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East Village sidewalk tents not dwindling

San Diego yellow vest workers start homeless clean-up at 17th Street

“I would prefer these people get the help they need – treatment and housing. They’re struggling. And, it’s unfortunate they’re harming businesses in the area.”
“I would prefer these people get the help they need – treatment and housing. They’re struggling. And, it’s unfortunate they’re harming businesses in the area.”

Twenty-five-year-old Morgan Kean wanted to live downtown because “it’s where all the action is. I’m a young San Diegan, and there’s so much to do in the area.” When she made the decision to move to East Village near 14th and J, she was aware that the area had some issues with homelessness and crime. “I kind of had an understanding of what I was going to be living around,” says Kean. “But the differences between this nook of downtown compared to others are pretty shocking.”

The freelance graphic designer says she feels compassion for the homeless people she sees around her building, but sometimes feels scared as well. “I’m a young gal with a dog,” Kean explains, “so I’m constantly walking him around.” At times, she feels vulnerable, but she doesn’t blame the homeless people; she blames the local government for neglecting this part of downtown. “It makes me sad that there isn’t as much attention and care given to this neighborhood compared to others. San Diego in general is beautiful, but this area still kind of sticks out as a sore thumb, when I don’t think it has to be.”

Kean says there’s a general sense of chaos in the East Village — it’s not clear who’s in charge of doing what. “I see safety patrol officers and don’t really know what their roles are. I’ve asked for help, and they’re like, ‘That’s not in our jurisdiction.’ Really?” Still, Kean is happy living downtown. She just wishes “there’d be a little more control of the situation, because other parts of the town have it.”

Vlad Slavskii is an employee at Jai Jus, a juice and vegan eatery at 15th and Island. He expresses both frustration with and compassion for the homeless. Sometimes they’re harmless, he concedes, but he’s also had merchandise stolen and seen psychiatric meltdowns, “which scare the customers.” One woman took a dog bowl, which was set outside the store for the convenience of customers’ dogs, and threw it against the door. “She was banging her head on the door like she was in crisis,” he says. I ask him if the recently imposed anti-camping ordinance has helped alleviate the problem. “The ban didn’t help,” he says. “It just moved the people around the streets, from one side to the other.”

So, what’s the solution? Slavskii says, “I would prefer these people get the help they need — treatment and housing. They’re struggling. And, it’s unfortunate they’re harming businesses in the area.” Are things bad enough that Jai Jus might need to move to another location? Slavskii says no, but “it’d be nice not to have the problem.”

Cervantes’ cell

“I’m one of the few, a rare instance, where this cat is trying to get his shit together. And you, you, made it hard for him.”

The cat in question is David Cervantes, a 28-year-old homeless man standing in front of his tent on an East Village sidewalk. His tent is one of many, lined up side by side in a long and unkempt row — an encampment. The “you” he’s railing against is collective, more of an “it” really, an institution: one of the better-known downtown shelters. Cervantes was staying there, happy to be doing so. He’d have been happier to be housed, of course, but at least the shelter gave him the stability he’d need to find a job. And then one day, he says, his cell phone was stolen — by the shelter’s staff. “Not street people,” he emphasizes —“from staff, from staff.” He says that when he made a fuss about it, he was kicked out of the shelter and found himself back on the streets.

“I pushed an issue because I paid for that phone,” he continues. “And now you want me gone?” Whatever you think of David Cervantes, this cat knows how to air a grievance. And he is still very much aggrieved, even though all this happened six months ago. “I’ve been…what’s the word…rum—”

Ruminating?

“Yeah, ruminating. It’s been eating away at me. Now I’m out here. You gonna put me outside because you stole something that belonged to me? And I have no right to say, ‘Hey, give that shit back’?”

Cervantes says he came out to San Diego to care for his ailing mother. But when she got better, she took off with her boyfriend for Vegas, leaving her caretaker to fend for himself. “I know how to be independent, self-sufficient,” he says, a trait he attributes to being from New York. “I could get a job real quick and hold it down. Real quick. Gonna be off the streets in a couple of months. Saving my money now.” His can-do attitude in the face of adversity is impressive. Maybe he’s putting me on, playing me. Maybe he’s playing himself. Who knows?

Cervantes says he has been cited by the police for sleeping on the sidewalk. He was supposed to go to court but didn’t see the point. “What are you gonna get out of me? Yeah, you gave me a ticket. How am I supposed to pay it? Yeah, like, what were your plans after you found out I can’t pay the money?”

