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San Diego Revives Vehicle Habitation Ban

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San Diego City Council approves a limited ban on people living in their vehicles, homeless deaths increase by more than 50% in San Diego, and asylum seekers, who are forced to "remain in Mexico," struggle to make it to their court hearings in the United States.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:01 The band is back. Homeless. San Diegans are once again restricted from sleeping in their vehicles on city streets. Why City Council revive the ordinance. Meanwhile, the number of homeless dying on San Diego streets is surging. What help might be coming for our most vulnerable citizens and thousands of asylum seekers are stuck in limbo south of the border waiting for immigration hearings on the US side, their struggles to make it to court. I'm mark Sauer. The KPBS roundtables starts now.

Speaker 2: 00:34 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 00:43 welcome to our discussion of the week. Stop Stories. I'm mark Sauer and joining me at the KPBS round table today report. Matt Hoffman of Kpbs News. Kate Morrissey, who covers immigration for the San Diego Union Tribune and report, or Elisa Halverstadt. Oh, voice of San Diego. Well, that didn't take long. San Diego this week restored a ban on homeless people living in cars on city streets. The action came after a gusher of complaints, mostly from residents and beach areas, and the revive band comes with a caveat. And Matt, let's start there with the new laws. What are the key provisions?

Speaker 3: 01:18 Yeah. So basically it says you can't sleep on your vehicle from 9:00 PM to 6:00 AM in the city of San Diego, um, at any time, within 500 feet of a school or a home. Um, and, uh, there's a number of factors that police are going to use to determine what that, what that can be, what vehicle habitation could be, whether it's sleeping materials, whether it's look of like a temporary residence, um, cooking materials, things like water, food. So police are going to have discretion, uh, to issue these tickets.

Speaker 1: 01:44 Okay. And they're not the, yes. Uh, San Diego Police Department, not really enforcing that. She just yet.

Speaker 3: 01:49 Right, right. Yeah, I spoke to them this morning. They're not enforcing it is just yet it became law on Wednesday morning after the city clerk certified at, sent it back over the mayor's office. SDPD says they're going to go through about a one to two week process of training their officers. They're writing some internal documents and SDPD says their biggest thing is they want to educate people who are living in their vehicles. Um, they say the first time if they approach somebody, they want to tell him about these safe parking lots that they have, they want to try to divert them there. It's all about compliance. And then the second time they would give them like a written warning that first time and then the second time they would be able to issue them a citation if they hadn't gone to the safe parking lot. They're not out there really to write a bunch of tickets and crack down on these folks. Right. Well that's what I PD says. If you talked to people who are homeless advocates, they say that it still leaves it up to discretion and when you leave it up to discretion, they believe that the officer's will issue lots of tickets. All right, and we're going to get into a little on the back and forth on that,

Speaker 1: 02:35 but, uh, these lots that you mentioned, remind us about those we talked about on the show before. Uh, how many, where are they, what's the city

Speaker 3: 02:42 situation and those loans? Yeah, there's currently two safe parking lots, uh, sponsored by the city. They run by Jewish Family Service, a a nonprofit, there's a third one that's going to be opening up in mission valley that'll be able to have our visa as well as cars. Um, and once they have those up and running in addition to some other ones run, run by another nonprofit, they think they'll have between three to 400 spaces for people. Um, at these lots you can do things like their showers. Um, there's hand washing stations, bathrooms, um, and it's really a safe place where people to go to park. Um, they're pretty full right now. I think at the city council meeting they said that there's 30 spaces that were empty, but those are on hold for people who normally used a lots. And give us a little of the backstory.

Speaker 3: 03:18 How did we get here? A federal judge had problems with them. The laws, it was right. So the original one that they had before a federal judge said that was unconstitutionally vague. Um, and so he barged enforcement of that and the city council, when that enforcement wasn't able to happen, they just ultimately voted to repeal it. And then you had married Kevin Faulkner hold a press conference and say, Hey, we're going to bring this back. Um, it's worked its way up to through committee. It made it to city council and they passed it and there may be a another challenge at some point. And of course my weigh in again. Yeah, there may, there may be another challenge. A Mark Kersey asked the city attorney, Effie thinks she thinks it counts member mark curse. He asked if she thinks that the law will hold up in court.

