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Proposed encampment ban could drastically impact San Diego homeless

 April 11, 2023 at 4:46 PM PDT

S1: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm wearing. CAVANAUGH Just before the Padres home opener , the city did a sweep of homeless encampments in the East Village area. Cracking down on tent cities before big events is not unusual. But an ordinance being proposed at the San Diego City Council could extend that crack down citywide and permanently. The new law would ban camping on public property when shelter options are available and bar encampments at all times within two blocks of schools and shelters and parks and along trolley tracks. Since the growing number of unsheltered people in tents and encampments is really one of the most talked about issues in San Diego , we decided to ask our listeners what they think about this new plan. And here to listen to those comments is San Diego City Council member Stephen Whitburn. He's the one who's introducing the plan to ban encampments. Councilman Whitburn , welcome to the program.

S2: Thank you , Maureen. It's great to be with you.


S2: It is a humanitarian crisis and it is of concern to the surrounding neighborhoods. As a matter of public health and safety , we need to ensure that when there are options for people to go into shelter or housing or other areas that are better , that we don't have encampments. The encampments are a risk of public health and safety , both to the people who are living in them and the surrounding area for the people who are currently living in encampments. A couple of years ago , we saw a car jump the curb near City College and hit an encampment and three people died. Several others were injured. We've seen people die from hepatitis and be sickened by shigella. We've had random stabbings and other attacks on the unsheltered population and for the surrounding communities , there are hazards as well. We've had many incidents of unsheltered folks living in the canyons who have lit fires to keep warm or to start fire to cook , and those fires get out of control and they go up the canyon slopes and threaten homes and property. We have had children walking to school who are blocked by an encampment on the sidewalk , and they have to go out into the street to get around. And of course , there's a feeling of insecurity by many people residents , business customers , visitors to San Diego with the encampments as they are in many places. So there are any number of reasons why I think it's perfectly reasonable to say that if we have a better place for somebody to be , then we shouldn't have an encampment on the sidewalk or other public area.


S2: First of all , ideally , any time that you have an interaction with somebody who is living in an encampment that starts with a nonprofit social services provider , they are the ones who are best equipped to form a relationship with someone , connect them to services and encourage them to take advantage of the services that are available. We always want to start there and we always do. If we have services for somebody and are trying to connect somebody to services , but they decline , then it is appropriate to have an officer make contact with that individual. Start by providing services. If the individual declines , even though there are better options available , then the officer can issue a warning if the person remains there , despite the fact that there are better options , then the officer could again offer shelter. If the person declines a second time , then issue a citation for an infraction and if the person continues to stay there , at some point that officer can again offer shelter. But if the declining of those better options continues and the person simply says that they're just going to stay put in spite of the fact that there are better options , then the officer can make a custodial arrest at that point and try to get that person into a better place.


S2: But typically , you would want at least a couple of few days in between those interactions. So we would want some time for a person to consider their options and take advantage of them.

S1: Let's go to one of our listener comments. Our listener , Megan O'Neill , echoed a lot of the comments that we received. She says she supports the ban but has concerns about the unhoused. Her comment is , quote , I do , but they all must be treated with respect and we need to offer a wide range of shelter opportunities to meet their immediate needs , unquote. Now , we know that San Diego doesn't have enough shelter beds to house all the unsheltered people in the city.

S2: We absolutely need to ensure that there are more options and better options for the unhoused population. Ultimately , the solution to homelessness is providing more housing that is more affordable to more people. We are currently working very hard to build more affordable income , restricted housing , but that takes time. And in the meantime we need to have adequate shelter. Over the last couple of years , we've added hundreds of beds of shelter downtown alone. We've added two shelters specifically for women. We've added one specifically for older people. We've expanded a shelter for young people. But that is still not enough. We still have a waiting list of people who want to get into shelter , so we need to continue adding shelter beds. Even then , there are some people who don't want to be on the streets or in the parks or the canyons or the river beds , but who also don't want to be in a congregate shelter. And we need options for them as well. One of those options could be non congregate shelter , such as the older hotels that the city has purchased with state funding that allows people to stay in a room. Also , I'm bringing forward an initiative called Safe Sleeping , and that is where for people who want to remain outdoors , we create a safe sleeping site , a large parking lot , screen it off for privacy , make sure that there is security there , restrooms in there. They are provided with meals and connections to services. It's a stabilizing place for folks that also helps to clear the encampments from the surrounding neighborhood. We absolutely need all of these different options so that we can ensure that people can get back on their feet.

S1: Now , another common response we got from listeners mentioned the high cost of housing in San Diego. Here's one from KB Cole. Kishore , it starts , quote , inadequate wages and obscene rental costs. We are looking at symptoms and not causes. I don't see any leaders facing this problem , unquote.

S2: San Diego is arguably the least affordable city in the nation. When you look at the percentage of people's incomes that they spend on rent and that percentage has gone up and up and up over the years , for some people , that means they have to tighten their belt , but for others it becomes completely unworkable and people are simply unable to afford their apartments anymore. And in some cases , folks will live with friends. In other cases they'll live in their car. And then when those options become unavailable , they end up living on the street. We need to create more affordable housing and we are in the process of doing that. And I believe that that affordable housing needs to be deeply affordable income , restricted housing that is available to those who most need it.