His sarcastic spiel continues. “Really, like, show your work. Show me a chalkboard or whiteboard. Expand on the idea, please. How am I supposed to pay that back? I’m homeless. How is that gonna work out for you?”

Cervantes says he had a job while he was living on the streets. “And I would come back from work and see certain things were missing. I don’t like it when they touch my stuff.” He’s referring to an abatement or clean-up, which is conducted by the city’s Department of Environmental Services. Teams of workers in yellow vests arrive at the encampments bright and early, often accompanied by San Diego Police Department officers for their safety. They usually start at 17th Street and work their way up and down the streets and alleyways, sorting through trash, personal items, papers, food, and other items. Last year, Environmental Services’ crews removed more than 1000 tons of waste from homeless encampments. But homeless people and their advocates say that “waste” includes papers, furniture, bicycles, and other items they deem important, and which they will never see again. (The agency’s website says  that impounded items can be retrieved.)

“I found out after they tossed my stuff that they’re not allowed to do that,” says Cervantes. He says he was told by a judge that “it’s not okay for them to take my property. It’s not constitutional.”  A man in his early sixties, standing ten feet away but listening in, sings sarcastically: “Oh the Constitution, our beautiful Constitution…” 

Does Cervantes have a point? Yes and no. Courts have ruled that cities have the authority and duty to ensure public health, safety, and quality of life — for both the community overall and homeless people in particular. Still, there are constitutional limits on the city’s power to conduct abatements. If not done properly, abating encampments could violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures, and/or the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prevents the government from taking personal property or papers without due process.

Advocate Michael McConnell, who’s been coming downtown for more than 10 years to observe and support homeless people, isn’t convinced that things have changed much.

To stay in accordance with the Fourteenth Amendment, the city — specifically, the Department of Environmental Services — must give those residing in encampments ample notice of imminent abatements. That’s what the green notices are for. 

“When homeless people see the green notices, they know they have to move their belongings,” says Michael McConnell, a homeless advocate who has agreed to give me a walking tour of the downtown encampments. “What happens during the abatements is, if they’re not with their belongings — say they’re in the hospital or something — then the city comes along and throws all their stuff away.” According to the Environmental Services’ website, the green notices must be posted on each individual tent in an encampment within 24 hours of an abatement — or three hours prior to an emergency, or expedited, clean-up.

The downtown business community and many residents believe the city and SDPD need to be more aggressive in both carrying out abatements and enforcing the law, while homeless advocates claim that seizing the property and papers of homeless people — and criminalizing their activities with citations, fines, and sometimes even arrest — makes it harder for them to get back on their feet again and find housing. As David Cervantes says, “They’re not supposed to throw my stuff away, but they did. It sucks. It’s like starting all over again.”

The ordinance

Cervantes is one of 1370 homeless, or unhoused, individuals currently living in downtown, according to the Downtown San Diego Partnership. (The county is estimated to harbor more than 10,000 homeless people.) The numbers are big enough that our fair city has become a testing ground for how policy makers should address the problem. In July, the city council passed Mayor Gloria’s Unsafe Camping Ordinance, which bans camping on any city sidewalk if any  shelter beds are available. It also bans camping in parks and canyons — and within two blocks of schools, homeless shelters, and transit hubs — regardless of shelter capacity. Enforcement began in August, with priority given to schools and parks. The county is now considering a similar ban. Advocate McConnell, who’s been coming downtown for more than 10 years to observe and support homeless people, isn’t convinced that things have changed much. “I guess around some parks and schools they might be using the new ordinance, but primarily they use what was already on the books.”

“When homeless people see the green notices, they know they have to move their belongings,” says homeless advocate Michael McConnell.

What the SDPD had on the books, even before the new ordinance was passed, was plenty. According to a University of San Diego study, police have 11 municipal codes — also called “quality of life” violations — that they use to cite homeless people. They can ticket homeless people (or anyone else for that matter) for sleeping on the beach, in a park, or in their car. But by far the most common tool they have at their disposal is the encroachment ordinance, the bread and butter of anti-encampment enforcement, which prohibits sleeping on or blocking a public sidewalk. Between 2010 and 2021, encroachment citations made up 47% of all citations for homeless people. During that period, SDPD wrote 5861 citations and arrested 414 homeless people.

