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Supreme Court ruling solidifies city encampment bans

 July 3, 2024 at 1:03 PM PDT

S1: Welcome. In San Diego , it's Jade Hindman. On today's show , we're talking about the Supreme Court's ruling on encampment bans and what the effect might be here in San Diego County. This is midday edition , connecting our communities through conversation. On Friday , the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Grants Pass , Oregon , arguing that the city's ban on people sleeping in public spaces does not amount to cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling solidifies the city of San Diego's encampment ban , and opens the door for more local communities to implement their own versions. Some already have , as Candido just passed a camping ban last week. Here to talk more about the verdict and what it means for the San Diego region is Lisa Halberstadt , who covers homelessness for Voice of San Diego. Lisa , welcome back to Midday Edition.

S2: Thanks for having me again.

S1: So glad you're here. So the city of San Diego implemented its encampment ban a little over a year ago.



S2: Um , however , the city of San Diego , for now , seems to be sticking with this model of offering shelter in most instances before it issues a ticket or makes an arrest. Mhm.


S2: Um , what I can say is that the large scale camps that people might have seen downtown are less visible , and there's a business group that does a monthly census , and those numbers have come down significantly when we're looking at the number of unsheltered people downtown. But there are people and tents that are popping up more on state land near freeways , um , and also on the outskirts of downtown and along the San Diego River. I think it's important to remember that homeless people need to be somewhere , whether that's in a shelter or on the street. They don't just cease to exist. And there is a lot of confusion about where , um , some of the people that may have been staying downtown have gone. Certainly some of them have gone to safe sleeping sites or shelters , but others , it's unclear where they've gone. Bottom line , though , homelessness has not dramatically decreased in the city of San Diego. In fact , it increased a little bit in this latest point in time count this year. And that's even as the city has worked to add more shelter options , including those safe sleeping sites that it opened alongside the start of the camping ban.

S1: Well , after the ruling was announced , KPBS spoke with San Diego City Council member Stephen Whitburn , who first introduced the encampment ban last year. Here's a little of what he had to say.

S3: Grants pass ruling opens a lot of doors to cities across the West Coast , and it could open doors for the city of San Diego if we wanted stricter regulations. I think the regulations that we have in place now have begun to be effective , and I think that we should continue on with those.

S1: Very interesting. Also interesting. Um , that he mentioned the possibility of stricter regulations.

S2: Um , but I had some conversations with Mayor Todd Gloria's office and the city attorney's office on Friday. And what they told me is that they see the Grants Pass ruling is really a validation of their approach. Um , and they're not really planning on , um , a big strategy change on homelessness as a result of this ruling. They also , um , specifically Todd Gloria's office said that they are not planning to slow down their efforts to add more shelter beds. Um , Gloria's office did tell me there was going to be a meeting with the police chief and the city attorney's office to discuss whether changes were warranted , but they initially were not foreseeing any big changes to their homelessness response.

S4: What's been the.

S1: Response from advocates for those experiencing homelessness that you've spoke to since the ruling was announced.

S2: I would say they are very concerned and also on guard. Um , on Friday I spoke with Scott Dreyer , um , who is an attorney who's negotiated a handful of settlements that really , uh , control how the city addresses homelessness enforcement. And he emphasized to me that the Grants Pass ruling does not limit other constitutional challenges to various homelessness related enforcement practices. Um , but Dreher said he fears that the city of San Diego and other municipalities in the region might crack down more on homeless residents. And he says he's going to be watching very closely to see what happens next. Hmm.

S5: Hmm.

S1: You've been reporting on the city's encampment band since they first started considering it.

