As street homelessness booms, city leaders and advocates are increasingly mulling where homeless San Diegans can legally go.

A City Council committee last week ordered a report on what it would take to establish safe parking and so-called care zones where homeless people could settle without fear of being ticketed or arrested simply for living on the street, as part of a broader look at potential short-term homelessness solutions. A spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer said his office is already looking into possibilities.

A lawsuit filed earlier this month that called for the city to stop using a city code meant to target trash dumpsters to cite the homeless adds more fuel to the conversation.

The growing focus on where homeless people can settle is a reflection of some uncomfortable realities: Fewer homeless San Diegans are checking into shelters despite an increase in available shelter beds, and permanent housing is scarce. Meanwhile, police enforcement affecting homeless people has increased.

So now, even as new shelter proposals are floated, city leaders are considering other options.

“We need to be able to find bridge opportunities in some form to effectively provide services to them while getting people off of our streets,” said City Councilman Chris Ward, chair of the City Council’s Select Committee on Homelessness.

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

Ward thinks city-controlled parking lots or other undeveloped properties could serve as places for homeless people to spend the night and perhaps receive targeted help and outreach from the county and nonprofit agencies. He’s recommended the city look at parking lots where homeless people living in cars can park overnight, and consider zones where homeless people in tents can avoid police enforcement. He’s also advocating a look at Golden Hall and the former Chargers practice field as potential locations for shelter beds for people already in line for permanent housing.

The committee Ward leads is set to receive a report in September that touches on potential cost and logistics, as well and the outcomes associated with similar efforts in places like Seattle and Santa Barbara.

A spokesman for Faulconer said his team has already been analyzing options.

“The mayor’s office is continuing to explore using parking lots for temporary overnight shelter for homeless individuals,” spokesman Craig Gustafson wrote in an email. “We’re identifying potential locations and partners, including other government agencies, faith-based organizations, etc.”

These aren’t new conversations.

Last year, former City Councilman Todd Gloria asked whether the city could consider establishing city-sponsored safe parking lot for homeless people living in RVs as the city discussed making an ordinance regulating oversized vehicles parked on the street permanent. The ordinance was made permanent but the lot never materialized though nonprofit Dreams for Change operates private lots for homeless people in cars – not RVs – elsewhere in the city.

And about five years ago, now-retired Assistant Police Chief Boyd Long held meetings with nonprofits and advocates to discuss establishing a place where homeless people could pitch their tents overnight without fear of tickets from police and service providers could provide supports.

The goal at the time, Long said, was to answer a question homeless people often ask as police officers ticket them or tell them to move on: If I can’t be here, where can I go?

“It gave you a safe place to go,” Long said.

Long and David Dewitt, who leads the nonprofit City of Refuge, visited multiple sites hoping to find an acceptable location. They never found one community leaders could get behind.

“Everybody says, ‘Not in my backyard’ but you accept it in your front yard,” said Dewitt, reflecting on the effort years later. “You do nothing, you got it in your front yard.”

The idea could find some traction years later. Attorneys representing 10 homeless San Diegans who’ve received encroachment citations have said they’re eager to negotiate with the city on potential solutions, including places where homeless people could go without fear of arrest or citations.

Long said a past lawsuit by Scott Dreher, one of two lawyers who filed the new suit, helped kick-start the discussion years ago. He hopes current city leaders seriously consider the idea now that street homelessness has grown even more, particularly downtown.

“It would help downtown to have a place for the homeless who live on sidewalks downtown to go and be safe,” Long said.

    This article relates to: Government, Homelessness, Police, Public Safety

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

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

    John Porter
    John Porter subscriber

    The homeless problem will just keep increasing with the advent of global warming and deteriorating economics.  The west coast is seen by the rest of the country as a relatively safe haven.  The problem is that, as we help them, the act itself will encourage more to come.  This is going to be a huge problem for all of us that has no easy, moral solution.  They won't go away....

    Chris Wood
    Chris Wood subscriber

    Comment: “…He’s recommended the city look at parking lots where homeless people living in cars can park overnight,…”

    Targeting homeless car owners is good idea for several reasons:

    Homeless people with cars still have some resources, probably do not have drug or alcohol problems – or they would have sold the car or lost their license.

    They have a way to go to work – if work is available.

    They have a way to go home if their work provides enough income. (i.e. low cost housing may not be where jobs are.

    They have a way to stay in communication vehicle charger for phone, tablet and computer power.

    They can secure their belongings.

    People with RVs may have decided that is the life for them – but nobody wants to sleep in a car the rest of their lives.

    Suggest that homeless parking lots have communal restrooms and showers (to ease job reentry) and if possible physical job posting boards (also WiFi for Craigslist jobs connections etc) to help people get out of homelessness.

    There may have to be some thought about adverse effects (i.e. numbered parking stickers with a location stay allowance (2 months? In one location).

    The idea is that car owners are best able to escape homelessness– so they should be addressed first. Especially since the cost of building housing in San Diego is prohibitive (“Low” cost or not).

    Christopher Dye
    Christopher Dye

    Could we use Qualcomm stadium not only for temporary housing, but build permanent affordable housing units for the homeless as well? I'd rather use that space for something that will impact thousands of people's lives in a profound way over supporting a sport's stadium.

    Jack Mancilla
    Jack Mancilla

    Has anyone asked them?

    Or, are all the answers so far just looking for a way to sweep them under a rug?

    Do the answers you have so far, reflect their needs for proximity to food? Water? A place to walk to in reasonable time? Health care? A Library? Internet access? Showers? Soap? Laundry? Cloathing? Shoes? Personal grooming? Police if THEY need them?

    Brian Halderman
    Brian Halderman

    Yes, this, exactly. I live, work and shop downtown. I’ve seen people go from sleeping on the sidewalk to getting a job and a place to live. I’ve also seen people who seem content to stay on the street and just want to be left alone. Help those that want it, and don’t harass the ones that aren’t causing any problems. Ticketing them is a waste of time and taxpayer money if there are no solutions to their problems.

    Some cities give free apartments to homeless people that are dedicated to getting off the streets. I hope San Diego has looked into how effective those programs are. We don’t have a huge homeless problem, compared to some other cities, but we could definitely be doing more.

    Gabriel Doe
    Gabriel Doe

    Yes, but most always find a way to abuse that generosity. San Diego lit the beacon, and is now stuck with the influx of humanity, I know you mean well, but not everyone will be comfortable with an increase in taxes, while housing and the general cost of living has spiraled out of control, more people are homeless due to their lack of social conformity, than the few hard luck cases that we all pray will bounce back on their feet.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    The former Chargers practice field.  Sweet irony.  Let's do it!

    Glenn Younger
    Glenn Younger subscribermember

    Thanks for keeping up the coverage Lisa.  I take issue with one persistent inference;

    That beds and programs are unavailable. 

    The problem seems to be that many of the urban campers do not want or need a “bed”, nor will they be able to take advantage of the available housing options, because they cannot or will not comply with the rules regarding both of these options. 

    What our urban camper advocates seem to want is a place, for those currently camping on sidewalks,  to gather, that is not governed by the rule of law, and has no requirements that they must abide. Sort of a lawless wild wild west, lord of the flies, type community.   

    It is really time to de-bunk the concept that our urban campers have not been offered help.  They have been, and they continue to be offered help, and they refuse.  Drugs, drinking, the desire to keep their “stuff” and pets with them, and mental health issues, all are impediments to getting help.  Until we focus on that reality we will not get to the root of the problem  and our health crisis will continue.  

    Gabriel Doe
    Gabriel Doe

    Very well said, you have the truth of it!