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Officials Consider an Answer to the Homeless Question They Hear Most: Where Can People Go?

Amid rising street homelessness, San Diego leaders are increasingly talking about short-term places for homeless people to settle without the threat of being cited by police.

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.

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.

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