SDPD didn’t need the Unsafe Camping Ordinance to clear out homeless encampments in East Village, insists McConnell. “The new encampment ban is just something that was for show, to make it look like they’re doing something new. But they’re really not. It’s just the same thing they do over and over and over again,” he says. “They call it different things. They do it a little bit differently. Sometimes it’s more aggressive than others. But it’s essentially the same thing over and over again.”

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Pro bono attorney and city council candidate Coleen Cusack says one of the big misconceptions surrounding the anti-camping ordinance is that it results in homeless people serving jail time. According to one media report, since implementing the new ordinance, San Diego police officers have issued warnings to 148 people, given citations or tickets to eight people — and arrested only one person. “Homeless people are not going to jail,” says Cusack. “They’re just being chased by police. Very few are arrested.” And even if they are arrested, “the prosecutor or judge ends up dismissing the case,” sometimes at the urging of the City Attorney.

McConnell agrees: “It seems the City Attorney doesn’t really have a lot of motivation, or maybe they don’t have the bandwidth to prosecute all of these minor cases.”

Mayor Gloria, for his part, has urged patience. The city began implementing the ordinance by prioritizing schools and parks. But now, more shelter beds are being reserved for the police, so they can offer that as an option to people sleeping in sidewalk tents, instead of citing or arresting them. This, some observers say, may indicate the city and SDPD are preparing to ramp up enforcement. But again, McConnell is dubious. He points out a report by the Housing Commission, which runs the shelter system, indicating that four out of five people can’t get into a shelter. “So the mayor can sit there and say there’s always beds available. Yeah, because he’s keeping beds available. But what good is it if most people can’t get in?”

Shelter and shunting

San Diego has close to 2000 shelter beds in all. And while they’re important, homeless advocates consider shelter beds a band-aid solution. The real solution —  the only solution, they say — is getting homeless people into homes and apartments. One example: Rachel Hayes went from homeless to housed after living on the streets for ten years. The nonprofit Alpha Project helped her navigate the cumbersome paperwork and move in to an apartment in San Ysidro after an almost two-year wait. The first time she turned the key to open her door, tears ran down her face. “My place is coming along slowly but just needs a few more items of furniture to be completed,” she says. 

But these feel-good stories are overshadowed by the enormity of the problem. “You have more people becoming homeless than getting off the street,” says McConnell. A report by San Diego’s Regional Task Force on Homelessness shows that in October, 855 previously homeless people found housing, while 1159 people became homeless for the first time — including a significant number of seniors. “So it doesn’t matter what they do. If they’re not helping people get off the street, they’re just spinning in the wind.”

Now our walking tour has brought us to 17th Street. “It’s always had people on it. It has more people on it than normal right now because the city has cleared out some of the neighboring streets, so people just come here,” says McConnell. He tells me that there used to be maybe ten to 15 people on 17th Street. Now there’s maybe 40 or 50 tents. The street is essentially one long encampment. From here, I can see downtown’s elegant high rises jutting into the blue sky, while right in front of me, I see homeless people going about their business. It’s nothing new, but the juxtaposition is still jarring.

When we reach the Homelessness Response Center on 14th and Imperial Avenue, operated by the Housing Commission and its partners, we see a long line of people congregating around the building. They come with the slim hope of getting shelter and services. “They come even before it opens,” McConnell explains, “but there’s not much available. A few people might get something. But as you can see, there’s lots of people begging for help.”

From there, we make our way to the homeless frontier. “Now I’m going to show you where people have moved to when they get pushed out of downtown,” McConnell tells me. He takes me to 19th Street and Imperial, on the east side of highway 5. Technically, we’re out of downtown. Technically, we’re in a residential neighborhood. But across the street from the modest, well-kept homes, an encampment overlooks the freeway. The police have succeeded in pushing some of the homeless people here out of downtown, explains McConnell. “This gets their downtown count-number down, so they can point to some kind of success.”

The plight of R.J.

This is where I meet R.J. Only 18, R.J. is forlorn, like a lost puppy you want to take home — but in a flash, he can turn into a furious bulldog. I’m not going to say he’s mentally ill, because that’s above my pay grade. Let’s just say this boy from Alabama has some anger issues. He may have good reason to feel angry. R.J. tells me, “I’ve been on the streets most of my life, ever since I came out to San Diego.” He arrived in 2018. The idea was to be with his dad, who was stationed here. Apparently, that didn’t work out too well. “I’ve been on the streets the entire time I’ve been here.” He tends to sleep in a different spot every night and has no family to speak of, except for his fellow street people. “They are my family,” he says. When I ask him what his plan is, he responds, “Honestly, me personally, I’m trying to get the hell out of San Diego.”