S2: Um , and also the specific areas that the city has targeted , uh , have not expanded much beyond , um , parks and near schools initially , even though there are other areas that they can cite or make arrests if people are staying in those areas , even if there's not shelter available. Um , but really , what has throttled this enforcement and throttles all enforcement tied to homelessness is that the city doesn't have a significant number of open shelter beds every day. Um , and there is a process that the police and the city , um , follow when it comes to shelter offers before they , um , ticket someone. Um , now , the mayor's office has said that there has been lots of voluntary compliance with the new rules. And so that's one reason they're saying some of the enforcement numbers are lower than I think folks might have thought. Um , but I've also had conversations with service providers and outreach workers who say that a lot of times , these folks that , you know , the mayor's office is talking about , um , or just moving elsewhere rather than moving in to shelter , um , and sometimes I know , um , nonprofits that work with homeless San Diegans have said they've sometimes lost contact with people that they're trying to help , um , and question whether that has something to do with camping ban or other enforcement. Mhm.

S5: Mhm.

S1: Well , I know that that council member Whitburn sees the camping ban as a success here in San Diego.

S2: So does Mayor Gloria. Um , but others on the city council have a lot of questions about this , as do a lot of people who work in homeless services. Um , what I would say is that there just has really not been an in-depth study of the impacts of this , despite a request by Council Member Joe LaCava who requested one. Um , at the time that the city Council voted this ordinance in last year. Um , so I've been thinking that it may be time for some journalists like me to really pursue some deep dives of our own on what the holistic impacts of this have been. Um , for now , I would say , uh , folks are pretty divided in terms of their thoughts on it. Um , some , uh , neighborhoods have said that they're seeing more , uh , homelessness , um , than they did before the camping ban , seeing homeless people pop up , maybe in areas that they weren't before. Um , but the mayor and council member Whitburn have really had this as a success.

S1: This is KPBS Midday Edition. We're back after the break. Welcome back to KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman , continuing our conversation on the Supreme Court's ruling on encampment bans and the impact for San Diego County. And I want to zoom out a little bit here and talk about what advocates might be thinking. You know , given the Supreme Court's ruling on this. Um , is there any concern that homelessness and poverty will be criminalized , given that there is no stipulation that cities provide shelter for homelessness , just that there is an encampment ban ? Um , and there's the potential for being cited or arrested.

S2: Oh , I would say there's a lot of concern , um , across the country about this right now among advocates. Um , and , you know , some are trying to actually mobilize and , and discuss , uh , how to respond to this. Um , and certainly advocates locally are pretty concerned as well. Um , but we're still kind of waiting to see how this all shakes out. I think it's important to remember , um , you know , that with a lot of these policies , there are ordinances that will need to be discussed before , uh , a city in particular , the city of San Diego. If it wanted to change its camping ban , um , it would need to have a public discussion to amend its ordinance. Um , and also , you know , I referenced Scott Dreyer , the attorney who has negotiated a number of settlements with the city of San Diego. There are settlements in place that really dictate how the city pursues homelessness related enforcement. Um , and those things would have to be amended to make changes in the city of San Diego. Hmm.

S1: I want to dig into that more.

S2: What I can say is that often these are low level offenses. And so , um , sometimes the police are just giving a ticket to somebody that comes with a fine. Um , and when people are arrested just because of the volume of people coming into jails , uh , you know , I think this is probably , um , leveled out a bit since I last checked on it during Covid. But a lot of times people aren't spending a great deal of time in jail for these violations. Um , and so the thing is that maybe somebody moves off the street for a short period of time , um , while they're in jail. Uh , though I don't think anyone would argue that jail is is a superior place for someone to be Necessarily. But then they move right back onto the street. Um , maybe in the exact same spot that they were before. So enforcement isn't necessarily a sustainable solution. Um , some who are proponents of it would say that sometimes it does push people to say yes to services , um , maybe to agree to go to a shelter or safe sleeping site. But often those places aren't available for people that want them , let alone for people that are being offered them. There may not be a resource that works for them.

S1: And as we know , the jail is already plagued with a number of issues , including jail deaths. But I want to move on. The city's encampment ban is part of the city's policy of this progressive enforcement model. Can you talk more about that and what it entails ? I mean. I mean , it includes much more than the encampment ban itself , right ? Yes.

