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A deadly hepatitis A outbreak has given city officials an opening to clear some of its entrenched homeless camps, and new shelters could bring more police enforcement too.
The city hasn’t cleared the homeless out of East Village for years, because it didn’t have anywhere to send them.
Now, due to a deadly hepatitis A outbreak, the push is on. But the city still has no good place to put the thousands of people who had turned the streets of East Village into its own version of Skid Row.
For two years, tents, tarps and shopping carts covered sidewalks on both sides of a stretch of 17th Street. Police activity and human suffering ran rampant, and nearby resident and business owners complained constantly about drug use, violence and blocked sidewalks.
Now police have cleared East Village sidewalks, a move they say was spurred by the need to power-wash the area.
“We are trying to save lives,” Police Lt. Scott Wahl said. “We are trying to get on top of this hepatitis A outbreak.”
The city has for years resisted creating legal permanent camps where the homeless are allowed to set up tents without being cited by police. The hepatitis outbreak grew in part as a result of the illegal, makeshift camps that sprung up as a result.
City Councilman Chris Ward, who represents downtown, has also called for immediate shelter beds at Golden Hall and more sanctioned camp sites and parking lots for homeless people living in cars, including in the former Qualcomm Stadium and Sports Arena parking lots.
The city’s move to clear the streets of the East Village before it’s secured a medium- or long-term solution seems to defy preliminary guidance from consultants hired by the federal government, according to a document obtained by Voice of San Diego.
The consultants proposed trying to quickly connect those living on 17th Street with permanent housing rather than the temporary action the city’s taken the past two weeks. They’re set to return to San Diego and provide more detailed recommendations this week.
The consultants acknowledged, though, that the encampments were likely fueling the spread of hepatitis.
“The volume of consumers present, the poor state of sheltering equipment, the limited outreach presence and the general levels of uncleanliness appear to make urban encampments the areas where hepatitis A is likely to thrive,” the consultants wrote in a memo to regional leaders.
Greg Block, a spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, said the city has yet to implement the consultants’ suggestions and must clear the camps to do necessary cleaning. He said the mayor is pursuing the shelter beds and the sanctioned campground in an attempt to offer homeless San Diegans more options amid the outbreak.
“I would say it’s a new tool to help get people off the streets and into better living conditions,” Block said.
But the new shelters also give city leaders an option to pursue criminal crackdowns on homeless people who remain on the streets. Thanks to a court settlement, police must have a shelter bed available before they can arrest or cite someone on the street for illegal lodging.
Police have found a way around that rule, though, by instead citing homeless people using a city code meant to address stray trash bins. Now there’s a new class action challenging the city’s use of that code.
Gerry Braun, chief of staff to City Attorney Mara Elliott, deferred questions about potential enforcement to police and the mayor’s office. He said attorneys would need to confer with city officials and perhaps a judge to determine if a sanctioned campground could be factored into the settlement agreement.
Increased enforcement is already under way now.
Until recently, Wahl said police reported an average of 30 encroachment arrests or citations a week in the downtown area most deluged with tents.
The past two weeks, Wahl said, police have hit an average of 50 encroachment tickets or arrests.
He said officers have also offered services, shelter beds and information about hepatitis A vaccinations as they clear the sidewalks to prepare for cleaning.
Block wouldn’t say whether more enforcement might come with the additional shelter beds and safe zone at 20th and B streets.
“In response to the public health emergency, the city is aggressively sanitizing sidewalks and other public areas and posting warning signs well before the cleanup begins,” Block wrote. “In order to properly clean those areas, they must be clear of people and their belongings so police officers are respectfully asking individuals to move along while at the same time offering shelter opportunities and other supportive services.”
Many aren’t accepting shelter or other services.
Wahl said just 31 of 182 homeless San Diegans police have encountered have accepted help. Many of those living on the streets have told VOSD that they’re wary of offers that come from police officers who dole out tickets that can upend their lives.
Meanwhile, many are fleeing to other areas.
Balboa Park Conservancy CEO Tomas Herrera-Mishler estimates he’s seen the homeless population in the park double in the last two weeks as the city stepped up enforcement and street cleaning downtown.
He said he recently spotted a homeless person with a shopping cart in the Plaza de Panama and has encountered homeless San Diegans during regular park tours.
“I’ve never seen homeless people sleeping on my route until this last week,” Herrera-Mishler said.
That underlines a consistent reality about enforcement and sweeps: Homeless people don’t cease to exist simply because they’ve been forced to move along. They just go elsewhere.
Ramiro Betancourt, a 36-year-old Marine veteran who’s lived on downtown streets since May, said he’s found the sweeps exhausting. He’s remained downtown but said he’s moved from place to place downtown based on police enforcement.
He said the sweeps complicate homeless San Diegans’ lives rather than help end their homelessness, and their increased frequency the past couple weeks has been demoralizing. He isn’t buying the rationale police are offering.
“It makes us feel like the city looks at us like we’re animals,” Betancourt said. “We don’t want to be out here.”
Gordon Walker, CEO of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, acknowledged the forced movements aren’t an answer to a person’s homelessness.
What officials in San Diego have learned though, Walker said, is that clearing areas and breaking up camps might help slow the hepatitis outbreak.
“Moving people seems to be helpful in dealing with health outbreaks, health crises. It’s not necessarily helping toward the final goal of housing them,” he said. “If they were being moved from the streets into permanent supportive housing that would be a solution. That’s something we still have to work at here in San Diego.”
Many San Diegans urged the city to up enforcement and break up homeless camps long before the hepatitis A outbreak hit San Diego.
Parents in the areas most packed with tents described the need to accompany their children on the short walk to school and business owners said increasing street homelessness in East Village hurt their bottom lines.
Joel Rocco, a co-owner of an East Village boxing gym, has been outspoken about the nightmare he’s faced as more tents went up.
“Even if they have open lots, put ‘em in tents in open lots – like a gigantic tent, just some type of place where they’re not out here,” Rocco told me in August. “Police that area, some controlled environment. This is just like a free-for-all.”