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Clean or clear a homeless camp? S.D. tries to balance health and safety concerns for both homeless and others

Workers remove a mattress and other items during a cleanup of a homeless encampment in the Midway District on Feb. 1.
Workers remove a soiled mattress and other items during a cleanup of a homeless encampment on Sports Arena Boulevard in the Midway District on Feb. 1.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego removed 10 tons of debris from a Midway District encampment. Some thought the camp would be removed.

Some residents and business owners in the Midway District were disappointed that city crews cleaned, but did not remove, a large encampment on Sports Arena Boulevard.

But public health officials and homeless experts say the operation was never intended to displace those living in one of San Diego’s largest tent cities. It was to save lives.

It’s not a new approach, but it is gaining traction as communities struggle to find the right balance between protecting vulnerable people living without shelter and addressing neighborhood concerns about health and safety issues that arise from large encampments on public property.

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

About 200 people were living in about 100 tents and makeshift structures alongside Sports Arena Boulevard between Rosecrans Street and Pacific Highway.

Crews from the San Diego Environmental Services Department removed about 10 tons of debris from the encampment during the Feb. 1 and 3 cleanups, including many items that were soiled, infested or flammable. Almost 7 tons were collected Feb. 3 alone.

Workers throw an apparently abandoned tent and other property into a trash truck.
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)

The department hauled away filthy furniture, rotten food, car batteries, gasoline, camping stove fuel and other dangerous or unhealthy items, officials said.

“A lot of living mice” were found in and around the tents, according to Environmental Services Deputy Director Renee Robertson. “A lot of rodent urine and feces in furniture that had been accumulated inside the tents where folks were storing food and other items.”

“There are tents on pallets, and that’s where the mice are usually living, and then they go up into the tents for the food items and then go back down,” Robertson said. “We saw a lot of that. Roaches as well.”

Robertson said the area had not been cleaned for months, so she wasn’t surprised at the tonnage found there.

More cleanups are planned at the site, she said.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria had 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 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.

The operation was not unique to Sports Arena Boulevard. Similar cleanups are conducted regularly in parts of downtown San Diego.

Unsanitary conditions can cause illness and even death in homeless encampments. A California Policy Lab study from 2019 reported that 50 percent of people living without shelter said they suffer from a combination of a physical health condition, a mental health issue and a substance abuse condition.

Alongside Sports Arena Boulevard, San Diego outreach workers said they found many people who reported stomach issues.

Adarryl Futrell helps move a friend's belongings as workers clean up a homeless encampment on Sports Arena Boulevard.
Adarryl Futrell helps move a friend’s belongings as workers clean up a homeless encampment on Sports Arena Boulevard on Feb. 1.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Hafsa Kaka, director of homelessness strategies and solutions for the city, said outreach workers who teamed with county public health personnel in a large outreach downtown last year found many people who were medically compromised.

“They had stomachaches, they weren’t feeling well,” she said. “That was more reason to have a response to this area.”

Robertson said health problems also were discovered at Sports Arena Boulevard.

“We want to really protect this population in their vulnerable state, and we did see a lot of medically compromised folks out there,” she said. “And it’s really concerning that they’re surrounded by these materials.”

Michael Durham, community engagement manager for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said the conditions in encampments can be unhealthy, though deadly outbreaks are rare.

Durham said he was heartened to hear that San Diego let people remain in the encampment after it was cleaned, which is something many cities do not do.

“I think in most communities it’s more common to clear encampments altogether,” he said. “That’s because, for the most part, the intention is not really to maintain cleanliness of the encampment. That’s used as an excuse to move people out of sight and out of mind, often at the behest of housed neighbors raising a fuss about people living outside in the first place.”

The city of San Diego is not enforcing laws that would drive homeless encampments off public property. The California Department of Transportation, however, is removing encampments from state property, focusing first on ones dangerously close to freeways. Caltrans did not remove encampments for many months during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Durham said clearing encampments can cause more health problems for the people forced to move because of the stress and other issues it can cause.

Moving people out of encampments also can disconnect people from services they had come to rely on, including street medical teams who regularly visit them.

“When you meet somebody who has been living outdoors for a long time, you can bet they’re actually younger than they appear, and the life expectations of someone who is homeless is 30 years shorter than those who are stably housed,” Durham said.

Robertson said cleanup crews found much drug paraphernalia at the Sports Arena Boulevard site, but some of the most unusual and disturbing items were fuel-filled water bottles with handwritten notes that read, “Not water, do not drink.” Other containers were not labeled.

“There were a lot of propane tanks, a lot of compressed-gas tanks,” she said. “It’s very scary to think of unlabeled gasoline and fuels, especially when they’re right next to the soil and they’re out in the open and just going to run off into the storm drain. That’s a whole different environmental concern.”

While it’s far from a solution to homelessness, Robertson said the regular cleanups could remove some of the health risks of life on the street.

“We removed 10 tons of unsanitary waste people were living in and among,” she said, adding that most people kept their sleeping bags and tents, which are no longer cluttered with wet, infested material. “Hopefully, it is a safer place for them.”


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