Speaker 3: 03:55 She says she thinks it well. Okay. Now you mentioned the uh, that that scene at City Hall, that meeting that was pretty contentious in a minute. We're going to hear some voices of that but set the scene for us. What was that like? Yeah, so a lot of people came to the council meeting to speak. It was a really long council meeting. There was another item that took a long time. It's like seven hours total. So a lot of people left. A lot of people were still there when they talked about it. There was a good mix of people for and against the band. Uh, you mentioned that people in the beach communities were very vocal about this. There was a lot of people there. They had photos that they were showing of people living in their cars. They say they feel afraid. They don't want to go in bathrooms by the beaches because they seen people using drugs in there. Now those are all anecdotal obviously, and then you had people who are living in their RVs are living in their cars over there saying, hey, this is the only safe place I have to go. That literally keeps me off the streets from being out there in the elements and you had some people saying, if you pass this law, it's going to criminalize homelessness. All right Laura, let's hear a few of those voices. Then from there

Speaker 4: 04:48 and this situation with living in the vans is a problem. My car keeps me safe. My car protects me from having to be on the streets. You are creating a massive free for all that is being taken advantage of by people who are not homeless by circumstance. If you support this ban staff saying you care about the homeless.

Speaker 2: 05:12 Okay.

Speaker 3: 05:13 All right. Now among the council members, supporters of the band though, what did they ever say about it? Um, you know, the, the, the supporters, they say that these safe parking lots like doctor Jen Campbell, council member, Doctor Jen Campbell, she says that the safe parking lots are a place where people can go. They can actually get their services. A lot of the council members who voted for this were, had that same mindset. A brie Carsey, they all said, hey, you know, you go to these slots, you get some services, they can get you out of your situation and get you potentially into a better situation. Whether it's getting benefits, whether it's getting some type of permanent supportive housing. Um, it is worth noting though too, that add these JFS lots. They say that, um, the people who they see the most are people who are first time homeless. So we're talking about people who may have just lost their job, just lost their house, and they're forced to sleep in their vehicles. They're not seeing a lot of people who are chronically homeless who have been homeless, sleeping in their cars for years. So, um, they didn't really get an get into that discussion on the day sees. So it's going to mention to see how that plays out.

Speaker 1: 06:04 And the band did fail to get unanimous support among the council members though. Who, who wanted to council?

Speaker 3: 06:10 Yeah. Monica Montgomery, Georgette Gomez, Chris Ward. They were all opposed to this a Montgomery ward and a Scott Sherman. They issued a memo earlier. They wanted to see some changes. They wanted to look at potential diversion program. Uh, they wanted to have these safe parking lots, you know, make maps where they can easily show where these are, provide more places for safe parking. So they weren't in favor of this, uh, council member, Georgette Gomez says she believed this wasn't ready for prime time and she felt that the council is acting very reactively to this instead of proactively, uh, like addressing these complaints, things like that. They thought that they needed to really look at this a lot more, um, and provide some better services.

Speaker 1: 06:45 Lisa, you've done a lot of reporting and we've talked about various aspects of homelessness on the, on the show. What's your view on the likely impact of this, of this band? No,

Speaker 5: 06:54 well it's really hard to say. Um, one point I would make is this is a population that we really don't know that much about the numbers. We have likely don't capture the size of the population and a lot of these folks really want to be under the radar. They don't want to be found. And so I would imagine just from conversations that I've had with folks living in cars and RVs over time, that there's a lot of fear right now. Will the city as it's promised actually open up additional safe lots to accommodate these folks who may not be able to fit into the, uh, lots that are already in place. Um, and it's not just vehicle habitation that these folks are worried about. There's an oversize vehicle ordinance that folks can get ticketed for. Um, there are other parking violations that they can find tickets on their windows shields for that can really come and cost a lot of money. And lead them to lose their vehicles. So I would guess that there's going to be a lot of fear and the city's implementation of this really matters. I mean, right now we're hearing a lot of promises about how the, the enforcement is going to work about safe lots that will open, but the proof will be in the pudding in any way.

