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Homeless encampment to remain in Midway District after cleanup

Workers throw a tent into a trash truck during a cleanup of a Sports Arena Boulevard encampment.
Workers for the Alpha Project and the city of San Diego throw an apparently abandoned tent and other property into a trash truck during a cleanup of a Sports Arena Boulevard encampment in the Midway District.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Some area residents and business owners had thought the camp on Sports Arena Boulevard would be cleared out.

While some observers were expecting a homeless encampment in the Midway District to be dismantled and cleared out, San Diego city crews and police officers merely directed about 100 residents to move their belongings across the street to allow workers to clean the south side of Sports Arena Boulevard between Rosecrans Street and Pacific Highway.

Though notices had been posted at the site announcing the Feb. 1 cleanup, some people in the encampment said they were taken by surprise and scrambled to pull their belongings together as the workers and a trash truck approached.

Homeless advocates who had come to observe the action pitched in, picking up and moving tents and other items.

Mattresses, file cabinets, stereo speakers, car batteries, shopping carts and other odds and ends that had accumulated around people’s tents were hastily gathered and wheeled, carted or carried from one side of Sports Arena Boulevard to the other.

After the hourlong cleanup, many tents remained on the north side of the street while others were returned to their original spot.

The cleanup effort is scheduled to resume Thursday, Feb. 3, to address about 45 tents on the western end of the large encampment, which in all has about 200 people in almost 100 tents.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria announced Jan. 31 that the sprawling encampment would be cleaned because unsanitary conditions were creating a health hazard. But members of a local community group and at least one business owner said they interpreted that to mean the city would permanently clear tents and other makeshift structures from the site.

“My understanding was the end result would be a complete clear-out,” said Dike Anyiwo, vice chairman of the Midway-Pacific Highway Community Planning Group.

After learning that the city action was just to clean the street, he wondered how the more serious issues associated with the encampment, such as illegal drug use, violent assaults and property theft, would change.

“There’s a whole bunch of stuff going on,” Anyiwo said. “Even myself, I had property [a bicycle] stolen from my garage that I found at the encampment.”

A shelter and belongings are carried across the street as workers clean up a homeless encampment.
Rachael Kolacz, Anthony Jacques and Michael McConnell carry a shelter and belongings across the street as San Diego city workers clean up a homeless encampment on Sports Arena Boulevard on Feb. 1.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Michael McConnell and other homeless advocates said they, too, assumed the announcement about a cleanup meant the camp would be cleared out, similar to recent actions at encampments on California Department of Transportation property.

“It doesn’t seem like they know what they’re doing,” McConnell said. “I think they’re just making a big show of it.”

Cathy Kenton, chairwoman of the Midway-Pacific Highway Community Planning Group, said she was surprised and disappointed to learn the city was not clearing out the encampment.

“I was told they were going to be moved or be arrested,” Kenton said about a conversation she said she had with someone at the mayor’s office Jan. 28. “They would be moved out and there would be additional enforcement for the next few weeks. I was told they would not be allowed to re-congregate there.”

Asked about the apparent misunderstanding, a spokesman for Gloria’s office said the intent of the Feb. 1 action was to enable staff of the city Environmental Services Department to clear the area of waste and debris that threaten public health and safety.

“We have always understood — and communicated — that fully clearing the encampment will require repeated cleanup operations and continued outreach,” Dave Rolland, senior adviser of communications in the mayor’s office, wrote in an email. “As long as this encampment exists, the city will continue to conduct regular cleanings ... and outreach teams will continue to work with residents on interventions that work for them.”

Several homeless people at the encampment said they didn’t see the point of the cleanup.

“What have they actually accomplished?” said Joseph Brannon, who has lived out of his truck parked on the street for the past three months. “They made people move their tents across the street.”

Several San Diego police officers were onsite, and the mayor’s news release said anyone who refused to move would be arrested. Lt. Brian Brecht said the operation went smoothly and there were no arrests.

Alexis Russ moves some of her belongings as workers clean up a homeless encampment on Feb. 1.
Alexis Russ moves some of her belongings as workers clean up a homeless encampment on Sports Arena Boulevard in the Midway District on Feb. 1.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Alexis Russ, 38, who has been homeless for nine years and lives in a tent at the encampment, saw the police presence as excessive.

“There was about 18 cops at one point, just standing there, watching these people, us and the trash crew, and they were getting paid for it,” Russ said. “All they did was intimidate people and get a day’s wage. I think that day’s wage could have gone to each homeless person to help get us off the street.”

Russ said people at the encampment do not feel homeless because their tents are their homes. She also said she does not want to go to a shelter but would go to a secured campground if the city were to offer one as an alternative to roadside encampments.

It was unclear whether anyone at the encampment left the site for good before the cleanup, but a few tents that were unoccupied were thrown in the trash truck along with mattresses, couches and other items that appeared to be discarded.

Dave Amrani, 35, lives in a tent on the western stretch. Outside the tent was one of the more unusual items at the encampment: an upright piano.

“I want to learn,” he said about someday playing the piano, which he found in a nearby alley.

Amrani said he didn’t see the point of making people move their tents across the street, and he argued that the city should consider the encampment a shelter.

Karen Andersen Thatcher, an owner of Walter Andersen Nursery off Sports Arena Boulevard near Pacific Highway, said she would like the city to take more aggressive action at the encampment because it is hurting her business.

“We were hoping they might be removing the encampment and not just taking out the trash, because we have been on the city for months,” she said. “The reality is they haven’t done anything.”

Thatcher said the nursery has begun locking its restrooms that had been open for customers because homeless people have locked themselves in for long periods. Homeless people also have panhandled inside the nursery, she said.

“We’ve had customers call and say they won’t shop here because they have to drive by the encampment,” she said. “We’ve had customers drive down the street and call to say they’re too afraid to get out of their car and come in. We’ve lost business, I’m sure of it.”


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