San Diego city officials call for ban on homeless encampments. ‘They cannot say no to leaving the sidewalk.’
Homeless people will be offered shelter, but camps in some areas - including Pacific Beach, Mission Beach and Mission Bay Park - will be cleared even if no alternatives are available
With downtown homeless encampments in his district surging in recent months, San Diego City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn on Thursday announced he will propose an ordinance banning tents and makeshift structures on public property.
“We’ve heard too many stories of people camping on our streets who have been randomly attacked, stabbed to death or even set on fire,” Whitburn said. “These encampments are unsafe. They are also a danger to our neighborhoods.”
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria joined Whitburn in the announcement and said he supports the proposal and would urge the full City Council to approve it.
Also on Thursday, representatives from counties throughout the state proposed a plan designed to create more housing and services for homeless people while increasing accountability and transparency.
Gloria said the new local ordinance would get tough on people who refuse to accept help or move their tents, but still would take a compassionate and progressive enforcement approach. People camping in public places, including canyons and sidewalks, would be offered a shelter bed and only cited or arrested after multiple contacts with law enforcement.
Gloria and Whitburn also said the city is planning to open another safe parking lot in the near future and is looking for a location for its first safe campground.
“I want to be clear, once we have these resources in place, the answer from our homeless population can no longer be ‘No,’” Gloria said. “They cannot say no to leaving the sidewalk or no that they prefer being on the street or no to services and help. When we ask you to come off the street and we have a place for you to go, ‘No’ is not an acceptable answer.”
With about 2,000 homeless people in downtown alone, however, there are not enough vacant shelter beds or other alternatives to offer to everyone on the street, even with the new parking lot and campground.
When asked about the challenge, Gloria said he still expected the enforcement to happen because many homeless people are able to find some form of housing on their own.
A monthly report from the Regional Task Force on Homelessness does show many homeless people rent units themselves. The report from February shows 725 homeless people were housed that month, with 522 people renting units.
A federal legal decision prohibits law enforcement from citing or arresting people for camping outdoors if no alternatives are available. The ordinance proposed by Whitburn would follow the rule, but make exceptions, with law enforcement allowed to cite people for public camping in certain areas, regardless of the availability of shelter beds.
That enforcement would happen at encampments within two blocks of schools or homeless shelters, in any open space, waterway, or natural area abutting a waterway, within any transit hub, on any trolley platform or along any trolley tracks.
The same enforcement would apply to encampments in Balboa Park, Mission Bay Park, Presidio Park and shoreline parks in Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla.
The proposed local ordinance is similar to one proposed last year by state Sen. Brian W. Jones. The bill, which is up for a committee hearing March 28, would ban homeless encampments from public parks and near schools, libraries and other sensitive areas.
Gloria said the city in April also will begin enforcing its ordinance prohibiting people from living in their vehicles, a law that had been on hiatus since the pandemic.
Homeless advocate Michael McConnell, a vocal critic of enforcement already being conducted at homeless encampments, said the proposed ordinance appeared redundant.
“We already have a state law against illegal lodging as well as a municipal code for encroachment,” he said. “I’m not sure what this additional law is going to do. Homelessness is basically criminalized every day in San Diego.”
McConnell said he does not want people living on the street, but he did not see additional enforcement working until there are more safe places for them to go.
In another announcement Thursday, representatives from San Diego and other California counties unveiled a proposal they said would coordinate homeless efforts statewide while creating more transparency and accountability.
Dozens of recommendations are included in the AT HOME plan, an acronym for Accountability, Transparency, Housing, Outreach, Mitigation and Economic opportunity.
San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chair Nora Vargas participated in the announcement with other members of the California State Association of Counties, including representatives from Los Angeles, Riverside, Alameda, Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties.
She and other supervisors stressed a need for greater collaboration and streamlining processes in addressing homelessness.
“I’ve heard the loud voices in my county, and I’m sure all of you have as well,” she said.
Vargas said San Diego already is demonstrating local cooperation, with one example being a city-funded shelter on county property with the county providing behavioral health services.
More such services as well as outreach efforts are needed, she said.
“We do not have enough behavioral health care workers to support the needs of our community, especially of our unsheltered neighbors,” she said.
Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson spoke about the plan’s recommendations to address the state’s housing shortage, and he said some proposals are easier than others.
“As an example, the Department of Housing and Community Development has approximately 20 active state housing grant programs in 12 categories, he said. “Those could be consolidated.”
Other recommendations, such as making changes to the California Environmental Quality Act, will take more work, he said.
The AT HOME plan supports exempting from CEQA review all permanent supportive housing, shelters and transitional housing projects that meet specific criteria, which Carson said would be a “sea change” in providing services and housing faster.
Other recommendations would explore creative and new funding mechanisms, streamline rules about development and help local governments that sometimes see housing projects stalled because of objections from some community members, he said.
California State Association of Counties CEO Graham Knaus said AT HOME is the most comprehensive plan ever developed to address homelessness, and implementing parts of it would require acts from the state Legislature but could be done within the year.
Details and a list of recommendations in the plan can be found at https://www.counties.org/home-plan .