Mayor's Decision on Homeless Tent Cities Now Framed by Horrific Crash

Government

Mayor's Decision on Homeless Tent Cities Now Framed by Horrific Crash

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria has been grappling with how to deal with homeless tent encampments that are proliferating. Monday a driver plowed into one of them, killing three and injuring six others.

Mayor Todd Gloria speaks at a press conference about the deadly crash on B Street in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said Monday it was inhumane to keep allowing people to live on the streets after a driver police say was intoxicated plowed into a camp of tents near San Diego City College, killing three homeless residents and injuring six others.

What he’ll do, though, is still unclear. Since he became mayor, Gloria has weighed a decision about how to change the approach to homelessness he inherited from former Mayor Kevin Faulconer. He has largely kept up Faulconer’s enforcement efforts. But with less space in jails, where many on the street ended up after the sweeps, and a homelessness crisis likely exacerbated by the pandemic, the encampments have proliferated.

The deadly crash Monday as a storm approached was a shocking reminder of the dangers people who live in those tent cities face and of the challenge the mayor and a largely new class of City Council members have inherited. The growing encampments may be unacceptable to city leaders but they don’t have the housing and services available to stem their spread. At the same time, the Monday crash was another in a string of historic calamities to strike people who live on the street, who have faced health crises, murderous attacks and accidents. Gloria pledged to change the city’s approach to homeless camps and the people staying in them but it’s not clear how he’ll proceed.

San Diego Police and San Diego Fire-Rescue officials examine the scene of a deadly crash on B Street in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Homeless people have long used the tunnel on B Street as a refuge. At a press conference just before 11 a.m., the city’s fire and police chiefs briefed reporters on how the Volvo station wagon driven by a man later identified as 71-year-old Craig Voss ran off the road and onto the sidewalk housing a collection of tents.

Mayor Todd Gloria speaks at a press conference about the deadly crash on B Street in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Then Gloria himself addressed the media.

“This crash this morning did not have to be so devastating. Let me state it very clearly: A street is not a home,” Gloria said, according to NBC 7 San Diego. “It’s not humane or safe to keep allowing our unsheltered neighbors to keep sleeping under bridges, in alleys or in canyons.”

Gloria has said he wants the city to overhaul its approach to homelessness and to focus more on connecting homeless San Diegans with help and housing than on the police enforcement that surged on former Faulconer’s watch.

But data obtained by Voice of San Diego after public records requests shows that police enforcement has continued on Gloria’s watch and that police wrote a similar number of citations for crimes associated with homelessness through January as they did in the final months of Faulconer’s term.

City data also shows there hasn’t been a dramatic decrease in homeless camp clean-ups – operations that come with orders that homeless people move elsewhere so workers can clean those areas.

Homeless residents set up tents on Commercial Street in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Meanwhile, homeless camps have grown, especially on downtown sidewalks.

Gloria told VOSD he has ordered some changes, though, as he studies the city’s existing approach. For example, the mayor directed the city to halt police enforcement and clean-up operations affecting homeless San Diegans during inclement weather.

“We’re taking a more thoughtful approach that isn’t about quick fixes,” Gloria told VOSD earlier this month.

The mayor has also brought on the former chief of the federal agency coordinating the national response to homelessness to give him recommendations this spring on the role police should play in addressing homelessness and how it should handle enforcement going forward.

Later Monday, after a question from KPBS’s Andrew Bown, Gloria clarified that his statements that we could not keep allowing people to live like that don’t reflect an intent to increase enforcement of homeless camps.

“There’s not a crackdown on homeless folks,” Gloria said. “What we need is for more folks to avail themselves of the existing opportunities that are out there while we work to increase the number of beds.”

Brian Gruters of nonprofit PATH, which has a contract to provide outreach across the city, said nearly a dozen outreach workers deployed soon after the accident on Monday to speak to homeless San Diegans near the site of the accident and offer shelter and other resources. Mental health clinicians and chaplains were also on hand.

“We’re gonna try to find everyone shelter,” Gruters told VOSD.

City spokeswoman Ashley Bailey said beds were made available at the Convention Center shelter for those staying in the B Street tunnel this morning, though the shelter is set to start closing next Monday. The city had curtailed intakes into the shelter ahead of the closure.

“At least three individuals accepted services as of 4 p.m.,” Bailey wrote in an email to VOSD. “We will be keeping additional resources near the site of the crash to provide anyone who returns with services and options for shelter.”

Throughout the day, witnesses were trying to process what happened.

Terry Goffigan and Lisa Brotzman embrace each other in front of the scene of a deadly crash on B Street, where they both sheltered overnight. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Esteban Hernandez, 46, told The Union-Tribune that he had been awakened Monday morning by screeching tires and then his tent was sent spinning. When Hernandez crawled out, he said he found someone he knew injured but still breathing and another dead.

“It wasn’t someone I was really close to, but it still … it still hurts,” Hernandez told the U-T.

As of Monday evening, the city had yet to announce the names of those who passed away, but Fire Chief Colin Stowell told reporters that three people who had been in critical condition were “awake, alert and answering questions.”

As police piece together what happened, the city and Gloria are left to grapple with what to do about a humanitarian crisis that is continuing – and has yet again spawned another high-profile loss of life.

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