R.J. is angry at the cops. “Yeah, there’s been citations, and all that is just bullshit. All they ever do is hassle and harass me, just being dicks like they always are.” He’s fallen through the cracks, as they say. The system’s let him down. I suspect he has made some bad decisions as well. Like the time, just a few months ago, when he was busted by the cops for being in possession of a knife. “I had a knife. Even though it’s out so everybody can see it, and it’s concealed in a sheath, you fuckin’ idiots!”

He’s under no illusion that the police — or anyone else, for that matter — are here to help him. “They don’t…” R.J. repeats it for emphasis, drawing out the “o,” the hint of a Southern accent revealing itself as he gets angrier and angrier: “They don’t, they don’t, they don’t care about us. They don’t give a fuck about us. I’m just another paycheck for them.” I’m tempted to think to myself that his toxic negativity and “cops don’t care about us/it’s just a job” refrain must be over the top. Except his words exactly mirror McConnell’s.

When I ask R.J. if he would want a subsidized apartment and a job, he turns gentle, even vulnerable. “I mean, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, yeah, I’m just speaking for myself, but I’m sure everybody here on this block, on any block, would straight up fuckin’ just love that: somewhere to call home, someone to be there, to love you.” Then he catches himself. “But the world’s nothing but bullshit. Just gonna get worse each and every day.” R.J. is only 18, and already, he’s dejected and rejected, derailed and standing on the sidelines of his own life. If someone doesn’t help him, it’s hard to see how he gets out of this.

Help and hope

Hector Cruz was born south of the border, in Tijuana, but raised in San Diego. I find him in front of a transitional storage center on 16th Street, a facility operated by Think Dignity. It’s a place where homeless people can store their belongings when they go to a doctor’s appointment or on a job interview. Cruz tells me in broken English that he is fortunate to have a big family — seven girls and a boy, 21 — with whom he lives. He says that were it not for his family, he too would be homeless. Cruz works two or three days a week painting, but today is his day off and he’s on his way to “talk to the people about God,” which he does when he’s not working. “I come here to be with the people,” he says.

What strikes me about Cruz is his humility and the pride he takes both  in doing his job and helping others. He says he receives no assistance from the government. “My daughters say that is not right. They don’t like help from the government. They tell me I need to make my own money.”  Just two months ago, Cruz tried living on the streets, in a small tent, so he could be there “to help the people.” He says it’s a very hard life. But he says he didn’t have problems with the police. “I’m down here every day, and they do their job. Sometimes they stop me to know what I’m doing. Yeah, that’s right, that’ s okay, I like that.”

Today, Cruz is accompanied by his friend, Luis Castaneda, 53, who is homeless. “It’s a hard, hard life,” Castaneda says with weary resignation. By 2030, according to the AARP, nearly one million older adults will call San Diego home. We tend to think of the aging baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, as the wealthiest generation ever. And that’s still true — surely  there are plenty of them in the surrounding high-rises, plenty of them filing encampment complaints with SDPD, which receives hundreds of reports daily via the city’s Get It Done app.

But the boomer generation has another face, one that’s considerably less wealthy and, increasingly, homeless. According to Paul Downey, CEO of Serving Seniors, 30 percent of the city’s homeless population is over age 55. San Diego’s Regional Task Force on Homelessness reports that roughly half of San Diego’s homeless seniors are experiencing homelessness for the first time, and more than half have a physical disability.

I find Michael Wright on 10th Avenue, his 69-year-old body stretched out over a piece of carpet in front of a store. Unlike most of the people I’ve seen today, he is by himself and not part of a larger encampment. I am immediately struck by his gentle demeanor and openness. “I sleep under the freeway right up the street from here,” he says. Wright was born in Washington D.C. “My father was in the Air Force, and we traveled all around the world. I lived in Turkey, Germany, England, and Greece.” The family eventually moved to San Diego and he was raised in Clairemont, where he attended Madison High School, graduating in 1973.

Michael Wright’s been homeless for 30 years, almost half of his life, and would probably be categorized as chronically homeless.

Being a drummer has always been an important part of his identity. “All my years in school, I was part of the school band,” he says, and he later played locally in different bands. He was friends with Steve Pearcy, the founder of the heavy metal band Ratt, who attended Clairemont High School. “Before Ratt, the band was known as Mickey Ratt,” he notes.

