Divided San Diego City Council passes controversial homeless encampment ban
The ordinance prohibits camping on any public property when shelter beds are available and at all times in places where public safety is a concern, such as city parks and near schools or existing shelters.
The San Diego City Council voted 5-4 on June 13 to adopt a controversial policy to ban homeless encampments on public property after hearing hours of public testimony.
The ordinance, proposed by Councilman Stephen Whitburn, was supported by him and council members Jennifer Campbell, whose District 2 includes Point Loma and Ocean Beach, Joe LaCava, Marni von Wilpert and Raul Campillo.
“It takes a lot of bravery to do this,” Campbell said. “This is a win-win ordinance,” she added, saying homeless people will have access to services while families won’t have to navigate around tents on the streets.
Mayor Todd Gloria also supported what backers referred to as the unsafe-camping ordinance.
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The law would prohibit encampments on public property, and people could be cited or arrested if they refuse an available shelter bed. The ordinance was written to be in accord with a federal court ruling in Martin v. Boise that prohibits a person from being cited for sleeping outside if no shelter beds are available.
But in one of the more controversial aspects of the ordinance, encampments would be banned in many areas because of public safety concerns, even if no shelter beds are available. That ban would be in place two blocks from existing shelters or schools and in all city parks, riverbeds, waterways, trolley stops and transportation hubs.
Encampment bans in those areas also would not follow a settlement the city agreed to years ago that allows people to sleep in public areas from 9 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. Under the ordinance, camping in areas seen as a public safety issue would be prohibited around the clock.
An overflow crowd at City Hall shared passionate pleas for and against the ordinance.
Many people in opposition said the law would be unworkable because there are too few shelter beds available, which a city study released June 13 confirmed.
Whitburn and other supporters of the ordinance said enforcement would be done gradually, not overnight, and more shelter beds are planned that will make the ordinance possible.
The council on June 12 adopted a $2 billion budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year that increases spending on homelessness efforts from $63 million in the current budget to about $85 million in the new budget. The money covers additional shelter beds, more street outreach, rapid rehousing, safe parking and the serial inebriate program, which provides treatment to homeless people with chronic substance abuse problems.
Von Wilpert supported the ordinance while also saying she agreed that the city could not arrest its way out of its homeless problem.
Citing the escalating number of homeless people dying of drug overdoses on the streets — from 86 in 2018 to 317 in 2021 — von Wilpert said action is urgently needed to get people off the streets and into services.
“I don’t have a problem with people living on our street, but I do have a problem with people dying on our street,” she said.
Von Wilpert added an amendment to Whitburn’s motion to approve the ordinance that included having enforcement begin at least 30 days after the opening of a safe sleeping area that would accommodate 100 people and is expected to open Saturday, July 1, at 20th and B streets.
Councilman Kent Lee said he opposed the ordinance because he believes it could be legally challenged and goes beyond trying to address unsafe camping. He also said it could create a false sense with the public that the ordinance is a solution to homelessness.
Councilwoman Vivian Moreno also opposed the ordinance and shared Lee’s concerns, including questions of whether the law would be a drain on police resources.
“A real plan would lay out goals of enforcement and match it with new resources,” she said.
She moved to continue the item to September to give time to create an enforcement plan, but the motion was not supported.
Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe opposed the ordinance and expressed concerns about there being enough shelter vacancies and about the parks that would be prioritized for enforcement.
Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera requested an amendment that would address racial disparity in the homeless population, which has a greater percentage of Black people than in the county’s overall population. His amendment, accepted by Whitburn, calls for monthly reports on the demographics of homeless people who are contacted, cited or arrested under the new ordinance.
Elo-Rivera also proposed an amendment that would strike the prohibition against camping within two blocks of a shelter, which he said could deter people who sometimes camp in front of the city’s Homeless Response Center to be one of the first in line to receive a shelter bed.
Whitburn declined to accept the amendment, and Elo-Rivera said he could not vote for the ordinance because he had significant concerns that it would do more harm than good.
Campillo supported the motion and said it’s impossible to pass laws that only have upsides for everybody.
“We didn’t come here to solve homelessness with one vote,” he said. “We came here today on a proposed ordinance that aims to reduce the impact of problematic conduct that many levels of government have failed to solve or, worse yet, have exacerbated.”
More than 200 people signed up to speak either for or against the ordinance. People in favor included downtown residents who spoke about dangerous encounters with people on the street, fear of going outside their homes and filth left outside their businesses.
