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In recent weeks, Oceanside has begun dismantling homeless encampments, covering sidewalks in rocks to prevent people from living on them and putting people without homes in motel rooms on short-term agreements with strict, conditional terms. City leaders have described each of these as necessary steps to crack down on people gathering and sleeping on city streets and sidewalks.
But in the process, they’re side-stepping a long-existing and underlying problem: There aren’t enough shelter beds or affordable homes for the city’s growing homeless population.
There are more homeless people living in Oceanside than anywhere else in North County except in Escondido, according to San Diego’s latest point-in-time count, yet the only homeless shelter in Oceanside is the Women’s Resource Center for victims of domestic violence. City residents created a referendum and voted against a housing development in November that could have brought the city some affordable homes after they said it would destroy the last of the city’s agricultural land in the area. (A judge has since made a tentative ruling on the North River Farms housing project in Oceanside, moving it forward to meet the state’s efforts to maximize housing development. If the ruling is upheld, the development will move forward.)
City plans to build more shelter beds and affordable homes haven’t come to fruition. It begs the question: Where, if not on city sidewalks, are the city’s unhoused people supposed to sleep at night?
Homeless advocates in Oceanside told me that unsheltered people are sleeping in dangerous conditions: behind bushes, under freeways and in other undisclosed areas. If they’re lucky enough, they might sleep in motel rooms funded by the community through Oceanside homeless advocate Vanessa Graziano’s nonprofit, called the Oceanside Homeless Resource.
Graziano previously told me that she hopes Mayor Esther Sanchez follows through with her plan to build a day center, works with Council members to open a new shelter, establishes a homeless community advisory board and considers more help with motel vouchers.
“There’s still a division on the Council, so hopefully we can work together and that doesn’t hinder solutions,” she said.
The encampment the city recently dismantled was started by a man who bought a few tents and small carts, with the goal of creating a tidy “trauma-informed safe center,” he told the Union-Tribune reporter Gary Warth. At first, city leaders and police allowed the encampment to flourish. Sanchez told Warth the city didn’t plan to run off the people living there and said she appreciated “how he and others there have kept the area clean.”
Things took a turn when local businesses and others complained about the growing encampment and police allegedly found drugs and violent weapons in the tents and arrested some people for drug possession. Police enforcement continued, and the Oceanside City Council swiftly created an ordinance forbidding camping on public property and agreed on April 7 to spend about $600,000 on motel rooms for the people living there. The motel voucher program, where people can access support services to find permanent housing, is conditional and expected to run for about six months with the longest stay being 28 days, the Coast News reported. After police officers cleared the encampment and moved 28 of the 40 people living there into the Marty Valley Inn, the city placed rocks along the stretch of South Oceanside Boulevard to prevent others from illegally camping there again.
Warth wrote that “several people at the encampment said they were happy to accept a motel room and applauded the city and police for running the operation smoothly,” but Rodney McGough, the man who started the encampment, “was frustrated that he couldn’t get a straight answer when asking when the enforcement would happen.” The city moved McGough to a motel room but issued him and six others an eviction notice to leave just 21 days into their stay for not meeting the program’s requirements, Assistant City Manager Michael Gossman told the Coast News. Gossman told a reporter that the seven who were removed were matched with an alternative housing option but turned it down or would not engage with onsite service providers throughout their stay in the program.
An attorney is demanding city leaders stop closing homeless encampments. Scott Dreher, who has represented homeless people in lawsuits against San Diego, pointed out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended cities allow people to stay in outdoor encampments during the pandemic because they may be safer than in shelters or other congregate housing.
Dreher wrote in an email to the City Council that the city should follow the CDC’s recommendations, the Union-Tribune reported. “We demand that you and your personnel immediately cease and desist conducting such sweeps and removals in violation of the CDC order,” he wrote.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2019 ensures people experiencing homelessness will not be cited or arrested for sleeping outdoors when no shelter is available, as was the case in Oceanside. That ruling does not allow homeless people to block the public right-of-way or erect tents anywhere.
Dreher also said Oceanside is not following the intent of the Martin v. Boise decision and instead appears to be using it to run people out of the city by installing the rocks and preventing another encampment. City Attorney John Mullen told the Union-Tribune that Oceanside’s municipal code “considers illegal camping a misdemeanor, but in light of the Boise decision he is proposing an update to the law to distinguish between sleeping in public and camping in public.”
The case led me back to my many conversations with the dozen candidates for Oceanside mayor last fall. Most of the candidates agreed some sort of shelter is crucial — but they varied wildly in what that might look like.
At the time, Sanchez said that it was unacceptable the city doesn’t have more shelter beds and that city leaders were trying to acquire Oceanside Shores’ old property to create more beds with wraparound services. But she said those 100 potential beds still won’t be enough to shelter Oceanside’s homeless population. (There is also a nonprofit organization called Brother Benno’s that provides food and other services to low-income and homeless people but it does not have shelter beds. It’s been the subject of ongoing complaints by nearby residents.)
The Oceanside City Council is considering opening a new homeless shelter sometimes this year and is exploring safe camping sites for homeless people, but so far has not found a suitable site, Warth reported.