San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria on Monday pleaded with homeless people living in downtown roadside encampments to take offers for shelter, warning that there would be consequences for those who refuse help.
As the city steps up enforcement of laws against encroaching on sidewalks, Gloria said those consequences could include arrests for people who continue to camp in downtown’s East Village. Three people have been arrested in the neighborhood since the city began escalating enforcement of the law last week.
“We don’t like to do this,” he said at a Monday press briefing with law enforcement and city officials.
“Please accept the help that you’re offered,” he said in a message directed to people living without shelter. “I can’t imagine what caused you to end up on the streets. Bad luck. Divorce. Job loss. Generational trauma. The list goes on. What I know for sure is there’s a better life for you, and we’ll do everything we can to get you in that position.”
Gloria said the city received about 1,200 complaints about encampments through San Diego’s Get It Done app just last week, and enforcement of encroachment laws on city sidewalks has increased because of growing concerns about the issue.
San Diego Police Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, who heads the department’s neighborhood policing division that includes the homeless outreach team, said three people in East Village were arrested and three others accepted shelter since last week.
Takeuchi said officers last week contacted more than 200 homeless people in East Village, where tents and makeshift shelters line sidewalks along Commercial Street, National Avenue and other roadways in the area. Besides the three who accepted shelter, one person accepted a referral to a free storage area, he said.
Appearing at the press briefing with Gloria, Takeuchi said he did not know how many citations were given out, but noted that the tickets and arrests were part of the department’s policy of progressive enforcement that includes a warning, an infraction citation and a misdemeanor citation before an arrest.
Gloria said the increased enforcement was a necessary step because the encampments are unsafe, unhealthy and prohibit pedestrian use.
“I ask you, please, connect with the housing and services that are out there,” he said. “We have shelter beds available right now with low-barrier access. You can bring your belongings, pets, your significant other. You don’t have to be sober. We will take you just as you are.”
Sidewalk clean-up days in the East Village are scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursday, but many homeless people in the area said they were taken by surprise last Wednesday when city crews came through and cleared items from sidewalks, sometimes throwing unattended property into a truck where it was crushed.
Takeuchi said during the press briefing that tents are not thrown away unless the owner does not want them, which led to an exchange with a reporter who said he saw a woman pleading with an officer to not take away her tent.
“What you more than likely saw was an individual telling us that they did not want their property,” Takeuchi said. After the reporter again said he saw a woman pulling things out of her tent to save them from being thrown into the trash truck, Takeuchi said he would look into the incident.
Homeless advocate Michael McConnell did not attend the press briefing and said he had heard of the incident but did not see it himself, but did see tents thrown away.
“Many times they’ve thrown tents away when their owners aren’t even there,” he said. “It’s just a bold-faced lie, and they’re trying to tell people not to believe their eyes and ears. I’ve seen people who have come up after their tent’s been thrown away and they try to pull it out of the trash and they won’t let them.”
Gloria said the number of shelter beds have increased 25 percent during his time as mayor and accommodate about 1,200 people each night. Shelters are at about 90 percent capacity, and Gloria said 450 more beds are planned by the end of the year.
With many people on the street saying they do not want to go into a shelter, Gloria said the city is looking to provide more diverse alternatives, such as safe camping sites.
City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, also at the press briefing, said he supports safe camping sites and recently toured one in Denver that appeared to be working well.
“But if they still refuse it, we need to enforce the rules against sidewalk camping,” he said, agreeing with the mayor. Whitburn’s district includes Balboa Park and East Village.
Reporters noted that there are more people on the street than available shelter beds, and people who cannot pay tickets are being cited. Gloria responded that people on sidewalks are breaking a law, and the city must take action to address an unsafe situation.
“Ignoring this issue is a path to death for these folks,” he said. “That will not happen on my watch.”
McConnell said the increased enforcement may not drive people into shelters, but rather just push them from East Village into other areas, such as state property near freeways or in canyons.