S2: That is something that the city of San Diego has started as a pilot project. The county of San Diego has something similar , and the way that works is when somebody is struggling to pay their rent , the local government can provide , in some cases , 200 , 300 up to $500 to help them make up the difference between what they have available and the rent that they have to pay. It is much more humane and much more cost effective for us to help somebody stay in their own apartment than it is to have somebody fall into homelessness and then have to spend tens of thousands of dollars trying to get that individual back into a home. The problem we're seeing right now is that we have more people falling into homelessness than we are getting into shelter and to other situations. It is not that we're not getting people into shelter. We're getting hundreds and hundreds of people into shelter and housing and other situations. But for every ten people that we get off the streets and into a better place , we're having 13 people fall into homelessness. So absolutely , we need to build more housing so that we are able to stop that from happening. The only solution to homelessness is prevention of homelessness. But in the meantime , for the people who have fallen into homelessness , we need better solutions for them as well.

S1: Another listener , James Zinger , said this , quote , I would love to see a ban on camping in public places. As a resident of downtown San Diego , I , like many others , have compassion fatigue , unquote. I'm wondering , Councilman , have you heard similar sentiments from constituents ? Yes.

S2: I represent what I believe to be an extraordinarily compassionate district , a people who care deeply about ensuring that everybody has opportunity and that those who are currently on the streets are able to get into a better situation. However , people are very frustrated with what they see right now and the challenges that it is posing for their neighborhoods. We have many people who simply feel unsafe and that is due to the fact that we've had canyon fires. We've had random incidents. People are walking out into the streets to get around encampments. All of these created environment that people are very frustrated with and people believe that there have to be better solutions than what is currently occurring. And I believe that there are I am not one of those folks who believes that the situation is hopeless. It is not. We can turn this around. And I think that by providing more options for people who are currently unsheltered and then also ensuring that they take advantage of those options , we will be able to come to realize the city that we all know it can be.

S1: Listener David Crumb told us , quote , Banning homelessness is a child's solution to a complex problem. Grow up , read and research to find solutions for homeless and residents , unquote. Now , a lot of experts asked. Surely agree with Mr. Krum about enforcement being the wrong way to go to find a solution for homelessness.

S2: There is no way to ban homelessness. We need to do everything that we can to prevent homelessness. But once somebody falls into homelessness , I believe that we have a moral obligation to do everything that we can to help them get into another place. What my ordinance would do would be to prohibit encampments tent like structures in public places when we do have a better place for somebody to go. I think that's reasonable , and I think most people would find that reasonable.

S1: But in the end , it would force someone who doesn't want to go into a shelter either to go into a shelter or go to jail. Right.

S2: We believe that if we have housing available for somebody's shelter , available for somebody congregate or non congregate , we have safe sleeping availability for somebody. If somebody is currently particularly consider the safe sleeping option , if somebody is currently sleeping on the sidewalk outdoors and we offer them another place to have a tent outdoors that is not on the sidewalk blocking anybody , that is not in a canyon , threatening fires , that is simply in a more secure place. Why wouldn't we believe that it is reasonable to ask that person to take advantage of that ? It's better and more stable for them. It's safer for them and it's better for the surrounding neighborhood. I think it's very reasonable to ask somebody to essentially move their encampment to a safer place that's better for them and for the neighborhood.

S1: Now , we also heard from a few people who said that they were experiencing homelessness. Here's what Catherine Lancaster had to say. She says she does not agree with the encampment ban. And this is a quote , No , I am homeless. I have been for over 25 years. The last two years I've had a van. Prior to that , I've been in canyons , parks , bathroom , unquote. I'm wondering , did you speak to any members of San Diego's unhoused population before proposing this camping ban ? Absolutely.

S2: And in fact , some of this is a response to the people that I did speak to who are living outdoors during the point in time count , for instance , where local governments count the number of people who are unsheltered and report that to the federal government. I spoke to a number of individuals. I spoke to individuals who are outdoors but who want to move into shelter. I spoke to individuals who want to move into shelter or who don't want to move into shelter , but would move into a safe sleeping site. I believe that many , many people who are currently living outdoors do want to go into shelter , housing or a safe sleeping site. This ordinance is for those who , despite having better options , simply choose to remain in the public right of way. And I think as a community , we have a right to expect that if we have a better place , a safer place for somebody to be , that we can say that having an encampment tent on a sidewalk is not appropriate.


S2: One of the reasons is some people feel uncomfortable being an enclosed space with that many different people. We've had folks who've been concerned about COVID 19 in a place like that. We have had some folks who have expressed concerns about their safety or their privacy , and that is one of the reasons why I have been pursuing the safe sleeping model , because for those folks who are unsheltered and don't want to go into a congregate shelter , we need something for them to and having an outdoor space that is sanctioned where people can be , I think will be much preferable to them than having them be in a shelter. So that is partly a response to what we've heard. And and I hope that people will take advantage of that. Okay.

S1: Okay. I've been speaking with San Diego City Council member Stephen Whitburn. Councilman Whitburn , thank you so much for speaking with us and listening to our listener comments.

S2: Maureen , thank you very much and thank you to the listeners for the engagement , the good questions that I hope that my answers have helped to answer some of those questions.

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Homeless people stand in front of their make-shift shelters on 17th Street in San Diego's East Village, June 28, 2016.
Susan Murphy
Homeless people stand in front of their make-shift shelters on 17th Street in San Diego's East Village, June 28, 2016.

A proposed ban on camping on public property would effectively criminalize homeless encampments in many parts of the city. While many are calling it a radical proposal, the councilmember behind the measure says that action must be taken.


Stephen Whitburn, San Diego City Councilmember