A San Diego police truck drives down 16th Street at dawn on May 20, 2020, with an officer telling the homeless people through a speaker to wake up. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

During the coronavirus pandemic, San Diego police have issued more than twice as many tickets for illegal lodging — an infraction largely directed at homeless people — compared to the same time last year, according to data inewsource obtained.

There also has been an increase in two other enforcement actions generally aimed at the homeless: encroachment, or blocking a sidewalk, and living in a vehicle.

Why this matters

Estimates show San Diego has nearly 4,900 homeless people. Mayor Kevin Faulconer has said providing them with a safe place to live during and after the COVID-19 crisis is a priority.

This uptick in enforcement has happened as Mayor Kevin Faulconer repeatedly tells the public that the city’s main priority with the unsheltered homeless population is to get them off the streets and into the San Diego Convention Center, where at least 1,200 people are sheltering every night to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The makeshift shelter had room for about 200 more as of Friday, but the number fluctuates.

Faulconer has held news conferences nearly every day since mid-March to give updates on the city’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. At the briefings, reporters have asked him at least four times about police officers ticketing homeless people. He has largely avoided answering the question directly and instead repeats this message: It’s about encouragement to move into the convention center, not enforcement.

When asked on April 1 about police officers issuing encroachment tickets during the pandemic, Faulconer said: “As I mentioned earlier, our neighborhood policing division is still out there, still doing a remarkable job ensuring everybody’s health and safety. Again, their focus is going to continue to be, this facility (the convention center) is available, and we want folks to use it.”

At that point, officers were averaging 21 tickets a day for all three offenses, records show.

The City Council, showing its concern about ticketing homeless people, passed a resolution on March 17 asking Faulconer to consider suspending the ordinance against people sleeping in cars until the coronavirus crisis ends and to report back to the council with a strategy. More than two months later, officers have written 12 citations for the infraction, and the Mayor’s Office still hasn’t delivered a strategy to the council.

Wanita Long packs up blankets after sleeping on an area of dirt near the Interstate 5 ramp at 17th Street in San Diego, May 20, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Rather than suspending the ordinance, city spokeswoman Ashley Bailey said the Mayor’s Office is encouraging people to take advantage of the city’s safe parking lots, where people living in their cars can park and access the services they need.

Citations and life on the streets

Every morning at 5:30, police officers start clearing downtown sidewalks of tents and small encampments that crop up overnight. A 2011 agreement the city reached in a lawsuit brought on behalf of homeless people allows them to bed down on the sidewalks from 9 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. and generally avoid illegal lodging tickets.

This early morning ritual by the police has gone on for years. But it’s continuing even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines saying unsheltered homeless people should be allowed to remain where they are during the pandemic unless individual housing can be provided.

The data inewsource obtained includes citations issued from March 16 to May 16 and covers the years 2018, 2019 and 2020. March 16 was shortly before the state’s stay-at-home order took effect. Our analysis shows:

  • The blocks where the most citations have been issued are downtown.
  • The vast majority are issued during the 6 a.m. hour.
  • Seventy people have been ticketed more than once during the pandemic.

Police Capt. Scott Wahl said the citation numbers inewsource found don’t tell the whole story.

For the same period inewsource used, Wahl provided data that showed the number of field interviews — warnings rather than ticketing — for blocking a sidewalk have increased 24 percent compared to last year.

A man who didn’t want to give his name yawns in the early morning while sitting on 16th Street in San Diego, May 20, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

But Wahl’s data also shows warnings for a different violation, illegal lodging, have dropped during the pandemic, at the same time tickets for that offense have more than doubled.

The city can’t allow people to live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, Wahl said.

“That’s where you end up with a hepatitis A outbreak like we had in 2017,” he said.

“Twenty people died on the streets of San Diego (during that outbreak) because of this unsanitary, very preventable environment. The way you prevent it is you don’t allow it to exist,” he added.

Getting shelter at San Diego Convention Center

Homeless people need a referral from the police or a homeless service provider to get a spot in the San Diego Convention Center shelter.

