For two years, San Diego’s fought a losing battle against the homeless camps that now dominate some downtown streets and canyons citywide.

Throughout the fight, San Diego has made a series of decisions that all send the same message: Homeless encampments are not permanent. Don’t get comfortable.

From installing rocks meant to deter homeless people from settling under an overpass to apparently warning groups against public feedings and conducting weekly encampment sweeps, the city is doing all it can to ensure no one thinks the present state is sustainable, all while failing to put forward anything resembling a long-term solution.

And now, it’s confronted with a growing public health crisis that underlines just how unsuccessful those efforts have been.

San Diego homelessness crisis helped spawn an unprecedented hepatitis A outbreak that’s disproportionately battered San Diego’s homeless population and left 15 dead.

The crisis has likely been exacerbated by homeless San Diegan’s lack of access to public restrooms – another outcome of the city’s approach.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The city’s efforts have been aimed at keeping visitors and residents separated from homeless people, supporting businesses that have taken their own steps to keep the homeless away – and keeping homeless people from getting too comfortable on the street.

Those residents and businesses can’t ignore the surge in people living on the street. This year’s point-in-time count showed a 35 percent spike in street homelessness countywide since 2015. A downtown business group census conducted recently showed the population staying in those neighborhoods more than doubled from August 2015 to August 2017.

Yet efforts to address basic needs for that growing population with amenities such as public restrooms or most recently, temporary hand-washing stations to fight the hepatitis A outbreak, are often met with resistance – and comments one might expect about household pests.

Take two San Diego Metropolitan Transit System officials’ most immediate concerns following the county’s request last month to install two hand-washing stations at an East Village transit hub.

“My only thoughts are that this would probably become a magnet for homeless people to come onto our property just to use the sink (take a bath, brush their teeth, wash their dishes, etc.), especially during non-revenue hours,” MTS security director Manuel Guaderrama wrote in an Aug. 15 email.

An MTS spokesman has since said the agency might be open to alternative locations or methods, including hand wipes, which health experts say aren’t as effective at combating the virus.

Last year, former City Ballpark Administrator John Casey and City Traffic Engineer Linda Marabian joked in a series of emails about wanting rocks the city later installed under the Interstate 5 underpass at Imperial Avenue ahead of last year’s All-Star Game to “look mean.”

Mariabian also acknowledged those settled in tents under the underpass would likely just end up moving elsewhere.

The city’s website also offers public advice on ways to keep away the homeless.

A San Diego Police Department web page lists landscape trimming and bench design tips, among other suggestions, to help San Diegans “avoid problems with homeless people.”

Police and park rangers play whack-a-mole on the streets too.

Police are increasingly using a city code meant to address stray trash bins to force homeless San Diegans to move. The city has stepped up patrols on Fiesta Island and around Mission Bay Park, where homeless people in cars and RVs started to settle overnight in greater numbers.

Homeless San Diegans see these scenarios, and the lethargic local reaction to the hepatitis A outbreak, as more evidence of how some of their fellow citizens view them.

“The homeless are the lowest of the low as far as humanity in this city,” said Julie Porter, who’s spent stints on the street and who now moves an old RV from place to place daily to try to avoid tickets from police.

Indeed, Porter and others say, homeless San Diegans often struggle to find restrooms or a safe place to simply be.

Most homeless people I’ve spoken with over two years writing about homelessness say they’re not satisfied with life on the street. They’d prefer a permanent home.

But the more immediate options that are available, such as shelter beds offered by police, can be even less ideal options than the street. They don’t want to abandon partners or pets, stay in a packed shelter or follow rules that seem too rigid to them.

City officials, business owners and residents are caught in their own binds.

There aren’t many permanent solutions available, and the prospect of permanent encampments isn’t part of anyone’s idea of a vibrant downtown.

Residents and businesses describe uncomfortable encounters, drug use, feces and assaults outside their doorsteps. They say homeless people who set up tents or hang around their businesses are deterring visitors or customers.