S2: So to start , we'll start with the camping ban. So the camping ban formally codified what the city calls its progressive enforcement model , which is essentially that police have a process of offering shelter , um , in encounters where there is homelessness related enforcement. So specifically with the camping ban , they're offering shelter the first time that they encounter somebody and give them a warning. Second time they encounter that person , they're offering shelter. Again. If the person doesn't accept , they may receive a misdemeanor citation. And then on that third encounter , if the person still refusing the shelter offer , then they might be arrested at that point. But the penalty increases upon further encounters. And there's always a shelter. Mhm. Um , this isn't this approach isn't a new thing for the city. Um , the city has followed this model , uh , with other uh , enforcement mechanisms that's had , um , the encroachment ordinance , which means basically blocking a sidewalk , illegal lodging , which is setting up a tent or other structure without permission. They're also using the progressive enforcement model for these approaches. And in fact , when it comes to illegal lodging , Scott Dreyer , the attorney I mentioned earlier , actually negotiated a settlement that really laid out this progressive enforcement model. And to change these settlements would require a judge's approval. So the city can't just change these on its own without getting signoff from a judge.

S1: Well , the county has considered implementing its own version of the encampment ban as our other cities in the region I mentioned earlier , Escondido just passed one last week.

S2: So this means when they tell folks to move on , there often aren't other options. And and this actually even remains a problem in San Diego. The city of San Diego , even though it now has hundreds of shelter beds , um , under the prior Martin versus Boise case that preceded the Supreme Court Grants Pass ruling , uh , the lack of shelter beds typically throttled these crackdowns on homeless camps and ordinances like the ones we're talking about. But under Grants Pass , cities will not have to worry as much about these shelter offerings unless there's a political issue there. Um , I think that's important to talk about because a lot of times , um , you know , in some of these communities there may be more concern about , you know , more draconian enforcement approaches without having places for people to go. Um , and the political environment is different and in some other cities in the county. But I think the thing that I'm thinking about a lot is how the Grants Pass ruling could really impact some of the newer bands going forward. Um , policies that haven't been publicly crafted yet , um , or those that , um , are new , such as the Escondido camping ban , um , that the city council there passed last week. They were already signaling last week , as they were voting on the ban that they might modify their ban , which is for now pretty similar to the city of San Diego's. Um , but they were , you know , looking ahead to the Grants Pass ruling. Um , so I think there's still a lot to be determined about how cities and the county address , how they want to , you know , enforce , um , different situations tied to homelessness under this new reality and what they find to be politically palatable. Wow.

S1: Wow. Well , as always , you just really lay out the scenario for us. Great reporting. Before I let you go , I wanted to say congratulations , because you were recently selected as journalist of the year from San Diego Society of Professional Journalists for your coverage on homelessness.

S2: But I will say , you know what I what I take from it , Jade , is that , um , the stories I do about homelessness and our behavioral health crisis and our housing crisis matter. Um , and you know , that that work is often very hard to tell these stories. Um , you're often seeing a lot of tough things , and these are very heated issues. Um , but it tells me that that work matters , and I've got a lot more work ahead of me.

S1: All right. Well , thanks as always. Lisa Halberstadt is a senior investigative journalist with Voice of San Diego. Lisa , thanks for your time today.

S2: Thank you. Jade.

S1: That's our show for today. I'm your host , Jade Hindman. Thanks for tuning in to Midday Edition. Be sure to have a great day on purpose , everyone.

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A street in downtown San Diego with homeless tents on both sides is shown in this undated photo.
A street in downtown San Diego with tents on both sides is shown in this undated photo.

On Friday, June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Grants Pass, Oregon, arguing that the city’s ban on people sleeping in public spaces does not amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

The ruling cinches the city of San Diego’s encampment ban and opens the door for more local communities to implement their own versions.

Lisa Halverstadt, a reporter who covers homelessness, joins Midday Edition Wednesday to discuss the local impacts of this national decision.


Lisa Halverstadt, senior investigative reporter, Voice of San Diego