Homelessness and beach fires raise questions and frustration at Pacific Beach Town Council meeting
A mixed bag of progress, setbacks and inertia was presented at the October Pacific Beach Town Council meeting during regular reports from local government agencies and officials on topics including homelessness and illegal beach fires.
Town Council members and people in the online audience expressed concern and frustration over police explanations for recent homelessness in the community, extending the typically brief police report into a 40-minute session.
Homelessness was brought up early in the question-and-answer period, particularly growing homeless encampments at Rose Creek.
Laughter was audible when San Diego police Lt. Lisa McKean cited Neighborhood Policing Division statistics that indicate homelessness was down 12 percent in the latest count and is expected to decline further.
“What can we do as citizens?” asked Marcella Teran, a founding member of SavePB.org. “Can we help the police to help the residents? Who would be the best person or best department to get help for the police and residents on this? Who would listen?”
Because the coronavirus pandemic has complicated efforts to provide shelter to homeless people, the city’s recent purchase of two hotels for that purpose will provide police with flexibility to deal with the issue, McKean said.
Project could house about 400 people now living in shelter at the San Diego Convention Center
“Once those facilities are up and running [in about six months], we will be able to then have more of an enforcement arm when it comes to [homeless] people who our officers contact day in and day out and [who] consistently refuse services,” she said.
Some at the meeting weren’t pleased with waiting. Town Council member Brianna Jackson spoke of businesses struggling in the economic downturn and frustrated with groups of homeless people loitering and even camping in front of their shops.
“[Businesses] have been posting that ‘We’ve been calling the non-emergency line and we’re not getting anywhere,’” Jackson said. “We basically have to bribe these people to leave. And they don’t care if you call the police.”
Town Council President Brian White said some residents feel unsafe, especially at night, because of the number of homeless people in the boardwalk area between the lifeguard station and the Grand Avenue public restrooms, where a man was stabbed to death Aug. 16.
Martin Alvarez Jr., 33, is accused in the fatal Aug. 16 attack on Michael Wagley, 39.
Capt. Rich Marcello of Fire Station 21 at Grand Avenue and Mission Boulevard said: “We’re there all the time ... even us, as firefighters, are getting harassed by them as well. We have had conflict with them as well. It’s not just the general public. They’re very aggressive right now. ... It seems like over the past two or three months the homeless population has just increased exponentially. I think that’s basically what the problem is.”
Police Community Relations Officer Brandon Broaddus pinned the blame partly on the lack of a city ordinance regulating street vendors. He said some homeless people will place items for sale in front of their camps, restricting police action. Under the state’s Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, which took effect in January 2019, vendors cannot be criminally prosecuted but can be regulated for health and safety issues.
“I hate to use that excuse of ‘My hands are tied,’” Broaddus said. “I want to have something in my back pocket that allows me to use different resources to move things like this forward — a person that’s just basically taking up space and using it, thinking he’s a sidewalk vendor when he really isn’t.”
“During the daytime, I see how that is a loophole,” White said. “But when it turns nighttime and you have a person camping out for a couple of weeks like this, it’s no longer street vending, right?”
Police said a concrete ordinance is needed but that it is a political issue.
The Town Council recently sent a letter to District 2 City Council member Jennifer Campbell about the need for sidewalk vending regulations and urging the city to send an ordinance to the full City Council for approval “as soon as possible.”
McKean urged the community to continue monitoring the situation and to contact police about problems.
However, Town Council member Brian Curry said: “The thing that bothers us — and it’s nothing that you can do specifically — but when you say we just need to keep reporting it ... we’ve been reporting it and reporting it and reporting it. We’re actually at the point where we shouldn’t have to report it. It’s just there.”
McKean countered that police resources, not just actions on specific problems, are predicated on the amount of public calls for assistance.
“Please, keep calling,” she said. “Our staffing is allocated based on our calls for service. Think about it this way: One less call is potentially one less officer that could be assigned to Northern Division [which serves Pacific Beach].”
During the Fire-Rescue Department report, Marcello announced the release of a public service announcement video produced for the department and available on its Instagram account that clarifies legal technicalities regarding a recent spate of beach bonfires.
Marcello outlined the difference between legal fires in approved containers like portable metal fire rings and fires set up in the sand, which are illegal.
Problems ranging from illegal open fires on the beaches to lower participation in this year’s U.S. Census were addressed at the August Pacific Beach Town Council meeting.
When asked if there are any restrictions on where fire rings can be placed on the beach, Marcello said: “There’s no specific ordinance where they can and can’t set up. Not that I know of. They can basically set up anywhere they see fit.”
Marcello asked the community to use the department’s non-emergency number to report illegal beach fires.
The video, released the same day as the meeting (Oct. 21), garnered an estimated 2,000 shares and responses within hours of its debut, Marcello said. With subsequent PSAs in the works, Marcello said he was optimistic the problem could be extinguished.
“By [people] sharing the fact that it’s illegal to do that and only approved in certain fire pits, I think that will curb a lot of it,” he said. “Also, the winter is going to curb a lot of it. So those are going to help, and hopefully we can get it resolved.”
In addition, the Town Council released its slate of candidates for officers and members for 2021, with one more step of voting remaining.
Nominations were closed at the meeting.
The officer nominees are: president, Marcella Bothwell; vice president, Karl Rand; secretary, Susan Crowers; treasurer, Denise Friedman.
Nominated for two-year terms are White, Greg Daunoras, Ron Walker, Cathie Jolley, Ellen Citrano and Michael Herndon. Kim Short was nominated for a one-year term.
Members set to complete the second half of their terms are Curry, Jackson, Jane Nobbs, Tony Schlegel and Charlie Nieto.