San Diego finalizes controversial homeless camping ban in repeat 5-4 vote

A row of tents at a homeless encampment on Sports Arena Boulevard in San Diego in January.
(Hayne Palmour IV / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Supporters say new law boosts public safety, will get more homeless into shelters; critics say it criminalizes homelessness, severe poverty


The San Diego City Council finalized Tuesday the city’s controversial new ban on homeless encampments on public property — a ban that critics say criminalizes homelessness and severe poverty.

The 5-4 vote, which came after two hours of public testimony that was nearly unanimous in opposition, mirrors the council’s initial approval on June 13.

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

June 13, 2023

Supporters say the ban will boost public safety and get more homeless people quickly into shelters, where they can receive treatment, housing assistance and job-placement help.

They also say San Diego taxpayers, who spend many millions each year on shelters and homeless services, have a right to expect homeless people to take advantage of those services.

Critics say the city’s lack of shelter beds makes the ban legally vulnerable. They also say the ban will drain police resources and make it harder to help homeless people by encouraging them to disperse.

A trial has been scheduled for San Francisco to defend clearing homeless encampments. An attorney for a national homeless rights group said San Diego’s ordinance also could be challenged.

June 17, 2023

More broadly, critics say the ban is essentially criminalizing poverty and will set back homeless people by putting convictions on their records that make it harder to get jobs and housing.

The two key elements of the ordinance are prohibiting encampments on public property and asserting that people can be cited or arrested if they refuse an available shelter bed.

“It is perfectly reasonable to ask somebody to accept a suitable shelter bed when it is available, rather than simply choosing to remain in an encampment when a suitable shelter bed is available, especially considering how unsafe and unhealthy the encampments are,” said Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, who spearheaded the new law.

Whitburn was joined in support by the same four colleagues from earlier this month: Joe LaCava, Marni von Wilpert, Raul Campillo and Jennifer Campbell. Only Whitburn spoke in favor of the law Tuesday.

The “no” votes again came from Monica Montgomery Steppe, Vivian Moreno, Kent Lee and Council President Sean Elo-Rivera.

“I just believe that it is legally, practically and morally not the right thing for us to do at this time,” Montgomery Steppe said.

The council’s action, which is supported by Mayor Todd Gloria, comes in the wake of a new analysis showing a 32 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people in the city, with about 3,300 people living outdoors.

That survey, completed by the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, was buttressed by a recent count by the Downtown San Diego Partnership that found a record 2,100 people living on sidewalks and vehicles just in downtown.

The law will take effect 30 days after the opening of a city-run safe sleeping area at 20th and B streets this week. It was written to comply with a federal ruling focused on shelter bed capacity.

New rule prohibits encampments on public property when shelter options are available. Enforcement won’t begin until at least 30 days after ordinance becomes official.

June 14, 2023

The Martin v. Boise ruling prohibits a person from being cited for sleeping outside if there are no shelter beds available. San Diego’s new law would have the same requirement — in most parts of the city.

But in some areas of San Diego, the new law allows enforcement of anti-camping laws and arrests even if there are no shelter beds available.

This absolute ban applies within two blocks of existing shelters or schools and in all city parks, riverbeds, waterways, trolley stops and transportation hubs. The law justifies stricter enforcement in those areas by citing public safety concerns.

The city has been permitting camping in those and other areas throughout the city from 9 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., and lax enforcement has essentially allowed camping in those areas around-the-clock. Under the new law, camping will not be allowed in so-called sensitive areas at any hour.

The law is supported by many downtown residents. Some spoke during the June 13 hearing about being threatened by homeless people on the streets, fear of going outside and feces and trash outside businesses.

Tourism officials also warned that the homelessness problem in San Diego could become as bad as it is in San Francisco, which they said has significantly damaged tourism there.

Nearly all advocates for homeless people and immigrants oppose the law.

“Countless studies have shown that criminalization doesn’t work to end homelessness and instead it actually perpetuates poverty and entrenches people into chronic homelessness,” said Mitchelle Woodson, managing attorney of Think Dignity.

Tim Schneider of the San Diego County Homeless Union called the law “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Paulina Reyes, staff attorney for the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, said convictions can complicate efforts by immigrants to become citizens or receive asylum.

“Not only is criminalizing ineffective, it is also completely devoid of compassion and dignity,” she said.

Other critics said the law pulls San Diego backward to less civilized times, when poor people were placed in debtor’s prisons.

Gloria praised the measure, saying he would sign it this week.

“When the taxpayers of this city are expending over $200 million to provide homelessness services, it is right and appropriate for us to set the expectation that people experiencing homelessness must avail themselves of the services we are providing,” he said.

“Enforcement of the ordinance will coincide with bringing online hundreds more shelter opportunities through our safe sleeping program and my pursuit of measures to cut bureaucratic red tape to speed our homelessness response.”