint and pointed out that police and other essential employees worked during the COVID pandemic even when there was no clear understanding of the threat of the disease.

“We’ll just have to wait and see how things play out,” Surwilo said. “But I really wouldn’t be questioning anyone’s integrity regarding protecting and serving the public.”

Surwilo said he believes the decision to become vaccinated is an individual choice but noted that he was required to get an annual flu shot during his military service.

“People are responding to surveys as they do,” he said. “What people do when the time comes will be up to them. ... We’ll give all the city workers the opportunity to figure out what’s best for them and move forward.”

Fentanyl overdoses

A presentation on the increase of fentanyl overdoses in San Diego was made by Robert Hall and David Phillips of SAY San Diego, a nonprofit youth and family advocacy organization.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine and is prescribed for pain management in cases such as cancer.

Phillips, a prevention specialist, drew on statistics from the San Diego County medical examiner’s office in saying there were 458 deaths from opioid overdoses in the county in 2020, nearly half of the total 976 fatal drug overdoses.

Though the victims’ ages ranged from 14 to 76, most were 17 to 25, Phillips said.

Phillips cited a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration statistic that 89 percent of overdose deaths occurred among people living in homes, countering a common belief that homeless people are the chief victims of fatal opioid use.

Fentanyl and other opioid overdoses kill users by suppressing the breathing and heart rate, causing the brain to lose oxygen.

People overdosing on fentanyl can be saved if the drug naloxone, also known by the brand Narcan, is administered in a timely manner. Narcan, which is applied as a nasal spray similar to a decongestant, removes and blocks opioids from nerve receptors that receive them for 30 to 45 minutes.

Hall, a media specialist, warned that people given Narcan can become violent when coming out of an overdose, and he suggested calling 911 to report any suspected opioid overdose, even if the person is given Narcan.

SAY (short for Social Advocates for Youth) can help supply Narcan and train people in its application.

Underage drinking and drug use

Hall also discussed the city’s “social host” ordinance passed in 2003, which fines party hosts up to $1,000 if children are caught using alcohol or drugs at the gathering.

“It’s not about providing alcohol or drugs to minors; that’s already covered by state laws,” Hall said. “This is about providing an environment where underage drinking and drug use takes place.”

Hosts are responsible for underage drinking and drug use on their premises during a party, even if they don’t provide the substances themselves. Hall said police statistics show that two-thirds of offenders are ages 19-21 and that people as young as 13 have been cited.


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