Over the years, Ocean Beach has earned a reputation as a panhandlers' paradise, with aggressive groups of travelers and homeless taking over the beaches, seawall, and parks that used to be frequented by locals and families.
But Sgt. Dave Yu of the San Diego Police Department (and his "team") has a goal to redefine what Ocean Beach has become.
“When I got here about 15 months ago, my guys and I, working with the community, saw all the problems with the younger aggressive transients intimidating and exploiting this generous beach community and the people who live in Ocean Beach,” Yu told me.
“What really got to me is, I saw a dad walking with his kid and these two guys sitting there asked him for cigarettes or money and the dad just ignored him, and the guy goes, 'F-you. I hope your kid dies.’ I was, like, Wow. I can’t believe this. So I go up to them and say, ‘Hey, is that necessary?’ He’s, like, ‘F-you, it's my First Amendment Right, you pig, blah-blah-blah,’ and I said, 'Yeah it's your right, but it’s not cool to do this.'
"So, what they’re doing is intimidating and exploiting people. We don’t need that vibe here. If you’re not mindful or respectful, then you need to kind of move on….
"It's not just the crime, it’s the quality of life. When I got here and saw all these guys hanging out at Veterans Park doing drugs, drinking, smoking, whatever, and a family sees that and has to walk the other way, how sad is that?"
Because of his calm demeanor, Yu is a target for transients who attempt to bait him into action by taking video of him as they throw insults his way. His response is always polite, and restrained.
“It all started out... I was at the pier, and people who have lived here forever would come up to me and say, 'Thank you. I’ve been afraid to come down here or I don’t like to come here anymore because they are all over, and I’m, like, 'But this is your community, you’ve lived here 20, 30, 40 years.'
"So, one day I’m walking and there was this guy who had all his stuff underneath the pier — he was with his girlfriend and their dog — so I say to them very politely, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and he says, ‘Hey, you’re that Sergeant Yu, aren’t you?' Then he starts antagonizing me and videotaping me — 'F-you, F-your mom' — whatever, and I’m, like, 'Hey, listen, people don’t want to hear that. We don't need that vibe around here' — and people don’t want to deal with him, so I will. Because here’s the thing: I don’t want to see O.B. good for a month; I want long-term change.
"When people say, ‘Oh, it's just the way O.B. is,’ I say, BS, it’s not where the debris meets the sea; it's more like where the sea meets me.”
Since Sgt. Yu and his team started patrolling O.B., the improvement has been notable.
“In the last seven, eight months, I don’t know if you’ve noticed the big changes here, but Saratoga Park, Veterans Park, it's truly beautiful,” said Yu. “As a supervisor, I can stay and work at my desk, but I choose to come and walk here and talk to people, and I see Melanie who does yoga at the wall, and Sunny, who does her fitness class there, and I thought, Wouldn’t it be cool if we could keep that vibe? Wouldn’t it be cool if the next step was businesses getting involved? 'Imagine if you guys did yoga, karate, martial arts, cross-fit, maybe tai-chi all the time to fill the parks with positivity, imagine O.B. becoming the mecca for the positive ocean vibe....
“So I kept hounding Melanie,” Yu continued, “because I love seeing those people doing their workouts; the more they show up, the more we fill these public spaces with this type of positive energy, the more quickly transient gangs will move on…and I call them transient gangs because they gravitate and congregate in groups of 5, 10, 15 and intimidate people; they are no different than a gang."
Due to Yu’s "hounding," Melanie Williams (Tri-power Yoga) and Shawna Schenk (Yoga with Shawna) received a grant from the Ocean Beach Town Council on July 27 to support their vision — and Sgt. Yu’s — of a better Ocean Beach.
“San Diego Yoga Festival was thrown out as an idea from Officer Yu,” Williams said while accepting the grant. “He approached me several times and said, 'I want to fill the public areas in Ocean Beach with positive usage of community space.' And a year ago last summer, I think, we did a Take Back the Wall, and a Picnic at the Wall, and we’ve been doing Yoga at the Wall every Sunday morning, and it’s amazing what’s happening, just bringing the energy of that space up. So we thought, Let's do a yoga festival throughout all of Ocean Beach.
"It's going to be January 27–29. We’ll have 20 concurrent yoga classes going on over the course of the weekend and we just got our permit — permit pending — to do the largest yoga class on the O.B. Pier.”
Both indoor and outdoor classes will be held, with many local businesses partaking, not just yoga studios.
No one is more excited about the event than Yu.
"I’m gonna get some yoga pants and hit the pier with my guys," says Yu. "It's important to me. My team is passionate about success and I can envision how amazing it's going to be!”