San Diego City Council Bans Homeless Encampments

San Diego City Council Bans Homeless Encampments
A woman prepares her new bunk in the Temporary Bridge Shelter for the homeless in San Diego on Dec. 1, 2018. (Gregory Bull/AP Photo)
6/21/2023
Updated:
6/21/2023
0:00

A controversial homeless encampment ban, which would prohibit unhoused people from camping in public spaces to protect public health and safety, narrowly passed on a 5 to 4 vote after nearly 10 hours of discussion between San Diego City councilors during a special meeting June 13.

According to the ordinance, such a ban near schools, transit hubs, shelters and in parks and waterways will go into effect 30 days after the opening of a new safe sleeping site—designated for the homeless to camp in safely with access to resources.

Two such sites are in the making: one on 20th & B Street with 136 spaces opening by July, and another in a parking lot near Balboa Park with space for 400 tents by the fall.

According to city officials, the goal is to protect the homeless from violence and drug overdoses, and the public’s health from diseases—such as Hepatitis A—drug exposure, violence, indecent exposure, and fires which can erupt in encampments.

Existing city laws bans the homeless from encroaching on public rights of way—such as sidewalks— with their belongings, which can result in an arrest and up to six hours in jail if they refuse to relocate.

A homeless man rolls over to look at a flyer with pictures of a suspect in recent assaults on the homeless, as a San Diego Homeless Outreach Team officer canvasses several areas in San Diego on July 6, 2016. (Peggy Peattie/U-T San Diego)
A homeless man rolls over to look at a flyer with pictures of a suspect in recent assaults on the homeless, as a San Diego Homeless Outreach Team officer canvasses several areas in San Diego on July 6, 2016. (Peggy Peattie/U-T San Diego)

The ban was approved by councilors Stephen Whitburn, Joe LaCava, Marni von Wilpert, Raul Campillo, and Jennifer Campbell.

“This is a win-win ordinance because our homeless living on unsafe sidewalks and unhealthy conditions will be able to live in a clean healthier location with 24-hour a day services while being helped to find permanent housing,” said Campbell. “Families living, walking to school, and working will no longer have to navigate through items blocking the sidewalk and health hazards.”

Whitburn—who proposed the ordinance—said he believes the city can look after the wellbeing of the homeless, while still protecting the safety of the public.

“We can work to get people on their feet, and we can have reasonable regulations on the use and locations of encampments,” he said.

According to the new ban, homeless persons will be given three opportunities to accept shelter. If they refuse a second time, they will be issued a misdemeanor citation, then arrested and jailed if they refuse a third time.

Non-perishable belongings of those arrested which do not contain biohazards will be impounded at police headquarters.

Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, President Pro Tem Monica Montgomery Steppe, and councilors Kent Lee and Vivian Moreno voted against the ordinance for a variety of concerns regarding enforcement, and shelter availability.

Moreno said the ordinance’s plan was not thorough and the city was without resources to enforce it.

“With the proliferation of encampments and public spaces, San Diegans have essentially lost their rights to those public spaces because of unregulated camping,” Moreno said in the meeting. “However, passing a new law without plans to enforce it will achieve very little.”

A police official walks near a crime scene in San Diego on July 15, 2016. (Gregory Bull/AP Photo)
A police official walks near a crime scene in San Diego on July 15, 2016. (Gregory Bull/AP Photo)

Lee’s position was similar. He shared concerns with how the ban may create confusion and push encampments into further remote spaces where outreach services have a more difficult time reaching. He said he believes the city should be focusing on creating more shelter spaces and housing.

“Fundamentally, this ordinance makes a promise to the public that we will never be able to deliver,” he said. “The data clearly shows us that we have far more people seeking shelter than we have shelter available.”

There are currently 10,264 homeless people in San Diego County—of which 5,093 are in transitional housing or an emergency shelter—according to the 2023 point-in-time count by the San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness, which was released earlier this month.

The San Diego Police Department’s Neighboring Policing Division will oversee enforcing the ordinance with 58 officers currently on staff.

One caveat of the ordinance is that encampments within two miles of shelters can only be removed if there is a shelter bed available.

According to officials, the city plans to spend over $200 million in 2024 on homeless shelters, programs, services, and prevention—including more safe sleeping sites.