Chaos and Confusion Pervade Homeless Camps Downtown

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Chaos and Confusion Pervade Homeless Camps Downtown

As homelessness rises in San Diego, so does police enforcement and questions about where the homeless are allowed to go – before and after they’re hit with citations and orders to stay away.

When 22-year-old Alexis Leftridge became homeless in downtown San Diego, she was thrust into a constant battle.

Police cited or arrested Leftridge, a mother of a 3-month-old son, on at least 15 separate occasions over the past two years.

Her crimes? Most often, blocking the sidewalk with the tent she set up in East Village. Several citations and three jail stays later, Leftridge has grappled with warrants and orders barring her from the downtown blocks that are home to a cluster of homeless service providers. One of those nonprofits is now trying to help Leftridge and her son find a permanent home.

“They’re spending money on putting us in jail instead of spending money on putting us into programs or housing that will help us get off the street,” said Leftridge, who spent multiple nights in jail while she was pregnant. She considered her time there less chaotic than her experience on 16th Street.

Police citations and interactions have especially soared in downtown San Diego, where a business group’s most recent count tallied more than 1,200 living on the streets in those neighborhoods alone.

There, chaos and confusion are palpable. Homeless people pack some downtown blocks with their tents, tarps and shopping carts. In some cases, their camps even extend onto the street. By day, many leave their belongings on the sidewalk and head to parks, the library or elsewhere. Other blocks are mostly dormant.

In some areas, security guards are a near-constant presence. Police officers descend when there are complaints or confrontations, getting to know the homeless people they engage with daily.

Yet homeless people and those who advocate for them describe regularly conflicting messages about what’s allowed.

What’s acceptable one day may not be the next. And some homeless people appear to attract more attention from police and security teams than others for reasons that aren’t always clear to them.

When police ask homeless people to move along, homeless people often ask officers where they can go instead. There’s rarely an easy answer.

“There’s really nowhere else for us to go,” said John Brady, a homeless advocate who until recently lived on downtown streets. Brady, a member of the Voices of Our City Choir, was one of a dozen homeless people cited for encroachment outside an East Village church last December.

Homeless San Diegans and the police who patrol their makeshift settlements are at the frontline of a regional fight against rising homelessness. An influx of new residents and condo owners in East Village are increasingly interacting with homeless people and encouraging the increased police confrontations. Businesses and the groups who represent them are calling in complaints, too.

The daily clashes have spurred a class action calling on the city to stop using a city code meant to help clear debris from sidewalks as a means to ticket homeless people who’ve set down their belongings.

Attorneys Scott Dreher and Kath Rogers allege the city’s current approach violates homeless San Diegans’ civil and constitutional rights and complicates their lives rather than helping them get off the street.

The city attorney’s office said Monday it would review the lawsuit and confer with city officials.

Photo by Lisa Halverstadt
Photo by Lisa Halverstadt

Leftridge is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit – and in some ways, she’s one of the lucky ones. She’s secured transitional housing at Father Joe’s Villages. Yet her new home sits within the area she’s been ordered to stay away from – she still fears police might jail her if she’s spotted walking near the St. Vincent de Paul campus. She also worries about her fiancé, who remains on the street with at least one stay-away order of his own.

Her concerns aren’t uncommon. As the homeless population has grown, so too have citations against them, and those can lead to stay-away orders that limit where they can go.

Citations and arrests for encroachment and illegal lodging, two violations often leveled against San Diego’s homeless, are up 53 percent for the first five months of 2017, compared with the same period the previous year, according to police data obtained through a California Public Records Act request. The Superior Court doesn’t compile statistics on stay-away orders, making it difficult to track how prevalent they are. Stay-away orders are typically offered to homeless people in lieu of jail time or formal charges, or as part of a probation agreement after a person’s convicted.

Encroachment is a tool to address trash in public spaces. But the city has increasingly used it to disrupt homeless encampments. Illegal lodging, a charge wielded less often following a 2007 court settlement, comes with a higher bar that requires proving someone has settled somewhere without permission.

Police data shows encroachment citations, in particular, have risen dramatically the past five years.

Encroachment & Illegal Lodging Trends

Encroachment citations, which are more common than arrests, usually come with a ticket and a court date at a traffic court in Kearny Mesa. Getting to Kearny Mesa from downtown requires spending nearly an hour on multiple buses. That’s one reason many homeless people who receive citations end up missing their court dates, leading to warrants or additional fines.

Assistant Police Chief Chuck Kaye and other police supervisors have said police offer help and services to homeless residents before issuing those citations, and that they tend to pursue encroachment citations – which can be prosecuted like traffic tickets – because they come with lesser punishment and fines.

They also say they’re straining to balance concerns for the growing homeless population with complaints from residents and business owners in areas packed with homeless camps.

And they say most enforcement is a result of complaints from residents.

“Allowing (homeless people) to just completely set up a living space, a camp, a tent –  it creates environmental as well as health concerns for the community,” Kaye said. “We work very hard to make sure that we do progressive enforcement and that people are given plenty of opportunities to understand the rules.”

Homeless San Diegans, on the other hand, describe chaos and confusion about where they can go amid the constantly shifting rules that follow complaints.

Kaye said the department’s recently bolstered its attempts to get homeless folks help by partnering with nonprofits on outreach efforts and with the city attorney’s office on a new program to provide transitional housing to repeat offenders who often struggle with homelessness.

More recently, Kaye said, Homeless Outreach Team members have worked overtime on weekends.

The problem is that homeless people often find the shelter programs and other options police offer to be lacking. They fear they’ll lose some of their belongings, or worry about the rules and realities of life in a packed shelter, among other concerns.

Last year, police report just 14 percent of homeless San Diegans who interacted with the Homeless Outreach Team were placed into shelter or treatment – and that was an improvement over the previous year.

Leftridge, who was pregnant during multiple interactions she had with the police, said she had been reluctant to go into shelter during the time she received many of her citations. She had found some comfort with her fiancé and the family she’s found on the street and wanted to ensure she was in a shelter around the time of her son’s birth.

Kaye and Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, said police officers are reminded daily that more resources and options are needed to meet the homeless population’s needs.

Marvel said officers can feel saddled with a problem that demands far more than law enforcement can supply. He said enforcement is a necessary tool to address safety concerns or push homeless people who are unruly or committing crimes to change their behavior, but he wishes officers had more help to deploy.

“We’re stuck in a position where we either have to take enforcement action or we get voluntary compliance from the person,” Marvel said. “But then are we really solving the problem or are we moving it to another area?”

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