Policing San Diego Homeless Is Much More Than Citations, Says Assistant Police Chief
San Diego police have a lead role in managing downtown’s soaring homeless population, and when it comes to policing the hundreds of men and women living in tents and extensive handmade structures, Assistant Police Chief Chuck Kaye said it is not just about tickets and arrests.
“It’s a very complicated problem and the response has to be equally sophisticated,” said Kaye, a 26-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department who oversees neighborhood policing, including the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT).
“We’re all about the compassionate enforcement side,” Kaye said. “We’re not going down and getting the, 'I got you, you’re in your tent.' It’s a warning. It’s a, ‘Hey can you pick up? Can you get moving along? Would you like some services? Is there a place we can take you?' ”
Nearly 1,300 people in downtown sleep on the streets — a 27 percent increase over last year, according to the latest census by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. The number of tents and hand-built structures lining East Village sidewalks has doubled.
“When you look at the population you can see that there are people who suffer from drug or alcohol dependency, or both,” Kaye said. “There’s a portion of the population that also are faced with debilitating mental illness issues of various degrees. And then there are of course people, part of the population, coming out of the prison system that are not finding a safety net to get up and out of the street.”
Kaye said calls for service regarding people experiencing a mental crisis have risen more than 100 percent.
“That is why we strive very hard to tailor approaches down here for particular populations,” he explained, “so that we are de-escalating issues and getting people connected with the services they need.”
Some cases are simply heartbreaking, Kaye said.
“The one thing about our approach, and we are a piece of the pie when it comes to impacting the problem, is that we recognize that it’s the repeated contact, it’s the small wins,” Kaye said.
Last year, the Homeless Outreach Team moved nearly 800 people off the streets and into services, according to SDPD. Kaye said the team deploys daily, working to link people to shelter and social services, but convincing some to accept help can be challenging.
“Not everybody down here is raising their hand saying, “Yeah, I want to get a bed placement,’” he said.
The Regional Task Force report shows a growing number of people are choosing a tent over a shelter bed. The number of people staying in shelters dropped 6 percent over last year despite vacancies. Some of the reasons include strict shelter rules, such as not being able to bring pets or grocery carts filled with belongings.
“But those that choose to camp out, and I hope you saw the extensive structures they construct,” Kaye said,“it’s not just about blocking the sidewalk, but you’ve got to think about sanitation issues.”
The city, with the assistance of police, stepped up efforts starting in March 2016 to clean up the hoards of trash and debris overflowing from sprawling encampments. The weekly sweeps net an average of 7 tons of waste, a city spokesperson said. The cleanups force people to clear their belongings from the sidewalk or risk losing it, or receiving citations. The effort is seen by some advocates as criminalizing the homeless and pushing them from downtown.
“That’s a frustrating characterization,” Kaye said. “Homelessness is not a crime.”
But laws have to be followed, he added.
“There are things that come out of the population because of drugs, alcohol, quality of life crimes, and mental illness issues that require a certain approach from the police department and it’s not all about tickets,” Kaye said.
People who repeatedly turn down offers for assistance and ignore warnings face progressive enforcement, including tickets, stay-away orders and arrests.
People who pack up their tents and move off the sidewalk during daytime hours, and are not associated with other crimes, never deal with police officers, Kaye said.
“There’s wide-ranging discussion out there about what constitutes a crime, and if you’re homeless, there are some people to go so far as to believe it’s okay to defecate in public, it’s okay to urinate in public,” Kaye said. “We have a requirement, an obligation for safety, sanitation as a city."
One of the most common offenses is encroachment — blocking the sidewalk or street. The city allows people to sleep in tents on sidewalks and certain other public areas from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Outside of those hours, it is illegal, whether it is to pitch a tent or park a cart.
Last year, 1,140 encroachment citations and arrests were made in the East Village, according to SDPD. In the first three months of this year, there were 327 encroachment citations and arrests — a slightly higher trend that police said can be attributed to the growing street population.
“We can’t make people choose what’s best for them,” Kaye said.” And some of the population here, if I could get them to choose what’s best for them, then they wouldn’t be out here.”
Kaye said enforcement is driven primarily by complaints from businesses and residents. Police are not displacing people or pushing them to certain corners of the city, he emphasized.
“The reality is if you look across downtown the landscape is changing quite dramatically,” Kaye said. “There’s a lot of building going on, so consequently there are more people moving into residences down here.”
Kaye said police officers naturally strive to be problem solvers, but he does not see a one-size-fits-all solution.
"I’ve got to be honest with you," Kaye said. "As a police officer, I have a lane that I stay in and the other part of this big picture, I’m leaving that up to those folks that have been elected, those folks that are in other positions in social service agencies to identify those best solutions."