The city’s taking their complaints. And city officials say those homeless camps often come with crime and public-safety concerns they must address.

Stacey LoMedico, the city’s assistant chief operating officer, has been a player in years of the city’s dealings with its homeless populations.

LoMedico acknowledged public restrooms downtown and elsewhere have been plagued with challenges including prostitution, drug use and instances where blood and urine have been spread on bathroom walls.

LoMedico said the city’s trying to balance the needs of homeless people who simply want to use the restrooms with others who misuse them. And she said those who misuse them may even increase health risks, including hepatitis A, for others.

“Illegal activities, unprotected sex and drug activities actually is not lending itself to help the (hepatitis A) virus and not transmitting the virus,” LoMedico said.

For that reason, LoMedico said, the city’s open to deploying hand-washing stations to combat hepatitis A but is concerned about quickly adding more public restrooms.

Joel Rocco, who co-owns an East Village boxing and mixed martial arts gym, is all too familiar – and dissatisfied – with the city’s balancing act.

He wishes the city would do more – and learn from other cities.

“They need to be examining other cities and how they’ve done it and implement a program that actually works,” Rocco said. “Obviously, what they’re doing now doesn’t work.”

Other cities have tried sanctioned campgrounds and safe parking lots where homeless people can access services and stay overnight without fear of police citations.

San Diego’s poised to start more seriously discussing those options.

A City Council committee is set to hear a report this month on what it would take to establish safe parking and so-called care zones, as part of a broader look at potential short-term homelessness solutions.

A spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer has said his team’s also looking at possibilities. The hepatitis A crisis may add more urgency to such conversations. In some ways, it already has.

On Friday, Faulconer promised city staff would quickly sign off on a county request to deploy temporary hand-washing stations across the city to help combat the crisis.

Faulconer and other city leaders have said homeless camps aren’t ideal.

But the city is learning the hard way that not addressing the basic needs of those living in them can come with side effects too.

    This article relates to: Government, Homelessness

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about San Diego city and county governments. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

    16 comments
    Joseph Vargo
    Joseph Vargo

    Seems the city has other priorities and human life isn't one of them. So, when someone shows you who they are, What else are you capable of?

    Gabriel Doe
    Gabriel Doe

    Higgins,

    I work with the homeless, barring the children, mentals, and the ones working to get a place, the majority have consciously chosen to fight against conformity regardless if its; school, employment, the streets, or jail, they still fail to realize that our very existence in life is one great big "quid pro quo" starting with this analogy, if you will: "be good and mommy will buy you and ice-cream cone", however, they reply: "buy me an ice-cream cone and then I'll be good", but never quite live up to their end of the bargain. Help where you can, but the city taxpayers should not have to hold these people's hand and walk them through this thing called life as they imagine themselves to be Don Quixote.

    Gina Von
    Gina Von

    HEPATITIS A Outbreak.....how far does this has to go before people wake up to how bad the problem really is?

    Gina Von
    Gina Von

    Please people....we need to give our police higher salaries! we do not have enough police officers because the pay is so bad. Does anyone know how to start a petition or initiative?

    Gina Von
    Gina Von

    Vagrancy used to be illegal. Now it is a lifestyle.

    Gabriel Doe
    Gabriel Doe

    You keep saying San Diegans when actually 70- 80% are not even from San Diego, or this state. San Diego should get with those city and states responsible for it's present dilemma, and pitition for some assistance from the identifiable masses, because it was blatantly irresponsible for these cities/states to burden San Diego with their cities/ states "Busing" programs with nothing more than a ticket just to get them out, after all, it was organized by them and has become very burdensome to the taxpayers of this lovely yet bum infested city!

    However, I digress because, without impassionate city officials and an ineffective judicial apparatus such as it is, this is nothing more then a pipedream.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Until there is the political will to correct this and remove the mentally ill from the streets this problem cannot be solved.

    http://www.lacourt.org/division/mentalhealth/MH0017.aspx

    What is the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act?

