Divided San Diego City Council passes homeless camping ban

Those who opposed the ordinance making it illegal to camp on public property held signs showing their disagreement.
Those who opposed the ordinance making it illegal to camp on public property held signs showing their disagreement for the proposal on Tuesday.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The ordinance prohibits camping on any public property as long as shelter beds are available


The San Diego City Council voted 5-4 Tuesday to adopt a controversial policy to ban homeless encampments on public property after hearing hours of public testimony.

The ordinance was supported by Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, who proposed it, and Councilmembers Marni von Wilpert, Jennifer Campbell, Raul Campillo and Joe LaCava.

Mayor Todd Gloria also supported what they referred to as an unsafe camping ordinance, with he and Whitburn saying it would address a public safety issue while also helping to get homeless people off the street and into a shelter and connected to services.

The ordinance 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 accordance with the Martin v. Boise federal ruling that prohibits a person from being cited for sleeping outside if there are no shelter beds available.

An overflow crowd at City Hall shared passionate pleas for and against the ordinance.

Many people in opposition to the ordinance said it would be unworkable because there are far too few shelter beds available to enforce the rule, which a city study released Tuesday 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.

Von Wilpert supported the ordinance while also saying she agreed that the city could not arrest its way out of its homeless crisis.

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 was urgently needed to get people off the street 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 July 1 at 20th and B streets.

Councilmember Kent Lee said he opposed the ordinance because he believed it could be legally challenged and went beyond trying to address unsafe camping. He also said it could create a false sense with the public that the ordinance would be a solution to homelessness and clear encampments.

Councilmember Vivian Moreno also opposed the ordinance and shared Lee’s concerns, including questions of whether this 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.

Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe opposed the ordinance and said she was concerned there would not be enough shelter vacancies and about the parks that would be prioritized for enforcement.

Councilmember Raul 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.”

Councilmember Sean Elo-Rivera requested an amendment that would address the racial disparity in the homeless population, which has a greater percentage of Black people than the county’s overall population. His amendment was accepted by Whitburn and calls for the city manager to receive 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 a 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 in order 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.

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 own homes and filth left outside their businesses.

Opponents included homeless people and service workers who saw the proposal as dangerous and a step back from progress that had been made in connecting people on the street to services, rehabilitation and potential housing.

In one of the more controversial aspects of the ordinance, encampments would be banned in many areas even if no shelter beds are available because of public safety concerns. The absolute ban would be in place two blocks from existing shelters or schools, in all city parks, riverbeds, waterways, trolley stops and transportation hubs.

Encampment bans in those areas also would not follow a settlement the city had 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 health issue would be prohibited 24 hours a day.

Homeless advocate Michael McConnell, speaking against the 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 of people’s plates,” he said. “It’s out of control.”

Greg Newman, owner of a Gaslamp District business and downtown resident, 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 found 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 just in downtown neighborhoods.

Homeless encampments are found in many other areas in the city, and the ordinance would ban homeless encampments 24/7 throughout all of Mission Bay.

Mission Beach Town Council President Larry Webb said he supported the ordinance because it would protect families and access to the bay and parks, but he also said it should be coupled with services to help people on the street get help.

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 into 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.”

Formerly homeless man Ken Saragosa spoke passionately 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 feared the same was 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 very existence of people in the most need.

Townspeople Executive Director Melissa Peterman 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.

“People experiencing homelessness have the right to occupy public housing where they can seek housing and access essential services without fear of punishment,” she said.

The ordinance was supported by representatives of some Balboa Park organizations, including Forever Balboa Park CEO Elizabeth Babcock.

“It is a park for everyone, including the many, many visitors who come every day and have a right to a safe space,” she said.

Serving Seniors President and CEO Paul Downey said the ordinance was putting the cart before the horse because more shelters needed to be in place before it should be passed.