San Diego police continue citing and arresting unsheltered homeless people for blocking sidewalks and sleeping where they shouldn’t, but these cases continue to go nowhere. 

This summer, inewsource published a series of investigations that found a dramatic spike in arrests, revealed police and city officials violating court orders, and highlighted a disconnect between the mayor and city attorney about how best to handle people living on the sidewalk.

Why this matters

Estimates show San Diego has at least 4,800 homeless people. Mayor Todd Gloria said solving homelessness is the city’s top priority.

Police data recently obtained by inewsource shows new highs since the start of the pandemic — at least 106 arrests so far this year, compared to just 32 arrests in all of 2021. But the San Diego city attorney’s office still declines to prosecute most of these arrests, and the office still hasn’t secured a single conviction in any of the cases it has pursued.

In a statement, a spokesperson for City Attorney Mara Elliott said the office rejects cases when it cannot be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has occurred. 

“While our office prosecutes violations of specific laws,” spokesman Richard Jackoway said in an email, “the underlying issues pertaining to homelessness need to be addressed and are most effectively addressed outside the criminal justice system.”

A city spokesperson said residents complain daily about people in homeless encampments breaking the law or blocking paths of travel, making it dangerous traveling to school and work.

“How the city attorney chooses to handle the crimes referred to her office is her prerogative,” spokesperson Ashley Bailey said in an email, “however, while low-level crimes may go unprosecuted, that does not mean the city should turn a blind eye to them.”

Either way, police encounters aren’t solving homelessness. The number of unsheltered people living downtown has set a new record every month for the past four months, according to the Downtown San Diego Partnership. 

Homeless advocate Michael McConnell, who frequently records police encounters with unhoused people, said officials seem more concerned about how the city looks and have shifted their focus to damage control. The tickets and arrests are a tool to that end, he said.

“I think they’re just trying to disrupt and agitate the people so that they just move somewhere else,” McConnell said. “They know it’s not having any impact.”

San Diegans are falling into homelessness faster than they can move off the street and into housing, according to the Regional Task Force on Homelessness. And San Diego is failing to meet the demand for housing people of all incomes — new construction isn’t keeping pace with population growth.

Coleen Cusack, a defense attorney who donates her time to homeless people charged in these cases, calls it cruel and unusual punishment. She argues police can’t punish someone for existing in a public space.

“Because when you don’t have housing, how do you end homelessness? How do you do it?” she said. The city’s strategy uses criminalization, “taking away their survival abilities, taking away their tents, their sleeping bags.”

Homelessness is a national crisis fueled by skyrocketing rents, stagnant wages and low vacancy rates, and other cities from Florida to California have been criticized for criminalizing people existing in public.

According to a report from the National Homelessness Law Center, police around the country have continued to step up enforcement of laws that target unhoused people — such as sitting, lying down or sleeping in public — every year since the group started tracking in 2006.

San Diego police give a citation to a woman camping on the sidewalk of Commercial Street in San Diego, June 9, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Criminalizing homelessness

Emails obtained by inewsource in June revealed that high-ranking police officials discussed a scheme eight years ago to clear parks and other public spaces for “normal citizenry,” urging officers not to let public spaces turn into “transient camps.”

Encroachment is a law intended to prohibit trash cans from blocking a sidewalk, but a San Diego police lieutenant pointed out it’s a jailable offense that can be applied to almost any situation, according to the 2014 email.

This year, top city officials cracked down using the same law about trash cans, insisting that the city has a duty to remove unhoused people from encampments they say pose a hazard to pedestrians and public health. 

According to data requested by inewsource, police arrested 85 people for violating the trash can law through mid-December 2022, compared to just 16 in all of last year — more than a fivefold increase.

In October, when police enacted a policy requiring people to remove their tents from city sidewalks during the day, police arrested 14 people for encroachment, compared to just 3 people in October 2021.  

It appears much of the police department’s efforts are window dressing, McConnell said.

“Sometimes it’s based on an event,” he said, including sporting events or press conferences. “Sometimes it’s based on complaints.”

Bailey, the city spokesperson, said it’s routine to clear paths of travel ahead of any large-scale events to protect the safety of pedestrians as well as unhoused people living on the sidewalks.

Studies have consistently found that criminalizing homelessness only perpetuates the problem and increases the cost to taxpayers. Citing and arresting people for crimes related to homelessness costs governments thousands of dollars more per person than it would if the same person were given housing.

It’s unclear how much it costs San Diego to take this approach, but the two divisions responsible for cleaning homeless encampments had a combined annual budget of $35 million.

Cusack, the local defense attorney, said she is representing a 58-year-old woman who was arrested for encroachment on Sports Arena Boulevard. She plans to ask the judge to dismiss the case at a hearing next month, arguing that the 8th Amendment protects her client from cruel and unusual punishment.

Police are treating unhoused people like bags of trash, she said, referring to the original intent of encroachment. It forces people to keep moving around to avoid being subject to arrest.

“They want to be cruel because they want homeless people to get sick of being treated like this and leave San Diego, and it’s therefore no longer a problem,” she said, adding that it’s like hiding dirty dishes in the oven.

Updated Wednesday, Dec. 21, at 8:47 a.m.: This story has been edited to reflect that Ashley Bailey is a public information officer for the City of San Diego.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Cody DulaneyInvestigative Reporter – Social Impact and Government Accountability

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,...

Jake HarperINVESTIGATIVE REPORTER – HEALTH CARE

Jake Harper is an investigative data reporter, focused on health. Before joining inewsource, Harper worked at Side Effects Public Media in Indiana, where he reported on addiction, Medicaid and access to health care. His investigations have covered medical industry influence in state and national...