Inside the City's Effort to Clean Up a Midway Homeless Camp
Officials said they took down a homeless encampment in the Midway District because it obstructed the roadway and constituted a risk to public health and safety. The residents and advocates were no less bothered by what they experienced.
A homeless encampment has grown in the Midway District over the past couple months. About two dozen residents have set up tents and sheltered along the 2500 block of Sports Arena Boulevard.
Homeless encampments are nothing new in San Diego. In fact, they’ve become a common visual across the region, but this one has been gaining more attention lately.
While out on assignment on Tuesday morning for a different project, Voice of San Diego witnessed a concentrated city effort to clear the encampment that has built up.
The city reports that it has received many complaints about the growing camp in recent months.
City spokeswoman Ashley Bailey told VOSD that a portion of the steadily growing camp began spilling into the road alongside a Midway shopping center last week.
“Obstruction of the roadway and the conditions in which individuals were living in that area are a public health and safety risk,” Bailey wrote in an email.
She said city-funded, non-police outreach workers and the Police Department’s homeless outreach team had previously engaged with homeless residents living in the camps — each on multiple occasions.
Around 9 a.m. Tuesday, VOSD photographer Adriana Heldiz arrived to find several homeless residents arranging their belongings in anticipation of an upcoming encampment clean-up overseen by San Diego police, city workers and city contractors.
During these operations — which the city dubs abatements — homeless residents are ordered to gather their belongings and move out of the area.
Items that aren’t claimed or that city workers deem to be unsanitary or not seeming to have personal value go into a garbage truck.
Per city policy set by a past legal settlement, city workers must post notice at least three hours before camp clean-ups to give residents a chance to pack up their belongings and move out of the area.
Homeless advocate Michael McConnell said the city has traditionally posted a 72-hour notice before operations to clear the Midway homeless camp.
That didn’t happen this week, drawing the attention of an attorney who negotiated a settlement agreement that only allows the city to give shorter notice when storage is available.
The Midway camp is far from city-funded storage centers.
Attorney Scott Dreher told VOSD he expects to speak to the city about the noticing issue on Thursday.
“You’re doing this to people who have nowhere to go, nowhere to put their stuff,” Dreher said.
A spokeswoman for City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office said Wednesday her office could not immediately comment on that concern.
Before the operation began Tuesday, the Police Department’s homeless outreach team offered homeless residents shelter beds.
Many residents in the area declined those offers, citing recent COVID-19 outbreaks at shelters.
One man, who was staying in the encampment with his wife and children, told an officer that some shelters don’t allow families to stay together. He said they didn’t want to be separated again.
Advocates who looked on expressed exasperation and concern for the homeless residents.
“This is insanity,” Amie Zamudio exclaimed during a Facebook Live video she posted Wednesday during the second clean-up day in a row.
Bailey said outreach teams had offered shelter to residents in the days before clearing the camp, and a similar attempt to clean the area last week didn’t go well.
“The individuals became violent and city crews determined it was unsafe to proceed,” Bailey wrote.
City crews did proceed on Tuesday — and again on Wednesday.
Soon after the homeless outreach officers finished talking to residents at the camp on Tuesday morning, other officers and city workers rolled in. Soon, they started engaging residents and writing tickets. Some were for illegal lodging, which means staying somewhere without permission.
Bailey said police issued two infractions and three misdemeanor citations, which followed previous contacts, violations and shelter offers.
One person was arrested on a felony warrant, she said.
Marvin C., a homeless resident staying in the Midway District who declined to give his complete last name, watched as officers and city workers conducted the sweep.
Holding the notice in his hand, Marvin told officers they weren’t following the policy requiring city workers to check to see if any of the belongings in the area were salvageable before throwing them into the garbage truck.
Marvin worried that individuals who didn’t make it in time to claim their belongings would lose important documentation they might have left inside their tents like birth certificates.
Indeed, Mayor Todd Gloria earlier this year directed city workers to take a more compassionate approach to camp clean-ups.
Gloria directed city workers to consider a more regular clean-up schedule in certain areas with permanent signage to help homeless residents prepare. For now, there isn’t a set schedule at the Midway camp.
Gloria’s office also directed workers to take care with homeless San Diegans’ belongings.
“City crews conducting cleanups are responsible for saving and storing items that may have personal value, such as jewelry, photos, identification or legal documents. Staff will post clearer and more detailed instructions for how to contact the city so items can be delivered back to their owners,” Gloria’s office wrote in a March press release.
Bailey said city environmental services workers save items that are unsoiled or seem to be of personal value, including paperwork, photos, Bibles, journals and medication.
But she said city workers didn’t identify any items to impound on Tuesday morning.
“All of the tents were soiled with food, human waste, pet waste, or insect infestation, or were in disrepair,” Bailey wrote. “One unsheltered resident told (Environmental Services Department) staff they no longer wanted a tent because it was torn.”
She said the city and its contractors collected six tons of trash and debris on Tuesday morning alone.