Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

Advocate Wages Social Media Campaign Against San Diego's Homeless Enforcement

Matthew Bowler
San Diego Police officers talk to a man sitting beside his makeshift shelter on National Avenue, April 12, 2017.

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series. Here are parts two and three.

Just after sunrise, police with ticket books in hand descended on a row of tents and tarps sprawled out at the edge of downtown. The 6:30 a.m. wake-up call was no surprise to the dozen homeless people hunkered against the green construction fence near the trolley tracks on National Avenue and 16th Street. They had been forced out of their ragged shelters on surrounding streets several times before.

“It makes me feel like we’re pieces of cattle,” said Lawell Brooks, as she dismantled her tent and collected her clothes and belongings.


“Very stressful, extremely stressful,” said Amber Logan, loading up her grocery cart, while police watched.

Brooks, Logan and the others knew they were supposed to pack up and move off the cracked and dirty sidewalk a half hour ago. The city only allows people to sleep in public spaces from 9 at night to 6 in the morning. Now, they faced more citations, stay-away orders — even arrests.

“You’ll see a process,” advocate Michael McConnell explained, standing across the street on this recent Wednesday. “Someone gets arrested, the property is impounded, often times they’re in jail for three days if they can’t make bail.”

Matthew Bowler
San Diego Police clear homeless encampments on National Avenue, April 12, 2017.

McConnell, an East Village resident and small business owner, starts most of his mornings observing police encampment enforcement.


“I’ve seen where this is a failed effort in cities across the country. And I hate to see us go down that same failed path,” he said. “We’re filling up our county jail beds, using our county jail as an emergency shelter for people.”

McConnell does not blame police for the weary cycle that he calls “criminalizing the homeless.” His finger is pointed at city leaders who make the policy decisions. Still, the police seemed unenthused at his recurring presence and warned him to keep his distance.

“So they target me simply because I’m documenting what the city is doing,” McConnell said, aiming the camera lens at himself. “This is going on every day on the streets of San Diego.”

Matthew Bowler
Advocate Michael McConnell holds up his video camera to record San Diego police clearing a homeless encampment on National Avenue, April 12, 2017.

McConnell has lived in San Diego for 20 years. He collects and analyzes data on homeless people in a search for ways to help them. It is his passion, he said. He also travels the country to see what is working in other cities, and serves on multiple homeless advisory committees — all unpaid roles. He knows nearly everybody on the streets by name, and they know him.

“The emotional toll is great sometimes,” McConnell said. “And I see some horrific stories, I see how people are being dehumanized. But I also see some amazing stories of strength and courage.”

He posts his video footage and commentary on his Facebook page, Homelessness News San Diego, to show his 22,000 followers what he thinks works and what does not in solving homelessness.

“And building up a story, a narrative of what’s going on. What’s unwinding on the streets,” McConnell said. “This battle between the city and people experiencing the crisis of homelessness.”

Lawell Brooks moved to San Diego from Florida four years ago. On this day she got a warning. But she said her last encounter with police landed her in jail for three days on charges of encroachment — blocking the sidewalk with her tent.

“I had no record until now — misdemeanor encroachment,” Brooks said. “To me, homelessness shouldn’t be a crime. And you arrest me because I’m homeless?”

Amber Logan, a San Diego native, had a similar story: jailed for encroachment and illegal lodging. When Logan got out of jail a few weeks ago, she said she was left with a stay-away order that included places she relied on for food and services.

“Which involved St. Vincent, Neil Good, the library, the trolley station, my job,” Logan said.

McConnell said the aggressive enforcement is uncompassionate and a waste of money, time and resources that could instead be used toward homeless services and housing.

“This is somehow meant to help with this issue and it’s just not,” he said.

The issue is a staggering number of homeless living on the streets of downtown and the city’s struggle to manage the needy population. Permanent supportive housing to accommodate them is nearly non-existent. And many homeless people are choosing not to stay in emergency shelters because of strict rules.

Advocate Wages Social Media Campaign Against San Diego’s Homeless Enforcement

So the desperate population, many with dazed eyes and overstuffed carts, have pitched tents and handmade structures that consume entire city blocks. Their trash and hoards of belongings spill out onto the streets.

McConnell claimed when police clear a section of a street, it just pushes people to a different street.

“It’s moving people, literally, block by block by block,” he said.

City leaders have vowed to tackle the homeless crisis this year. McConnell hopes the plans include policy changes to police procedures so the city’s poorest residents can be treated with dignity and respect.

“I’m going to stay on the beat,” he said. “I’m going to beat the drum and educate as many people as I can about what not to do, and what to do.”

Advocate Wages Social Media Campaign Against San Diego's Homeless Enforcement
Homelessness is swelling in downtown San Diego, and some of the 1,300 people sleeping in tents on city sidewalks are finding themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Corrected: January 29, 2023 at 11:43 AM PST
In part two of our series, we talk to the assistant police chief in charge of dealing with the growing population of homeless people.