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Chula Vista City Council votes to shutdown tent city at Harborside Park

The city of Chula Vista tonight is voting on a resolution to temporarily close a park that is being used as a tent city by unsheltered individuals. The city says a rise in crime is prompting the action. KPBS reporter Alexander Nguyen has more.

The Chula Vista City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to temporarily close Harborside Park while the city looks for ways to help unsheltered individuals who've been using the park as a tent city.

"Mama Heather" has been homeless for more than 25 years, and for the past five months, she's been living at Chula Vista's Harborside Park.

It has become a focal point in the city because it's located next to Harborside Elementary School. Parents say it is unsafe for their children to walk to school because of crime and drug use in the park.

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Nicholas McVicker
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KPBS
"Mama Heather," who's been homeless for more than 25 years, has been living at Harborside Park for the past five months, Aug. 23, 2022.

"We all have to go somewhere," Mama Heather said. She's called "Mama Heather" because she takes care of people, making sure they have what they need, and she makes sure the park stays clean.

"When I got here, the place was a total mess," she said.

Homeless advocates say the people there have formed a community where they help each other, and it's self-policing.

About 100 or so people are living at the park now, said Sebastian Martinez, executive director at Community Through Hope.

"My team comes here every week, if not every other week. We've never had a violent incident. We've never had an issue," he said. "Folks aren't service resistant. They're happy to take the things that we do have. They try and keep the area clean. Is there drug use inside the park? Yes. But in my experience, it's actually sheltered folks that I've seen come park their cars and come sell here."

It is the drug use, among other things, that prompted Chula Vista City Councilmember John McCann to call for the park to close.

According to the city, between January 2019 and July 2022, Harborside Park had significantly higher numbers of crime reports, arrests, and citations compared to the three other parks with high police calls for service.

"This is not a homeless issue," McCann said. "This is an illegal activity, a drug-use issue, and we want to make sure that we're not normalizing this for our children and protecting our most vulnerable children in the Harborside community."

Homeless advocates say it is a homeless issue.

"It's has been this way for a reason because we all lost our jobs, our homes, some with mental problems, some without mental problems, some with drug problems, some without," Mama Heather said. "It doesn't matter who they are or what they are. They basically came to the situation through the economy."

Martinez said there is no shelter in the city for people, and Chula Vista's bridge shelter is not expected to be open until the end of the year.

If the park gets shut down, people will be completely displaced, he said.

"It's actually going to, I think, create the exact opposite of what parents are asking for, which is for the area to be safer because these folks are then going to have to go out into residential areas because they can't congregate at this park," Martinez said.

The park is also next to the San Diego County Health and Human Services building.

That is where unsheltered people can come to get service, and part of the reason why people have come to congregate at the park.

"At the county building, you can get access to vaccines, medicine, they can check on their food assistance, they can check on the status of any kind of (Supplemental Security Income) they're getting," Martinez said.

Closing the park will make it harder for service providers to help people.

Instead of having a centralized place where they can find people quickly to get the services they need, providers will have to spend time finding each person.

Harborside Park will be temporarily closed for 90 days, with an option for the city manager to extend the closure longer.

It will cost the city $350,000 for temporary fencing and security.

Corrected: August 23, 2022 at 11:40 PM PDT
An earlier version of this story misidentified Community Through Hope. KPBS regrets the error.
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