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San Diego Police Increase Ticketing Of The Homeless During The Pandemic

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The uptick in enforcement has happened as Mayor Kevin Faulconer repeatedly tells the public the city’s approach toward the unsheltered homeless is more about encouragement than enforcement.

Speaker 1: 00:00 With no conventions being held. City leaders have transformed the San Diego convention center downtown into a vast shelter for the homeless. At the same time, San Diego police have issued more than twice as many citations to those living on the street as they did at this time last year. Joining me to explain this is reporter Cody Delaney with KPBS news partner. I knew source Cody, welcome to midday edition.

Speaker 2: 00:25 Hey, thanks for having me.

Speaker 1: 00:27 Well, let's start with how big of an increase there's been in San Diego police citations to homeless people and what infractions are they ticketing?

Speaker 2: 00:35 Yeah, so there's three infractions that generally target the homeless population. You have vehicle habitation, people sleeping and living in their cars, uh, encroachment or blocking a sidewalk and illegal lodging, which is often used for people sleeping in front of a home or a business. I knew source obtained data that shows tickets for illegal lodging have more than doubled during the pandemic compared to the same time last year. And tickets for blocking a sidewalk and living in a vehicle are also up as well.

Speaker 1: 01:08 And what is the police department's purpose in ticketing the homeless, safer blocking the sidewalk.

Speaker 2: 01:14 Police say they are only ticketing people who refuse to move along. Um, and I talked to police captain Scott Wall for the story and he said the goal of ticketing is to gain compliance, you know, get people to move along, quit blocking a sidewalk or take advantage of available resources such as, you know, safe parking lots for people who are sleeping in a car or the convention center for those who are sleeping on the streets. Um, but the department has also started holding tickets and not filing for people who agreed, agree to take help. So for those people who agreed to take help, it, it won't even show up on the record. Police say

Speaker 1: 01:51 now the mayor has been asked about the citations at the daily press briefings more than once. What does Kevin Faulkner have to say about it?

Speaker 2: 01:59 Yeah, reporters have asked mayor Faulkner directly about this issue at least four times and he's largely avoided answering the question. Uh, instead he repeats the same message that the city's approach to the unsheltered homeless population is about encouragement to seek help, encouragement to get them off the streets. And it's not about enforcement,

Speaker 1: 02:19 but the idea from the beginning of the pandemic and the, and the lockdown a few months back was of course to keep the number of deaths down among this population. And, uh, and of course the number of cases,

Speaker 2: 02:31 the goal for opening the convention center was to increase the number of people that homeless service providers can help and also increase social distancing requirements, right. For these homeless shelters, the state mandates a minimum of three feet. Uh, you go into the convention center there, there's a space that there's hundreds of cots that are spaced about six feet apart. So it was to increase the number of people they can serve and also meet the, meet the state mandates for distancing and homeless shelters.

Speaker 1: 03:03 What do homeless people have to say about the police issuing so many citations for illegal lodging? Now there there's different opinions there, right?

Speaker 2: 03:11 Yeah. Um, I've talked to people who flat out don't see the, don't see the point. Uh, they, they think it's, you know, adding insult to injury, they don't have anywhere else to go. Uh, and you're just piling on top of them. And then I've, I've talked to other people who are struggling with drugs and alcohol addictions and they understand that while they are part of the problem, part of the eyesore as they call it, they do what they can to keep to themselves, not cause any problems. And uh, but they understand, they understand the police have a job to do and they understand that they are an obstacle and getting people off the streets. So it's, it's an interesting dichotomy.

Speaker 1: 03:52 And what are the regulations regarding sleeping on the streets? I mean, people are down there sleeping every night. Uh, but there's a time restriction. Right?

Speaker 2: 04:01 Right. Yeah. And that, that comes down to illegal lodging that I talked about previously, or sleeping in front of a home or a business. There was an agreement reached in 2011 and a lawsuit against the city brought on behalf of homeless people. And that agreement allows people to sleep on the sidewalks between 9:00 PM and 5:30 AM and generally avoid illegal lodging tickets and yeah, come five-thirty police are going through the East village of downtown waking people up, telling them to get moving. And I actually saw this on one early morning drive I took to observe police interactions. I witnessed an officer park in front of somebody at 5:29 AM and one minute later the officer was out of the car nudging the person awake. And this happens despite guidelines from the centers of disease control and prevention that say people should be allowed to stay where they are during the pandemic unless individual housing can be provided. But when you talk to police, they say, look, we can't allow people to live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. We saw what happened in 2017 with the hepatitis a outbreak. So from the police perspective, they, they've got to get people moving. They can't let these encampments build up. It's unsafe and unsanitary.

Speaker 1: 05:13 Now the convention center, it's a pretty big place. How many homeless people are sheltered there now? And how is it organized to provide for the homeless during this crisis?

Speaker 2: 05:22 Yeah, the number of people who were sheltered at the convention center changes day to day people come, people go. But right now there's right around 1200 people sheltering there every night. Um, and three of the city's largest homeless service providers are operating at the convention center. You have alpha project, father Joe's villages and veterans village of San Diego, and each has control of their own area. Uh, you have breakfast, lunch and dinner served daily. And I was actually given a tour of the alpha project side. And on that side they have hundreds of cots, as I mentioned, each of them spaced out about six feet apart on one side of the room. And then on the other side of this giant room, you have tables for people to eat and watch TV. Uh, and they even have trailers hauled into the loading bays for people to take showers and wash their clothes. So it's a, it's a very big operation they have going on over there.

Speaker 1: 06:19 And yet you've talked to some people who really don't want to stay in the convention center. What's their complaint about it?

Speaker 2: 06:25 Yeah, so I had a chance to talk to the alpha project CEO about this issue and you know, they, they closed the doors every night at eight o'clock lights out at 11 and you know, if you talk to some of the people who are struggling with drug and alcohol issues on the streets, making sure that they get what they need before doors closed would be at the top of their mind. And yeah, the alpha project said dealing with that is an issue and they are having to search people's belongings. If there's a suspicion of drug use and giving people an option, if anything is found, Hey, you can stay, but we take the drugs from you or you can leave and you can keep your drugs. So that, that has been an issue.

Speaker 1: 07:09 What does it cost the city to run this operation at the convention center?

Speaker 2: 07:13 Right now. What I've been told is it's costing about two point $7 million per month just to operate the convention center as a homeless shelter.

Speaker 1: 07:24 I'd been speaking with, I knew source reporter Cody Delaney. Thanks very much, Cody. Thank you again for having me.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.