Speaker 1: 08:00 Be on the scope. How many, uh, I know we do the annual one shot census in January and it's problematic. We've talked about that before. But how many folks are living in, in cars and in the homeless people in this situation?

Speaker 5: 08:14 Well, it's in the hundreds. Certainly. Um, the latest point in time count though, they went out and they just counted, um, individuals, not necessarily cars. And so there was a significant drop. Um, unfortunately I can't think of the numbers just off the top of my head. Yes it was, but it's not broken down by city. So, um, yeah. So, um, I think there's just a lot that, you know, even folks that worked on the count at the regional task force for the homeless would say there's a lot to learn about this population and their needs, especially those that live in RVs.

Speaker 3: 08:46 Yeah, I totally agree. Because there's a lot of people who you talked to on the streets. Cause when you go to these safe parking lots, you have to like receive these services, these case management services. There's a lot of people who don't want that. They to keep living in their vehicles. They liked their situation. They're making $900 a month on disability and they just want to keep their situation. They're gonna have to find out how they target those groups, how they deal with those people who could just be getting ticket after ticket after ticket, get their RV and pounded. Um, it's like that saying when they say, you know, it takes 10 touches, 11 touches to get them to get services. So it's getting mentioned and see how they deal with those people who just don't want to go to those lots.

Speaker 1: 09:16 Well, we'll see what happens going forward. We are going to move on now to a related story about homelessness. Well, it's not just that a growing number of dust to do, people are living on the streets in San Diego and alarming number of them are dying. Their lack of proper medical care, poor nutrition, the unrelenting stress of street living combined to make this segment of society particularly vulnerable, at least to start with the uh, the numbers here that we've seen a real surge in these numbers every night.

Speaker 5: 09:44 So this past year of the data that we have, which is something I would definitely emphasize, um, at least 134 individuals died either on the street in shelters and in jails who were identified as homeless. And that is up from about 53 that were counted by the County Medical Examiners Office back in 2010. So we're seeing a significant increase for the numbers show.

Speaker 1: 10:07 Wow. That really is a surge and that doesn't, that may not reflect how bad the problem really is though, because a, how closely are the, is the mortality on the streets really monitored?

Speaker 5: 10:18 Well, as I said that, you know, the county medical examiners office only really analyzes a fraction of deaths. Um, for example, back in 20 1714 of the 20 people who died of hepatitis a or related complications were homeless, but they actually weren't included in these totals by the county medical examiners office just because of the scope of deaths that, that office studies. So the problem could be much larger than we can see.

Speaker 1: 10:45 I see. All right. In the homeless population in general, your story notes, San Diego's a fourth largest homeless population in the the nation. So that's growing as well, despite our supposedly booming economy.

Speaker 5: 10:58 Well, I think, you know, one thing I would note about this is that this past year, the methodology of the point in time count changed. And so it's really hard to compare year over year numbers. If you look at the numbers, it appears that, you know, for the past several years it's been relatively steady, but the issue is that a lot of people become homeless. It's not a static issue. Um, and so I'm definitely looking to see other data sets that would give us a better sense. Now. I think though, visually, almost all of us would say yes, there's clearly been a boom in homelessness here.

Speaker 1: 11:28 All right, well let's talk about what's happening now in the streets. We've had a stories, we've talked in this program over the years about the frequent nine one, one callers in the program to address that and that kind of faded away and maybe coming back now. What's, what's been happening.

Speaker 5: 11:42 Yeah. So the resource, um, uh, resource access program, um, focuses on individuals who are calling nine one one on a very regular basis. You know, having medics, firefighters respond, it's a great cost to the system. Um, this program, um, had had a lot of success. Um, they had reported they'd actually seen, you know, a 73% drop in calls from, um, this affected population. However, that sort of ramp down for a few years, they weren't really taking on new patients. Now it's ramping up again. And what I'm hearing is, as was the case before, a lot of the frequent callers happen to be homeless.