He’s been homeless for 30 years, almost half of his life, and would probably be categorized as chronically homeless. But maybe not. “I actually had my own place for almost three years,” Wright tells me. “Paid rent and my utilities, no problem.” But he was evicted by his landlord because he always reeked of marijuana, though he says he made it a point to never smoke in his apartment. “But I smelled like I did,” he concedes. The landlord gave him his 60-day notice on his birthday and, once again, he was homeless. That was just three years ago. Wright still enjoys weed, but recently, he has discovered edibles. He has no mental health needs and has $1000 in the bank, a source of obvious pride.

Wright, who has siblings but no children, says he is grateful for the many homeless service agencies in downtown, especially for seniors, including the Senior Center on 4th and B and Father Joe’s. “The worst part about living on the streets,” he says, “is that people lie and steal from you.” Most recently, his geode was taken. “We think we know who did it, but can’t prove it.” He’s more worried about people who rob him than the police, though he did receive a ticket for sleeping by the freeway.

I ask him about his social life. “The first time I ever came downtown, many, many, many, many years ago, I was at the Neil Good Day Center,” he says of the homeless services center on 17th Street, “and I saw a guy with a guitar case. I started talking to him because I identified with someone who was musical. We’ve been friends ever since.” Although Wright no longer has his own drum kit, he says most of the churches do. One time, he was at a downtown church, sitting behind a drum set, “when all of a sudden people flocked in to the church. They gave me money as a tithe and I had to accept it. I didn’t understand that. I just wanted to play music.”

There used to be maybe 10 to 15 people on 17th Street. Now there’s maybe 40 or 50 tents. The street is essentially one long encampment.

So, where do we go from here?

“Things are only going to get worse,” predicts homeless advocate McConnell. “Greed is nothing new. Everybody wants their property to go up. Everybody wants to build these three-to-five-thousand-a-month apartments, and nobody gives a shit about the people dying out here on the street,” he says. Last year, around 600 homeless people died in San Diego County. “So why are we surprised that we get what we get? People sask, ‘Why do we have so much homelessness?’ Well, the system is designed to get all this homelessness. And so, unless there’s a radical redesign of how the system operates and what we invest in, this isn’t going away. It’s going to continue to get worse, unless we start caring for our people.”

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“I would prefer these people get the help they need – treatment and housing. They’re struggling. And, it’s unfortunate they’re harming businesses in the area.”
“I would prefer these people get the help they need – treatment and housing. They’re struggling. And, it’s unfortunate they’re harming businesses in the area.”

Twenty-five-year-old Morgan Kean wanted to live downtown because “it’s where all the action is. I’m a young San Diegan, and there’s so much to do in the area.” When she made the decision to move to East Village near 14th and J, she was aware that the area had some issues with homelessness and crime. “I kind of had an understanding of what I was going to be living around,” says Kean. “But the differences between this nook of downtown compared to others are pretty shocking.”

The freelance graphic designer says she feels compassion for the homeless people she sees around her building, but sometimes feels scared as well. “I’m a young gal with a dog,” Kean explains, “so I’m constantly walking him around.” At times, she feels vulnerable, but she doesn’t blame the homeless people; she blames the local government for neglecting this part of downtown. “It makes me sad that there isn’t as much attention and care given to this neighborhood compared to others. San Diego in general is beautiful, but this area still kind of sticks out as a sore thumb, when I don’t think it has to be.”

Kean says there’s a general sense of chaos in the East Village — it’s not clear who’s in charge of doing what. “I see safety patrol officers and don’t really know what their roles are. I’ve asked for help, and they’re like, ‘That’s not in our jurisdiction.’ Really?” Still, Kean is happy living downtown. She just wishes “there’d be a little more control of the situation, because other parts of the town have it.”

Vlad Slavskii is an employee at Jai Jus, a juice and vegan eatery at 15th and Island. He expresses both frustration with and compassion for the homeless. Sometimes they’re harmless, he concedes, but he’s also had merchandise stolen and seen psychiatric meltdowns, “which scare the customers.” One woman took a dog bowl, which was set outside the store for the convenience of customers’ dogs, and threw it against the door. “She was banging her head on the door like she was in crisis,” he says. I ask him if the recently imposed anti-camping ordinance has helped alleviate the problem. “The ban didn’t help,” he says. “It just moved the people around the streets, from one side to the other.”

So, what’s the solution? Slavskii says, “I would prefer these people get the help they need — treatment and housing. They’re struggling. And, it’s unfortunate they’re harming businesses in the area.” Are things bad enough that Jai Jus might need to move to another location? