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Quality of Life

Police can begin enforcing San Diego's camping ban on Sunday

The San Diego Police Department (SDPD) can begin enforcing the city’s camping ban beginning on Sunday.

The "Unsafe Camping Ordinance" prohibits tent encampments in public places when shelter beds are available and at all times within two blocks of schools and parks, canyons, transit centers and homeless shelters.

The ordinance was introduced by San Diego City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn and the City Council voted to approve the ban in June.


“When we initially begin implementation of the ordinance, we're going to focus initially around schools and in many of our parks. We cannot have a situation where there are encampments within two blocks of a K-through-12 school,” Whitburn said.

The San Diego Police Department did not respond to requests for information about enforcement of the ordinance. According to a spokesperson from Whitburn’s office, officers in the SDPD's Neighborhood Policing Division have been trained in the progressive enforcement model and will continue to provide education and outreach to homeless residents about the ordinance.

“If people refuse to take advantage of a shelter or safe sleeping site when it is offered to them, then the law can be enforced,” Whitburn said. “The first time somebody would refuse a shelter bed or safe sleeping site, a police officer would give that person a warning. A second time that they declined shelter or a safe sleeping site, they could receive a misdemeanor citation and the third time there could be a custodial arrest.”

The city said officers will receive a list of open shelter beds in the city in-take system each morning. According to a staff report presented to the council in June, the city has about 2,400 shelter beds, most of which are in use. By contrast, the Regional Task Force on Homelessness' latest Point-in-Time-Count data show there were 3,200 people living unsheltered in San Diego in January.

Navy veteran Christopher Zamora said he has been homeless in San Diego for a few years.


“This enforcement thing isn’t going to help nothing because we spend all of our time moving our stuff around. The little bit of stuff that we have — still do have — we try to protect and they make us move it from here to there with enforcements, twice a week sometimes,” Zamora said.

Janis Wilds, a homeless advocate with Housing 4 the Homeless, also thinks the ordinance won't help.

“A camping ban is not going to house anyone. Housing is what solves homelessness. We know that we don’t have enough of that. We have to build more of it,” Wilds said. “We need to have a more humane way to help people on the street other than criminalization which is fiscally irresponsible.”

The city said unsheltered residents who accept a shelter bed will be transported to the shelter through a coordinated effort between police and homeless outreach organizations.

But Wilds said the shelters cannot accommodate the needs of some seniors, disabled or medically fragile people.

“People will be physically and mentally harmed by this. Think of having to be a nomad in your own city, carting all your things with you in 80 degree heat with nowhere to stop because anywhere you stop you could be cited for encroachment or the camping ban,” Wilds said.  

Earlier this month the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to rehear a case involving a camping ban in the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, that a lower court judge had found to be unconstitutional for violating the Eighth Amendment which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

Legal analyst Dan Eaton, a partner with the San Diego law firm Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek, said one outstanding question is whether San Diego’s ordinance is different enough from the ordinance in Grants Pass to be considered constitutional.

“I expect that the day the ordinance actually goes into effect — and certainly no later than the first time any attempt is made to enforce the ordinance — there will be a complaint filed in San Diego Federal Court,” Eaton said.

Whitburn said he believes the city's ordinance is on strong legal footing.

“In the most recent case, it had to do with individuals living outdoors with just a minimal amount of bedding like a sleeping bag,” Whitburn said. “Our ordinance deals with people who have entire tents, encampments that are blocking sidewalks or in the parks or in the canyons. That's a different situation and a different sort of response is authorized, and, we believe, perfectly defensible under the law.”