Speaker 3: 12:21 And so these numbers are for the whole county. And then is there like a criteria, like what makes them, but like how they prove that they're homeless or how do they like when they die? I mean, is it like, is it just up to the county medical examiner to say, yes, this person was homeless. I mean, there,

Speaker 5: 12:33 well, they do some level of investigation and they find out does that person have a recent address or where were they found? You know, if somebody was found on 17th street in east village, um, you know, you could perhaps deduce that this person was living on the street, but there's a lot more that goes into it.

Speaker 1: 12:48 And so we talked about nine one one and going to the hospital. But the, we're, we're seeing the programs going the other way now getting out into the street and what's happening in that sense.

Speaker 5: 12:58 So Father Joe's villages and family health centers of San Diego have really taken an interest in trying to actually take the medicine to the streets. Um, and so they're both ramping up programs. Actually, Father Joe's had a press conference this week about there's, where they're actually trained to go and provide medical services, um, on the streets and sidewalks where folks are. And this really came up out of, you know, an interest of realizing, wow, we have a lot of very vulnerable people who are not seeking out health services, are not able to walk into a clinic. Um, and obviously are very medically fragile.

Speaker 1: 13:31 And, uh, other cities have tried this sort of approach and they've looked at the kind of models elsewhere. What's been the success rate?

Speaker 5: 13:38 Yeah, so, um, cities like Albuquerque and San Francisco have been doing these sorts of things for years. Um, and while you know, they're careful to say there's not necessarily a direct correlation between, you know, having this program and preventing deaths. What they do say is that they find that they're able to connect a lot more folks who are very vulnerable to services. And in some cases also substance abuse treatment that you know, that person might not access on their own. Um, and it can be, you know, also a way to get them into other services as well.

Speaker 3: 14:11 Hey Man, I don't know if he got this from the county medical examiner's office, but is there like a, like a trend that whether it's like starvation or like, I mean like I know it gets really cold in the winter. People dying because they're outside in the cold or do we know why they're dying or

Speaker 5: 14:23 there are a number of reasons I'm there. Of course, some natural deaths. Uh, in there, uh, there were, I did note, um, a great deal of cardiac issues. I'm also drug related deaths and that may be something that I probe into a little bit more in the future.

Speaker 1: 14:38 No, it always comes down to money. They see the best medicine for homelessness is to give somebody a place to live. Uh, the county, we've had a of stories lately. Everybody's been reporting on, we talked about in the program, uh, stepped up, emphasis increased spending by San Diego County supervisors. I think that might make a difference going forward.

Speaker 5: 14:58 We'll see. The county is certainly taking a greater interest in, you know, and is actually engaged in some of these conversations about street level healthcare. I would also note that the county is also engaged in a conversation about recuperative care, which are basically facilities where after a person who is homeless is discharged from the hospital, they can go and kind of continue their recovery versus just going back onto the street, which obviously creates a lot of vulnerabilities for somebody. You know, a badge. And I talked to one gentleman for a story recently who had a stroke and literally went back on the street. Now you have to imagine he's extremely vulnerable at that point in his recovery. And so he did end up getting connected with the recuperative care program. Um, and experts I've talked to say that those programs can make a real difference.

Speaker 1: 15:43 And how does that work? So you got out of a hospital and where do you actually go? Where's that program? How's that run and where it, right.

Speaker 5: 15:49 Well, there are a limited number of recuperative care beds in San Diego County right now. The largest, and I would say most significant, best known one is I'm an interfaith community services runs in North County. Um, they've got about 34 beds. And the way that that works is basically if they find out about an individual that's being discharged or that person happens to have your say that they have, um, a particular medical provider who is able to kind of connect them to this facility. Um, but frankly, you know, as I talked to experts here and elsewhere, we don't have enough of these facilities to accommodate the need. Um, and so both family health centers and Father Joe's villages are actually talking about opening up or expanding, uh, programs as well. And they're among a handful.

Speaker 1: 16:37 Yeah. We're moving into an election year. Several folks have already announced for mayor, I think this was going to be kind of a front burner issue as we move forward to homelessness in general, Huh?

Speaker 5: 16:47 Yes. I believe that it will be a very hot topic during this mayor's race. Yeah.

