Why this matters
San Diegans are divided on how to address the homelessness crisis while the city moves forward with a new law to ban encampments in public spaces.
Mayor Todd Gloria sold the San Diego City Council on a controversial camping ban using a homeless shelter expansion strategy that mostly hasn’t been funded yet.
Councilmembers voted 5-4 Tuesday during the second and final public hearing 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.
Some elected officials, housing experts and attorneys have questioned whether the city will have enough shelter to enforce the ban. Courts have ruled that cities cannot criminalize people for carrying out life-sustaining activities in public, such as sleeping or sheltering, when there is no other indoor option.
That’s why some councilmembers asked Gloria to provide a comprehensive plan to expand shelter capacity before voting on the proposed camping ban two weeks ago. In response, Gloria and his staff outlined more than 20 locations where people would be allowed to camp, sleep in a vehicle and obtain indoor shelter, adding at least 600 new options for unhoused San Diegans over the next 18 months.
All told, it would cost between $30 million and $66 million to pay for everything on Gloria’s list. But the city’s budget only has $7.4 million set aside to expand shelter next year, according to city staff.
Gloria’s plan also includes:
- Warehouses, vacant religious facilities and a former juvenile detention camp as options for shelter, potentially adding hundreds of additional beds. Those sites have not been funded yet.
- Six library parking lots for people living in a vehicle to sleep overnight, offering between 48 and 120 spaces each. Gloria’s spokesperson, Dave Rolland, said these sites are partially funded but did not provide details.
Some councilmembers, who opposed the camping ban, questioned the math and asked staff members how they plan to bridge the gap for money and necessary space.
Ultimately, the city will count on donations from private, corporate and philanthropic groups, said Sarah Jarman, the top city official dedicated to homelessness solutions.
The comprehensive strategy is an overview of potential options, Jarman added, and the total cost and capacity of each site is unknown because staff members still need to iron out the details of what each site could offer. The sites would also include the cost of security, bathrooms, meals and connections to service providers.
Some of the funded projects are paid for through existing contracts, Rolland said. The city would have to pursue additional money to pay for any new projects.
In the short term, officials are working to open two campsites in Balboa Park. The first, located at 20th and B streets, is slated to open Saturday, while the other, in “O lot,” will be ready this fall.
Councilmembers applauded the strategy, even those who ultimately opposed the ban, saying it’s a necessary step to address the growing crisis unfolding in neighborhoods across the city. But some expressed doubts about whether it would be enough to enforce a ban in most public places.
The city’s shelter system remains more than 90% full, despite capacity having increased to 1,780 beds under Gloria’s leadership. Meanwhile, at least 3,300 San Diegans are living on sidewalks, or in riverbeds and canyons — the highest number recorded in at least a decade.
On average, more than 1,000 requests for shelter are denied every month, said Lisa Jones, with the San Diego Housing Commission. It often happens because there isn’t enough space or a person’s needs cannot be met.
Officials hope providing a place to legally live in a tent — and offering services such as wellness checks, health screenings and shelter outreach — will move people out of dangerous and unhealthy encampments.
“I think it’s going to accommodate a majority of folks,” San Diego police Capt. Shawn Takeuchi told councilmembers. “And an individual who says no, for whatever reason they’re saying no, they’re choosing a reason, it’s not because the bed is not compatible.”
City staff and police officials have said all they need is one space available that can meet the needs of the person facing enforcement. But experts have said the city is taking a gamble that could cost taxpayers later in court.
A frequently cited federal court ruling from 2018, known as Martin v. Boise, establishes certain rights for people experiencing homelessness. The ruling said, “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”
The federal court ruling does not define what a shelter is, beyond an indoor sleeping space that is practically accessible. But in a subsequent case stemming from the city of Chico, where officials tried to set up a sanctioned campsite on an unused airport tarmac, the judge ruled the campsite didn’t meet the definition of shelter.
inewsource asked the city attorney’s office about the case from Chico and whether officials think an open space at a sanctioned campsite would meet the definition of available shelter under the law.
“It is unclear from current case law what will satisfy a court as to ‘available shelter,’” a spokesperson from the city attorney’s office said. “Based on existing case law, our office recommends shelter provided by the city include protection from the elements and meet basic human needs for access to clean water, restrooms, food, safety, etc.”
The ban will take effect 30 days after the first city-sanctioned campsite opens at 20th and B streets in Balboa Park. That means police could start enforcing the new law at the end of July, focusing enforcement around schools, shelters, parks, transit hubs and along waterways.
When asked by a councilmember two weeks ago if the proposed ban would encourage more people to accept shelter and services, Gloria answered with a resounding “yes” and called out those who had voiced opposition.
“Between the combination of more opportunity (for places to go) coupled with more consequences for turning down services,” Gloria told councilmembers, “this will … bring more people into care and reduce the number of unsheltered individuals living on the streets in your district, Councilmember Montgomery Steppe, your district, Councilmember Lee, and your district, Councilmember Moreno.
“It’s your choice,” Gloria said.
San Diego City Council adopts ban on encampments
How councilmembers voted:
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
Editor’s note: June 27, 2023
This story has been updated to include the San Diego City Council’s final vote on the encampment ban.
Type of Content
News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.