Outreach teams with the police and nonprofits contact people living on the streets and in canyons and riverbeds to evaluate their needs.

Officers have to balance compassion with accountability while also responding to community complaints, the captain said.

The options available to police early on in the pandemic were limited. Shelters couldn’t take anyone, and arrests of homeless people dropped to almost nothing because police couldn’t take them to jail, Wahl said.

“Yes, the citations did go up,” he said. “That was the only enforcement tool available at that time.”

After the San Diego Convention Center opened as a homeless shelter April 1, police slowed the number of citations directed at the homeless from 21 a day in March to about one a day in May, according to the data inewsource obtained.

Wahl said the goal of a citation is compliance. As long as people move along, they aren’t cited. The police are now trying a new approach, where the department will hold onto a ticket if someone agrees to take help. It will never show up on the person’s record, Wahl said.

CDC guidelines discourage breaking up encampments so people don’t disperse and spread the virus. Wahl said the intent is also to not break the connections homeless people have with service providers. The department’s homeless outreach teams are working the streets every day to get people the help they need, he said.

“What the CDC is not saying is, ‘Allow for an environment that is unhealthy, unsafe and unsanitary,’” said Wahl, adding that getting people into the convention center is the priority.

But not everyone wants to go.

‘People are very, very good to me there’

The convention center has been repurposed into one of the largest homeless shelters in Southern California during the coronavirus pandemic. As of Friday morning, 1,266 homeless people were staying there.

Three of the city’s largest homeless service providers — Alpha Project, Father Joe’s Villages and Veterans Village of San Diego — are each responsible for their own area.

Deborah Jackson, who’s been homeless for five years, uses a nebulizer to take albuterol for her asthma and COPD, May 21, 2020. Jackson has been staying in the Alpha Project section of the San Diego Convention Center since late April. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Alpha Project is serving the largest number with 617 people, according to information provided Friday morning. It has room for 176 more. Father Joe’s is serving 457 people and is close to capacity. Veterans Village has 192 people and is also close to capacity.

To support the three nonprofits and oversee operations, the city has developed a team that includes city staff and officials from San Diego County, the Regional Task Force on the Homeless and the San Diego Housing Commission.

Everyone is working “to ensure we follow closely the evolving public health guidance,” said Bailey, the city spokeswoman.

The city estimates it’s spending $2.7 million a month to run the convention center as a shelter, she said.

Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy recently gave inewsource a tour of its convention center operation. Staff checks the temperature of every person who enters — using a handheld, no-touch device — and asks whether the person has a cough or shortness of breath.

The giant room has hundreds of cots spaced about 6 feet apart as recommended for homeless shelters during the coronavirus pandemic. Some people have decorated their spaces with ornate designs and unique self-expression. A few have brought their cats or dogs. Men have one side, and women the other.

Yolanda Gamiño’s bed, one of the most ornate in the Alpha Project section of the San Diego Convention Center shelter, is shown on May 21, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Two rows of tables line the front half of the room, where meals are served and two large projectors show live television against the walls. Counseling and mental health services are offered, each with their own designated space.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner is served daily, arriving in towers of closed plastic trays to feed the masses. On the day inewsource was there, lunch was tuna sandwiches — or egg salad for the vegetarians.

Trailers with showers and laundry facilities have been hauled into the loading bays so the people and their clothes can stay clean. McElroy said staff handles the laundry duties.

The doors to the convention center close at 8 p.m., and the lights go out at 11 p.m. When the doors open again at 4 a.m., people are allowed to leave and many do.

One of them is Mario Hernandez. He said the Neil Good Day Center, which offers homeless people resources and a place to be safe during the day, referred him to the convention center.

“People are very, very good to me there,” he said.

Although he said all of his needs are taken care of at the convention center, none of his friends feel comfortable there so he’s often alone. That’s why he leaves during the day.

‘It’s a beautiful day in San Diego!’

Some of the homeless people who live on the streets told inewsource the police hassle them.

When inewsource went to the East Village around 5 a.m. on multiple mornings in May, police were present. On one occasion, an officer pulled up in a patrol car and parked at 5:29 in front of a person sleeping on the sidewalk on the corner of 16th and Market streets. One minute later, the officer got out and nudged the person’s leg with his foot.