Speaker 1: 16:51 So hear debates and, and plans and programs while we're going to move on. But, uh, always, uh, keeping on top of this, uh, topic, certainly as we go. Well, the program is called remain in Mexico or the idea is to keep asylum seekers from Central America out of the United States until it's time for a hearing on their claims. But as an immigration judge in San Diego, Toto told a group of these would be immigrants. You're in a very tough situation and Kate, start there, explain what the remain in Mexico means.

Speaker 6: 17:23 So the way the program works, certain individuals or families who have requested asylum, either when they come to our ports of entry or immediately after crossing the border illegally are sent back to Mexico on a temporary basis, um, until their court date here in the u s and so Mexico has agreed to give these, um, temporary visas that until about when they're hearing is that allows the person to be in Mexico and to be working in Mexico while they wait. Um, so they, they go back, they have to figure out where they're going to stay in Mexico until, until they get to their hearing. And that, um, provides a lot of complications in terms of how that person interacts with the immigration court system. Um, finding an attorney is incredibly difficult when you're inside the u s when you're calling from Mexico, um, and trying to make calls into the u s to find an attorney who might have time in their schedule to take your case. That's even more difficult. Um, thinking about, you know, these families are trying to find a place to live, trying to maybe get a job to put food on the table. So finding all of those things and then also having the money to get a phone that can call the u s and getting an attorney to pick up at the right time of day. It gets very complicated.

Speaker 1: 18:40 And why did the Trump administration create this program to begin with?

Speaker 6: 18:44 So the Trump administration has been implementing a number of policies to try and handle what it is called a crisis at the border in terms of an increasing number of arriving family's from Central America. And they keep citing this, this change in demographics and sort of, uh, a recent increase in the number of arrivals, um, as the reason why they're putting all of these policies in place. And so this is, this is one of the things that are, they are implementing in order to try and handle that.

Speaker 1: 19:13 All right. And the number of people waiting in Mexico or to have the cases heard that surged in recent weeks, right?

Speaker 6: 19:19 It's, it's been growing and growing and growing. So the program initially started in January and we saw just the handfuls of people return at a time. You know, we were still in just, you know, a hundred to 200 a month into the program and now we're in several thousands and it's, it's growing exponentially by the day. Now, you know, you'll have groups of of close to a hundred returned on a given day to two, one of them, the several places along the border where this is happening,

Speaker 1: 19:45 a Kwanzaa informal way to another. That's how to characterize it, but to, uh, to kind of organize the asylum line and decisions about who gets in. It's this it's notebook that you've written about what, give us an update on that. It's been about a year, hasn't it, that that's been around.

Speaker 6: 20:00 Yes. So that's sort of another segment of what's happening to asylum seekers, particularly at our port of entry at San Ysidro. So, um, for a long time now we've had a wait list of people in Tijuana waiting to ask for asylum. And so they, that, that list has grown. And eventually there was this notebook that was implemented as a way to track where people were in line. And that happened around the time that the, the first caravan that made big headlines came in sort of April of last year is one when I first saw the notebook. Um, and since then it has, it has sort of grown into this big operation that takes place every morning, um, right in the plaza outside of the port of entry. And you have, um, people's names being called to say, here's who's going in. Um, customs and border protection. So US officials tell Mexican officials, here's how many we'll take today.

Speaker 6: 20:53 The Mexican officials tell the migrants who have the notebook in their hand and they call the names. Um, but it's become clear, you know, the more time I've spent watching what happens down there, the Mexican officials really have their thumbs on a lot of the, the logistical workings of how that's happening. I'm making decisions. Say for example, somebody didn't come yesterday because they were hospitalized. What happens to that person? Because they miss their name getting called and depending on which official is standing there at the time, it, it's very subjective in terms of, of what could happen.

Speaker 1: 21:23 And you just spent some time with some of these refugee families and the groups trying to help them give us a sense of who the asylum seekers are and the people trying to help them survive and cope. There is a wait.

