Mondays Are Moving Day For San Diego's Homeless
Police and city workers arrive early to push out the homeless so the sidewalks can be cleaned
A caravan of police cars with flashing lights rolled up on 17th Street east of Petco Park on a recent Monday morning. Officers and city environmental service workers were conducting what’s become a weekly ritual: moving the homeless off the sidewalk.
About 160 people live on the street, and they knew the cops were coming. The city posted warning signs days in advance. The sweeps have occurred every Monday for three months.
"This is where I stay. I’m homeless," said a man who goes by the name Brother Shine. He said he has lived on 17th Street and the surrounding blocks in San Diego's East Village for 10 years.
When the police and city workers moved in around 7 a.m., Shine and his homeless neighbors piled their blankets, tents, mattresses and clothes into carts. They pushed with one hand and used the other to balance buckets and containers on top of their overflowing loads. One woman wheeled a beige couch. A man lugged his gas barbecue. Some pulled pets on leashes.
City workers then used shovels and rakes to clear away belongings and trash left behind. The urine and feces that stained the sidewalks and street remained.
"I do it every Monday," said Shine. "I gotta clean up every Monday and come right back like I’ve been doing. It’s just a hassle."
The homeless headed to the Neil Good Day Center on 17th near K Street. The center operates during daytime hours and is partly funded by the city. It provides bathrooms, and has mail and laundry services for people who live on the streets. On Mondays, the center’s patio is filled with stuffed carts.
"We’re not roaches or ants. We’re human just like them," said Steven Hillard, who has been homeless for 15 years. "Do they gotta come with five or six police cars with their lights on, like it was a crime scene?"
While the sidewalks are cleaned up, Hillard said, the day center provides a safe spot for a few hours until the police and city crews leave.
By late afternoon, the homeless return. They wheel their belongings back and settle in for another week.
"What kind of sense is that, my sister? That don’t make a lick of sense to Brother Shine. And it don’t make a lick of sense to a lot of people, and I know it," Shine said.
About 1,000 unsheltered people live downtown. The number has gone up 52 percent in the past two years, according to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. The increase has occurred at a time when the county’s overall homeless population has declined.
Seventeenth Street in the East Village is a popular spot for the homeless. It’s near a hub of public transportation — buses and trolleys — and charities that try to help the homeless.
"I goes here to go to sleep, and I goes there to go eat," said Shine, pointing to the sidewalk where he makes his bed and to St. Vincent de Paul where he goes for food.
Just blocks away is Petco Park, where the All-Star Game will be played on Tuesday. It's also near the San Diego Convention Center and Gaslamp Quarter hotels that will host the Comic-Con throngs later this month.
Advocates for the homeless say the weekly sweeps are an effort to hide the city’s downtown homeless problem before out-of-town tourists arrive. They say that’s the same reason jagged rocks suddenly appeared along a freeway underpass in the same area.
"Cleaning up the area is obviously a good thing. But displacing people week after week after week when it just comes back again, you would think you would want to try something else rather than deploying a massive amount of city resources and wasting those resources," said Michael McConnell, an advocate for the homeless who observes the sweeps on Mondays.
McConnell also collects and analyzes data on the homeless in a search for ways to help them. He said city officials have created bad policies that are making it harder for people to get out of homelessness.
Brother Shine said falling asleep in the wrong place at the wrong time gets you a ticket. Police officers have given him two — both for encroachment and both in June. He said they’re his first tickets. He was also issued a stay-away order.
"I talked to an officer about the situation," Shine said. "I said, 'Where can I go?' He said I could go to a park. 'But you can’t take your tent.'”
Others have similar stories:
"Last month I was arrested three times in a row for encroachment," said Sinead Law, who has lived on 17th Street since December.
Hillard said, "The cops came by and busted a U-turn, and came back and gave me a ticket for encroachment. I was asleep on my bucket."
A woman who gave her name only as Catherine M said, "I don’t know what they expect me to do about it." She received an encroachment citation in June. "I don’t have a job, I’m not on unemployment, I don’t have an income. And I don’t think they have debtors' prison here, do they?"
Police Lt. Wes Morris works in the East Village. He said it’s illegal to block a sidewalk or street — whether it’s to sleep there or pitch a tent or park a cart. Morris said officers first give verbal warnings and offer help. If that doesn’t work, citations are issued. The process isn’t new, he said.
"Our enforcement, the regularity, our posture, our progressive enforcement has really stayed the same," Morris said. "It really hasn’t changed over the last year."
What’s different is more tents and tarps — nearly 70 percent more than last year, according to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.
McConnell said the scene downtown is the result of a broken system.
"We know we need more permanent housing. We need more affordable housing. But we also need supportive services to match up with the housing, and we need a better way to connect people up with the resources available," he said.
On 17th Street, it’s late afternoon. Brother Shine and his associates, as he calls them, are hunkered down on the sidewalks.
"I bless a lot of people around here. I don’t ask them for nothin’. I say if you need anything, come to Brother Shine."
He and the others who call this street home know that come next Monday the police cars will arrive again. And they’ll be asked to move along.