On several occasions, officers had few interactions — often saying something briefly and waiting from inside their vehicles while the person picked up their belongings from the sidewalk. Another time, after making eye contact with a reporter, an officer in a pickup said over the intercom, “Good morning, it’s 5:45. Time to wake up. It’s a beautiful day in San Diego!”

inewsource didn’t witness anyone receiving a citation. But Vernon Wellington was given a ticket at 5:57 a.m. on March 18 for blocking a sidewalk on Commercial Street.

Vernon Wellington sits with his belongings while cooking breakfast on 17th Street in San Diego, May 20, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Wellington said he tends to have a lot of belongings with him. He carries food and water, and has enough blankets to keep him warm at night and to build a makeshift mattress. That morning he probably took up half of the sidewalk and was given a citation, he said.

He didn’t refuse to move but admits he has a “smart mouth.” Either way, he doesn’t understand the point of a ticket. It only makes problems worse for people living on the streets, Wellington said.

“You got a lot of disturbed people out here, and (police are) pushing them to the point where they don’t think they have (anywhere) to go. You’re gonna push them into that disturbance,” he said.

“Why are you going to punish somebody because they’re sleeping on the streets? That don’t make no sense.”

Others haven’t had any problem with police, and some of those who have had problems understand why.

Eddie Richardson, who said he is a Vietnam War veteran, said many of the officers are veterans also, and there is a mutual respect and understanding with them. As long as he moves along, he said he won’t be given a ticket.

Eddie Richardson, who says he’s a Vietnam War veteran, looks at his phone while sitting next to his bike on 16th Street in San Diego, May 20, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

He said he would take the opportunity to get into the convention center to “get away from the virus,” but no one has offered him the chance.
Dustin Boyle and Zachary Markovich are friends, and both are addicted to heroin. They said they often have trouble with the police and understand why.

“Since the pandemic, I’ve noticed them put a lot more pressure on,” Boyle said. “I can only imagine on their side, the pressure that they’re under getting people off the street with the stay-at-(home) order of everyone being inside. At the end of the day, they don’t want us out here.”

He also understands that he doesn’t live in a healthy environment.

“We’re out here doing drugs every day. It’s a nuisance. You see our surroundings. You see needles on the ground everywhere,” Boyle said. “And not everyone’s capable of cleaning up themselves or domesticated in that sort. So yeah, it’s an eyesore and it’s a problem.”

Boyle doesn’t like being part of the problem, he said, but he does his part by keeping to himself and not causing trouble.

Dustin Boyle, left, talks with his friend Zachary Markovich before dawn on 16th Street in San Diego, May 20, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Markovich seemed willing to take the help offered at the convention center if it were offered to him. He’d want to see if he could handle it, he said.

“But you know, once again, duty calls,” Markovich said, referring to his heroin addiction. It would come down to whether he could get his fix before the doors close at 8 p.m.

“I’m not going to sit there at the convention center all night. I’m going to be dope sick,” he said. “They’re probably going to put me in quarantine because I’m going to look like I have COVID.”

McElroy, with the Alpha Project, said the mission at the convention center is to provide shelter, not mandate treatment. Access to counseling and treatment is there for those who want it.

But staff members will search people’s belongings if there’s suspicion of drug use, he said. When drugs are found, people are given a choice: Stay and lose the drugs, or leave and keep it.

“Until they’re ready to get out of their addiction,” McElroy said, “there’s not much we can do for them.”

inewsource photo and video journalist Zoë Meyers, investigative data reporter Jill Castellano and intern Natallie Rocha contributed to this report.

Correction: 11 a.m., May 25, 2020
An earlier version of the story incorrectly described the distance between the beds in the San Diego Convention Center shelter.

Cody Dulaney is an investigative reporter at inewsource focusing on social impact and government accountability. Few things excite him more than building spreadsheets and knocking on the door of people who refuse to return his calls. When he’s not ruffling the feathers of some public official, Cody...