Speaker 6: 21:34 Yeah. So there's, there's a bunch of different groups involved depending on where you are. Um, when you're looking in Tijuana itself, you know there's a, there's a shelter system, there's a, a legal services group called all Otr lotto that's trying to provide, sort of know your rights information and here's what to expect when you walk into immigration court or when you walk in and, and make your request. Um, there's also a group that's come up in Mexicali to try and help both folks who are waiting because there's a line there as well that works a little bit differently, but also to help the folks who have been returned through remain in Mexico. And so, um, that group, which is called border kindness, has actually been buying bus tickets to send as many of the people as it can find two to Tijuana because people who are returned to Mexicali have to actually make their way to San Ysidro to go to immigration court in San Diego, even though there's an immigration court in imperial.

Speaker 1: 22:24 Well, would it be far more efficient just to go there?

Speaker 6: 22:26 You know, that's a good question. Um, I'm not the one who made that logistical decision, but that's, that's the way that it's been implemented. There are now several judges in San Diego courts who are hearing, I'm hearing these cases, the, the official name of the program is migrant protection protocols. So they're their MPP cases for the judges. And, um, so, you know, I don't think the, the group there is finding nearly all of the people who have cases here in San Diego. Uh, they sent 14 people on the day that I, that I accompanied the group and there were 40 some people close to 50 who had, uh, who had hearings on the date that those folks were going. So it's, it's, it's tough trying to find all of those folks and help them get

Speaker 1: 23:09 in the hearings themselves. Is there kind of a box score on how many are successful, are granted asylum and others turned away and what happens to them?

Speaker 6: 23:17 So in terms of, in terms of the remain in Mexico program, we don't know yet because it's just too soon. Right? So that program started in January, which means the first hearings, uh, we're just a couple of months ago and it takes multiple hearings and quite a long time to get through any of these cases. And that's another sort of mitigating factor with this program because anytime somebody is, is done with their hearing for the day, they get sent back to Mexico again. And so then they're waiting again to come back for another hearing and then they go back to Mexico and they go back and forth. And so, um, I think it's going to be, uh, several months longer before we see the first folks that I actually getting to their individual hearings where they get to argue their asylum claim in front of the judge and have the judge decide one way or another.

Speaker 1: 24:01 And then you just had a story today, there's flights that are going to be bringing more people here from Texas and the Border Patrol, right?

Speaker 6: 24:08 Yes. So even though we have, we have quite a number of people requesting asylum at our border, there's even more going to certain parts of protect of Texas, particularly the Rio Grande Valley. And so, um, what they're saying is that the border patrol stations there are just completely over capacity, like 200% beyond the capacity that they're supposed to have in their holding cells. And they're not able to process everybody. And so, um, they've already been, uh, sending people to other parts of Texas, particularly del Rio to be processed and they've already been doing what they call virtual processing where they have people, border patrol agents, even in Detroit talking to people over a video to say, okay, here's who this person is in and do that processing. But um, it's gotten I guess so crowded that they can't even rely just on those things anymore. And so now starting today they're going to be having three flights a week of migrant families coming to San Diego to be processed at our border patrol stations.

Speaker 1: 25:04 Okay. A few seconds left. Um, Congress in the proper administration, more money going to come and try to alleviate some of this, this awaiting and suffering here.

Speaker 6: 25:13 That's a good question. Um, there's been a lot of different proposals on both sides about putting more money into things going on at the border, some of them towards humanitarian efforts, some of them towards security effort. And what's not clear yet is where that balance is going to shake out between the sort of opposing sides.

Speaker 1: 25:30 All right. Another thing to watch. We are at a time, but there's a terrific story. Well, that does wrap up another week of stories at the KPBS round table. I'd like to thank my guests, Matt Hoffman of Kpbs News, Kate Morrissey of the San Diego Union Tribune, and Lisa Halverstadt up voice of San Diego. And a reminder, all the stories we discussed today are available on our website, I'm mark Sauer. Thanks for joining us today and join us again next Friday on the round table.

Speaker 6: 25:59 Yeah.

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Mark Sauer hosts KPBS Roundtable, a lively discussion of the week's top stories. Local journalists join Sauer to provide insight into how these stories affect residents of the San Diego region.