    The Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) Act provides guidelines for handling involuntary civil commitment of individuals to mental health institutions in the State of California. It was co-authored by California State Assemblyman Frank Lanterman, California State Senators Nicholas C. Petris and Alan Short, signed into law in 1967 by Governor Ronald Reagan, and went into full effect on July 1, 1972. The act set the precedent for modern mental health commitment procedures in the United States.

    The legislative intent of the 1967 Lanterman-Petris-Short Act is to:

    • End the inappropriate, indefinite, and involuntary commitment of persons with mental health disorders, developmental disabilities, and chronic alcoholism, and to eliminate legal disabilities
    • Provide prompt evaluation and treatment of persons with mental health disorders or impaired by chronic alcoholism
    • Guarantee and protect public safety
    • Safeguard individual rights through judicial review
    • Provide individualized treatment, supervision, and placement services by a conservatorship program for persons who are gravely disabled
    • Encourage the full use of all existing agencies, professional personnel and public funds to accomplish these objectives and to prevent duplication of services and unnecessary expenditures
    • Protect persons with mental health disorders and developmental disabilities from criminal acts

    The Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) Act is part of the California Welfare and Institutions Code (WIC). It is covered under WIC Division 5, starting with Section 5000 and subsequent chapters and articles

    Glenn Younger
    Glenn Younger subscribermember

    @Mark Giffin Well said Mark.  

    The political will do take control of thoses who are not able to manage themselves is simply not there.  As Lisa mentions "They don’t want to abandon partners or pets, stay in a packed shelter or follow rules that seem too rigid to them."  Long term housing can not be an attainable solution if those it is intended for can not comply with the most basic of rules.

    It seems past time to address the homeless situation as the Mentel Health crisis that it is.  



    Joseph Vargo
    Joseph Vargo

    @Mark Giffin Thanks, good read.


    So the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act basically shifted responsibility onto local agencies. It stopped the long term institutionalizing of individuals in some pretty nasty places. Have no idea how you would frame that politically with any kind of consensuses. Anyone without a legal domicile and acting kooky could have a place to stay for twenty years. You could re-purpose the MMJ doctors to hand out psych evals. Seriously?

    craig Nelson
    craig Nelson

    Why hasn't VOSD housed them in their offices?  Even if you only took in 15 or 20 of them , think what an example you would be for others to follow suit?   And maybe an extra half hour lunch for employees who take one home and let them sleep on their couch or in their garage. 

    Gabriel Doe
    Gabriel Doe

    Good idea, let's see how many of their employees last a week.

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    I agree with many that say the existing homeless encampment are filthy, a magnet for crime and a general nuisance.  Having said that, what are the alternatives?  Permanent supportive housing has worked in other places, but in San Diego it is at least 10 years away, what do we do in the meantime?  The people who used to run the annual tent shelters have a proposal to house many of the homeless in tents.  It will not be perfect, there will be problems, and some of the homeless will not use them due to the rules, but it is better than what we are doing now.

    We must act now!  Our humanity demands we help those who have fallen, the existing situation is clearly not sustainable, and lastly it is for our own safety that we must act.  The homeless encampments, with their crowding, lack of sanitation and poor health habits, are a perfect breeding ground for a modern plague.  There are much worse things than Hep A out there.

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    Doe

    Great!  Not only do we have a problem with the Homeless we now have an infestation of Trolls.

    Gabriel Doe
    Gabriel Doe

    Open Qualcomm arena and have gladiator games with the homeless: "If you win, you get an apartment to do all the dope you want, if you lose... fertilizer. "

    We'll starting with the child molesters and work our way down. lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!

    And see how fast they clear out of here.

    This would make more money for the city than comic con!

    Sorry, a little levity, after all you'll still wake up in the morning and smell bum in the air.

    Gabriel Doe
    Gabriel Doe

    Higgins-

    Oh yeah, your idea will workout just fine; Hey yeah! Let's throw money at the problem, that always seems to work! When more come just keep building, right?

    rhylton
    rhylton subscriber

    Don' t get comfortable?  Rass! that is old news,  what do you think installation of the hardscape was for?