People gather in the shade outside of San Diego's new camping site, Aug. 3, 2023. Tommy, second from right, and a friend were brought to the site that afternoon by a nonprofit from Escondido, who secured them spaces. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Why this matters

Estimates show San Diego has at least 6,500 unhoused residents. Mayor Todd Gloria has said solving homelessness is the city’s top priority.

Harsh and unpredictable weather conditions, uncomfortable living arrangements, and confusion about who is welcome and where they should go. 

San Diego’s campsite for people experiencing homelessness has been marked by its share of challenges since opening nearly 12 weeks ago. But it also has had some success.

Located in a fenced-in parking lot in Balboa Park, some participants have called the campsite a “godsend,” saying it’s a stepping stone to a better life. At least eight people have managed to find housing while staying there, a spokesperson said. And for city officials, who refer to it as the Safe Sleeping Program, the site serves as a quick alternative to get people off the streets.

“This is one of the most unique opportunities that we’ve ever had in providing a resource to individuals who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” said Ketra Carter, with the city’s Homelessness Strategies and Solutions department.

The site opened in late June as part of the city’s push to ban camping in public. To legally enforce such a ban, officials have to ensure adequate shelter is available to those who face citation or arrest. And for a shelter system that remains more than 90% full, people who want shelter in San Diego often can’t access it.

One solution officials are leaning into is a city-sanctioned campsite. It’s a place where people are allowed to live outside in a tent, where they can also access homeless services, housing navigation, food and water. City officials tried this once before during the Hepatitis A outbreak in 2017, but this iteration of the Safe Sleeping Program is the first sustained effort, said city spokesperson Ashley Nicholes.

San Diego’s camping site located off of 26th Street is shown in this provided video frame. (Courtesy of City of San Diego)

As of two weeks ago, 147 people were living at the campsite, using 129 tents.  But that number changes daily as folks come and go — just last week 11 tents were available, a spokesperson said. Participants have access to hygiene products, running water, charging stations, portable restrooms and handwashing stations — even a sandbox for pets to poop and pee. A mobile shower truck comes by once a week.

Staff members provide two meals a day on site, featuring a continental-style breakfast with options like cold cereal and oatmeal, as well as a dinner service that offers a wide variety, including Taco Tuesday.

The site is managed by a nonprofit called Dreams for Change, which has more than 13 years’ experience managing parking lots for people who live in vehicles. 

Teresa Smith, the nonprofit’s CEO, said managing the campsite has been a learning experience. Early on, people were showing up with fear and anxiety, having no idea what to expect. Staff members were spending the better part of an hour or more just to check-in a single person, she said.

“It’s a similar model but different population,” Smith said, comparing the campsite to the parking lots. These folks have “very different needs.”

Now that the campsite has reached full capacity, Smith said, staff have more time to focus on helping people with their individual needs.

“At this point, everyone is settled in, everyone gets along,” Smith said in a recent interview. “Things are running much smoother ever since returning from the storm.”

Confusion and fear

The campsite’s early days have posed some communication challenges.

Paul Scallan Jr. said he was living in front of the Greyhound bus station downtown when police told him to leave last month. Homeless shelters haven’t worked for him in the past, but with the city’s new camping ban, he figured he only had one option: go to the new campsite he had heard about. He called 211 to find out more, and the person on the other end told him to head over to 20th and B streets.

Micah Muñoz, left, and Paul Scallan Jr. sit in the shade outside of San Diego’s new camping site, Aug. 3, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

The 50-year-old man gathered his belongings — two shopping carts filled over the brim — and started pushing in that direction. But when he got there, he realized he was in the wrong place. 

The campsite is actually near the corner of 26th Street and Pershing Drive, which is about a mile away, up and over a hill. With his two carts, he started pushing that way.

“I’m like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Scallan said. “Why did he tell us 20th and B?”

After finally reaching his destination, Scallan learned the campsite didn’t have a space for him. He couldn’t just walk in as he said he was told.

“It’s very difficult,” Scallan said in an interview last month. “I’ve been out here for four days trying to figure out, number one, if I wanted to go in here and number two, how to get in there.” 

He isn’t the only one who was confused about where to go. All of the city’s communication and messaging about the campsite leading up to its opening included the incorrect address of 20th and B streets. 

People have to be referred to the campsite, usually by an outreach worker or a case manager. Officials were sure to communicate that to the public, police and outreach teams, said Nicholes, the spokesperson.

But, as with the start of any new program, there will always be some communication issues, Nicholes added. 

“In the future,” Nicholes said, “what we could do better is list the information on the city’s website in advance so that the information is available if folks were searching for it online.”

Some people who managed to land a spot in the campsite were having a tough time.

One Escondido couple said a nonprofit referred them to the site and paid for their Uber ride to San Diego. inewsource agreed to identify them only as Rayanne and Tommy because they’re afraid of retaliation.

Rayanne said they needed a place to stay. Escondido police have been cracking down on encampments, she said, and Tommy recently got hit by a car, breaking his foot in four places. They heard about San Diego’s new program and agreed to come.

But they had second thoughts as soon as they arrived. 

Scanning the lined-up tents that covered the parking lot, it all started to hit her at once: She wondered how Tommy would manage getting in and out of the tent with his injury. And she had never been to this part of San Diego before, away from her family, her children and all she knows in Escondido.

“Being here is really scary,” she said, adding that they were going to try and make it work, but “I’m not too sure about this place.” 

Heat waves

It’s been a hot summer for San Diegans. Two heat waves have swept across the city since the site first opened in late June, and city officials and campsite staff have worked to keep people cool. 

Several four-post canopies equipped with portable fans are scattered around the site. Staff also created a makeshift breezeway by spreading tarps across two fence lines.

It was a struggle early on to keep enough water on hand, said Smith, the nonprofit’s CEO. Staff had been relying on five-gallon jugs to keep people hydrated, and wound up flying through more than 50 jugs a day, she said.

Three people told inewsource that the campsite frequently ran out of water and ice, especially when it got hot. But officials have since changed up the system: They now have three, 60-gallon water tanks that are refilled three times a week. Staff hasn’t had a problem with water since, Smith said, but they are still working on a consistent supply of ice.

A group sits outside of San Diego’s new camping site on 26th Street, Aug. 3, 2023. Some were there to find shade, others were waiting to get into the site or leaving the site. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

The area outside the site became a gathering point for those participating in the program as well as those hoping to get in — a place where they found respite under the cover of trees. One woman, who inewsource agreed not to identify because she’s afraid of retaliation, said she hung out in this area every day in her first few weeks at the campsite. She needed to escape the heat.

“The sun is brutal in those tents,” she said. “Like, it’s deadly.”

Tropical Storm Hilary

Nearly two months after the campsite opened, officials had another challenge to deal with — the first tropical storm to hit San Diego County since 1930.

City officials and campsite staff responded by arranging transportation for all participants to go to a downtown shelter. Officials said residents were allowed to take a few essential items, while everything else was put in secure storage containers on site. Staff placed sandbags to divert water. 

The campsite was cleared out and secured in six hours, Smith said. It was an all-hands effort.

The storm passed without causing any damage to the site and people were welcomed back the following day.

“Since this was a new program and unknown weather conditions forecasted, the city took all steps necessary to prevent damage and keep folks safe during Tropical Storm Hilary,” Nicholes said. 

The city is also considering an idea to place tents on top of platforms to add additional protection for future weather and other issues, she added.

‘A godsend’

Of all the difficulty and discomfort experienced by some, others said they were grateful for every free meal, access to showers, friendly staff and a chance to make a change.

Jeremy Riley said his first three weeks at the campsite have been “a godsend.”

“This is a great place to be while I’m getting my documentation in order,” he said. “There’s a lot that has to be in line to get into (housing).”

Riley said he’s been unhoused for the past several years, bouncing around San Diego and staying where he can lie low. 

“This gives me a moment of reprieve,” he said of the campsite. “I don’t have to worry about my things. I don’t have to worry about food.”

Riley said he has avoided going into homeless shelters because they feel like “a damn battle zone” downtown. For now, he said this campsite works for him while he looks for housing and a job as a mechanic.

“All I want to do is go home and go to work,” he said. “I want to work four days a week, 10-hour shifts, and I want to go home and stay home after that.”

A quicker alternative 

Riley isn’t the only campsite resident who avoids the city’s shelter system. 

A 38-year-old man named Jason tried to get into the campsite last month and waited for a spot to open up. inewsource agreed not to identify him by his full name because he’s afraid talking to the media would hurt his chances of finding a spot. Jason said a typical shelter, where bunkbeds fill a warehouse-style setting, doesn’t work for him.

“I don’t like the environment,” he said. “It’s more detrimental to my health and somebody else’s. I just don’t like being that close to people.”

City officials have heard the same feedback, and that’s what makes the campsite attractive to some. People can maintain personal space while also accessing services that could help them move on to a better life, Nicholes said.

And officials are able to bring these sites on quicker, Nicholes added. Providing indoor shelter, whether it’s a sprung structure or a traditional brick-and-mortar facility, takes time. The campsite plays a key role in bridging the gap between available shelter beds and those who need them, as the city works to open more shelter options.  

The entrance to San Diego’s camping site on 26th Street is shown on Aug. 3, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

The city’s Safe Sleeping Program aims to quickly identify sites that can be set up with features already present, such as electricity, running water and open space.

‘A stepping stone’

Keith Johnson said he fell into homelessness after experiencing medical issues. He was behind on rent and before he knew it, he was living on the streets of Clairemont. 

Johnson, 60, lived there for about two years until he was offered a spot at the campsite, he said. 

“Everything is better than the streets,” he said during a press conference at the campsite last month. “When you get off the streets, that’s when you start making your own mind up and making your own decisions for yourself.”

Johnson said he lived at the campsite for about two weeks before moving into a single-room occupancy downtown. He also managed to get back to work, taking a job in home and business restoration.

“The streets were very bad for me,” Johnson said. The campsite is “just a step — another step up, another step up. I take this as a stepping stone, the next step for your life.”

Smith, the nonprofit CEO, pointed to him as a success story. The most rewarding part of her job is helping people like Johnson find the elusive “golden nugget” of housing. 

“That’s why we do this work,” Smith said, “trying to find that right match for the right person — that’s the most rewarding piece. Knowing this is over for them and they’re moving on.”

As of earlier this month, the campsite had enrolled 220 households. Johnson is one of at least eight people who found housing, while 91 others left for various other reasons, according to the city.

City officials are working to open a second campsite later this year in another fenced-in parking lot near the Naval Medical Center in Balboa Park, known as “Lot O.” That space will include 400 tents.

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...

Zoë Meyers is a photo and video journalist at inewsource. Zoë loves working as a visual journalist because it gives her the privilege of witnessing moments in people's personal lives and in our community that can enhance our understanding of important stories. When she's not behind the camera, Zoë...