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City-led cleanup operation of homeless encampment in Midway begins

Mayor Todd Gloria Monday announced the city's Environmental Services Department will conduct a cleanup operation on a homeless encampment along Sports Arena Boulevard to "protect public health and safety for both the residents of the encampment and the surrounding community."

The announcement came after what Gloria described as a "concentrated" effort to connect the people camping along the road to shelter and social services.

Advance notice of the cleanup was posted along Sports Arena Boulevard on Friday.


RELATED: San Diego homeless outreach team hopes to shelter people living along state's highways

"The situation on Sports Arena Boulevard in the Midway community is wholly unacceptable," Gloria said. "The potential for an outbreak of disease and the threat to public safety compels us to act now.

"As we continue to provide shelter and wide array of supportive services to unsheltered people living in the neighborhood, we cannot wait for something terrible to happen before we take decisive action," he said.

The outreach effort to those in the encampment was led by People Assisting the Homeless under the direction of the city's Homelessness Strategies and Solutions Department and the San Diego Housing Commission. During the outreach, PATH found 94 tent structures and an estimated 183 people living on Sports Arena Boulevard between Rosecrans Street and Pacific Highway.

Some people living at the encampment said it was created as a means to survive.


“This right here is our solution,” said Wyatt Earp. Earp has been homeless in San Diego for 35 years. “This is where we became a community, where we became as one, where we became self-sufficient.”

Earp is disabled and crews did not take his tent away, but Earp said the cleanups sweeps take a mental toll.

“It’s giving me stress and duress,” Earp said. “I need to go do things like go to the doctor but I can’t because of fear of walking off and coming back and nothing is even here. If you take everything I got, what am I going to do, freeze tonight?”

Encampment resident Rachael Kolacz used to sleep downtown so she is used to seeing regular city cleanups, but said they never get easier.

“I’m tired as hell right now,” said an emotional Kolacz as the sweep was starting. “I’m so tired. I’ve been running back and forth helping like 20 people.”

Multiple other city, county and nonprofit organizations assisted in the effort.

"Thank you to the mayor for the assistance that my staff and I have been advocating for," said City Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, who represents the Midway community. "The situation in Midway is intolerable for all parties involved.

"It is inhumane to allow our unsheltered neighbors to live on our streets or under bridges," Campbell said. "I hope those living on Sports Arena Boulevard will accept the services and shelter provided to protect the health and safety for all."

The after-action report on the outreach counted 157 encounters with unsheltered residents and 457 instances of service. According to the county, its personnel provided 62 people with CalFresh assistance and 56 people with MediCal assistance.

Additionally, seven people accepted placement into shelter — six of them in the Community Harm Reduction Shelter that Gloria and County Board of Supervisors Chairman Nathan Fletcher opened nearby in December to serve residents who struggle with substance abuse and mental illness, and one at PATH Connections Housing downtown.

"I appreciate the coordinated efforts of so many partners and advocates to provide an extensive targeted outreach effort," said Tamera Kohler, CEO of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness.

"We must be very attentive to the residents and the community's health and safety needs, treating everyone with dignity and respect, and offer clear information and openness on how the city must address the potential hazards posed to residents in this encampment and provide sustained services including cleanups and clearance when needed."

RELATED: San Diego County's homeless count pushed to February

According to a city statement, outreach workers reported residents of the encampment openly discussed their substance-use issues and accepted various services. Based on their observations, outreach workers said they are concerned about criminal activity happening in the encampment. The vast majority of people living in the area were hesitant to accept shelter placement despite knowing cleanup operations were imminent.

"The community has felt the impact of this sprawling encampment for months now," said Dike Anyiwo, vice chair of the Midway-Pacific Highway Community Planning Group. "Our planning group meetings are dominated by reports about illegal drug use, litter, violent assaults and theft of property from nearby homes and businesses. People here are desperate for action."

Environmental Services Department staff who have been through the area to collect waste reported makeshift structures that likely have cooking fuels that pose a fire risk and items soiled with feces, urine, and food or pet waste — making the encampment a public health concern.

On one day during the outreach operation, multiple residents approached outreach workers and said that some residents were not accepting help because they were suffering from stomach illness, which was reported to county public health officials.

San Diego's standard cleanup practice involves individuals moving their belongings from the area to allow city staff to remove waste, abandoned property and items that are unsanitary or in disrepair.

City-led cleanup operation of homeless encampment in Midway begins

Staff are trained to handle with care items believed to be personal belongings, a statement from the city reads. All items are sorted to identify those that are deemed in good, usable condition or of irreplaceable personal value, such as paperwork, photos, bibles, journals and medication, and those personal belongings are taken to a city storage facility with notice left in the area for how to retrieve it.

Last year, Gloria reformed procedures involved in encampment cleanups to include a less-visible police presence. However, due to reported safety threats to workers during cleanups in this area in the recent past, officers will accompany Environmental Services staff during the cleanup.

Unsheltered residents are not being cited for illegal lodging or encroachment, but residents who refuse to move during the cleanup to allow this public health operation to proceed will be arrested.