Opponents included homeless people and service workers who see the ordinance as dangerous and a step back from progress that had been made in connecting people on the street to services, rehabilitation and potential housing.
The San Diego Housing Commission is applying for state funds to help buy a Ramada Inn in the Midway District and a vacant apartment building in Ocean Beach to provide permanent housing for homeless people.
Commissioners unanimously agreed May 12 to apply for $18 million toward the purchase and upgrade of the Ramada Inn at 3737-3747 Midway Drive, which would create 62 affordable units. The city also is submitting a joint $4 million application with Wakeland Housing and Development Corp. to help buy the apartment building at 2147 Abbott St., which would create 13 units.
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted May 23 to authorize up to $32 million in loans toward the city’s potential purchase of four residential properties that could be used to house homeless people, including the Ramada Inn, the apartment building, a 107-unit Extended Stay America Hotel on Murphy Canyon Road and a 140-unit Extended Stay America on Mission Valley Road.
Homeless advocate Michael McConnell, speaking against San Diego’s encampment ordinance, said the ban would create boundaries where people would be allowed to sleep on one side of the street but not the other.
“What are we going to do, send police to move people from one side of the road to another?” he said.
Hanan Scrapper, regional director for People Assisting the Homeless San Diego, also opposed the ordinance.
“We agree with Mayor Gloria and the council that encampments are not an acceptable way for any human being to live,” she said. “But an anti-camping ordinance will not lead to the outcomes we all want to see. Such an ordinance will only further disperse the problem around the city and region and make the jobs of homeless service providers like PATH much more difficult.”
Supporters of the ordinance included Dave Rodger of Filippi’s Pizza Grotto.
“We have homeless people coming into our restaurant taking food off people’s plates,” he said. “It’s out of control.”
Greg Newman, a downtown resident and owner of a Gaslamp District business, said the ordinance wouldn’t be a solution but would be an opportunity to improve conditions in the area.
“We should be able to enjoy the city as much as homeless people do,” he said.
Data recently released by the San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness indicated a 32 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people in the city of San Diego, with about 3,300 people living outdoors.
A recent count conducted by the Downtown San Diego Partnership found an all-time high of 2,100 people living on sidewalks and in vehicles in downtown neighborhoods.
Downtown resident Jarvis Leverson also supported the ordinance and said walking in his neighborhood had become dangerous.
“This is not a referendum against homeless people,” he said. “I actually have compassion and respect for their situation. This is a vote against blocking the sidewalks. You cannot let tents block people from having safe passages. God forbid someone gets killed because they didn’t have a way to cross the street.”
Leverson said he and his children were almost struck by a car two months ago when he had to push his stroller onto the street because the sidewalk was blocked by tents.
“Vote yes on this measure,” he said. “We have a right to walk without putting our lives in danger.”
Ken Saragosa, who is formerly homeless, spoke against the ordinance.
“The problem in San Diego is not that the laws are not specific enough,” he said. “The problem is you can’t arrest homelessness out of existence. Unhoused people don’t like being unhoused any more than you don’t like having them around.”
Saragosa said homeless people often are cited for petty crimes that are not enforced against housed people, while homeless people often are victims of crime that go unreported.
Colleen Anderson, executive director of the San Diego Tourism Marketing District, said she has seen how homelessness has destroyed tourism in San Francisco and she fears the same is happening in San Diego.
Shelby Thomas, director of advocacy and leadership for the San Diego Housing Federation, called the ordinance ineffective and said it would criminalize the existence of people in the most need.
Melissa Peterman, executive director of Townspeople, a nonprofit that works to provide emergency housing and supportive services, opposed the ordinance.
“Homelessness is a crisis that affects real people, individuals and families with emotions and struggles and aspirations,” she said. “The ordinance before you today dismisses their humanity and the systemic oppression that limits access to housing, and it is unjust to blame the victims of inequality.”
Serving Seniors President and Chief Executive Paul Downey said the ordinance puts the cart before the horse because more shelters need to be in place before it should be passed.
The ordinance was supported by representatives of some Balboa Park organizations, including Forever Balboa Park Chief Executive Elizabeth Babcock, who said the park’s many visitors “have a right to a safe space.”
— City News Service and Point Loma-OB Monthly staff contributed to this report.
2:00 p.m. June 15, 2023: This article was updated with comments from San Diego City Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell.