More than 200 people packed the San Diego City Council chambers to speak for and against the city's proposed camping ban, June 13, 2023. (Carlos Castillo/KPBS)

Why this matters

Research has consistently found that criminalizing homelessness only makes it harder for people to find housing, perpetuating the problem and increasing the cost to taxpayers.

After nearly 10 hours of public discussion, San Diego took the first step of passing a controversial law to ban camping in public. 

The City Council voted 5-4 late Tuesday night to make it illegal to camp citywide if shelter beds are available, and anytime, regardless of shelter availability, near schools, parks, transit hubs and along waterways.

The vote is a big win for Mayor Todd Gloria and Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, who have championed the proposal as a more effective tool than existing laws to move homeless people out of encampments and into shelter. 

Gloria thanked the five council members who voted to pass the measure, saying they decided to act rather than do nothing.

“It is a necessary step designed to strike a balance, ensuring the well-being of both the unsheltered population and our broader community,” Gloria said in a statement after the vote. 

Those in favor of the ban cited the need to do something — even though experts say the approach doesn’t align with best practices — to respond to a dramatic increase in unsheltered homelessness and the threats to public health and safety posed by encampments.

Councilmember Marni von Wilpert, who voted in favor of the ban, shared a story about a scene she recently witnessed downtown. A young barista was frightened and called police after a homeless man repeatedly exposed himself to her through the coffee shop window. Another homeless man lay outside the shop, von Wilpert said. 

“We are all suffering here and the status quo is not helping,” she said, adding that the ban must target enforcement where the city deems homelessness poses a real public safety and health threat. 

An ordinance requires two public hearings. Officials are expected to return for a second vote in the next couple weeks. If approved, the ordinance will take effect 30 days after the city’s first campsite opens.

In a press conference Wednesday morning, Gloria said his staff is working to open the campsite slated for 20th and B streets no later than July 1, meaning police could start enforcing the new law at the end of the month.

Those who opposed the proposal expressed several concerns about the city’s ability to enforce the ban with a police department that is already stretched thin and the potential harm it could cause to people experiencing homelessness. They cited the city’s lack of shelter capacity, wondering whether the ban would simply shift encampments from one sidewalk to the next. 

Councilmember Kent Lee said the ban would only invite more chaos and volatility, and makes a promise to the public that the city will never be able to deliver. The city will likely spend millions of taxpayer money defending a policy that officials cannot say will reduce homelessness.

“This ordinance creates legal liabilities for the city, creates widespread confusion and pushes encampments into dangerous, hard to reach areas further away from the services that are proven to successfully reduce homelessness,” Lee said.

Councilmember Vivian Moreno said without a clear enforcement plan, the ban would be the latest example of the city overpromising but failing to deliver a reduction in homelessness.  

The debate comes at a time when the region’s homeless service system cannot keep pace with the surging need, as more and more San Diegans find themselves living on sidewalks, in canyons and along riverbeds.

Last week, the latest point-in-time count revealed a 32% increase in San Diego’s unsheltered homeless population — from 2,494 last year to 3,285. It’s the highest count in at least the past decade.

Meanwhile, San Diego doesn’t have nearly enough space in homeless shelters for those who need it. Attorneys say that would make enforcing this ban illegal. The city’s shelter system remains more than 90% full, despite capacity having increased to 1,780 beds citywide under Gloria’s leadership. People who want shelter often can’t access it. 

At the urging of councilmembers, top city officials rushed to plug holes in the shelter system leading up to Tuesday’s vote. Gloria, his staff and other officials presented a comprehensive strategy to increase shelter capacity, proposing more than 20 facility options to offer shelter, campsites and parking lots. Some are scheduled to open as early as next month, while others won’t be available until fall 2024, assuming the city can find the money to pay for them.

Officials hope to add another 600 shelter beds and spaces to sleep by next year, bringing the total to 2,384. Of its existing capacity, the city will also have to relocate 930 beds due to expiring agreements and planned upgrades.

The city attorney’s office and a San Diego Police representative said the law would be enforceable with at least one available shelter bed that meets the needs of someone being targeted for enforcement. 

Public pressure has been mounting for the council to act. On Tuesday, more than 200 San Diegans addressed the City Council in person or virtually and spoke passionately both for and against the ban. 

Mayor Todd Gloria speaks at a City Council Meeting on June 13, 2023 ahead of Council’s vote on the proposed camping ban.
(Video courtesy of Judy Vaughs)

Some pleaded with councilmembers to pass the ban, highlighting stories of random attacks, open drug use and public indecency outside homes, businesses and schools. One man said he and his children were almost hit by a car as they stepped into the street to walk around an encampment. 

Others appealed to the City Council’s humanity, urging members to reject what they called a cruel proposal that criminalizes unhoused people at a time when housing is in short supply and costs are soaring. Instead, they urged city leaders to adopt evidence-based approaches to address the worsening crisis.

The debate grew heated at times as some hurled insults and jeers at speakers they disagreed with, prompting Council President Sean Elo-Rivera to warn and remind everyone present to remain civil. 

When the new law takes effect, police will start clearing encampments around parks and schools, regardless of shelter availability.

“These are grown adults,” Gloria said during the press conference Wednesday. “It is not too much to ask them to make accommodations for children.

“Currently, they’re behaving a fool in front of these kids. They’re dealing drugs in front of these kids. Their behavior is inappropriate and wrong. So, if there’s a shelter bed available, yes, please take it. And we expect you to take it. If there’s not a shelter bed available, we’re asking you to move.”

Editor’s note: June 14, 2023

This story has been updated to include additional information from Mayor Todd Gloria.

Correction: June 15, 2023

The vote tally at the end of this story has been updated to correct an error in how Council President Elo-Rivera voted. He voted “no” on the camping ban.

San Diego City Council’s camping ban vote

San Diego City Council voted 5-4 to approve the ban on camping in the city:

Joe LaCava – District 1: Yes

Jennifer Campbell – District 2: Yes

Stephen Whitburn – District 3: Yes

Monica Montgomery Steppe – District 4: No 

Marni von Wilpert – District 5: Yes

Kent Lee – District 6: No

Raul Campillo – District 7: Yes

Vivian Moreno – District 8: No

Sean Elo-Rivera – District 9: No

Type of Content

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

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...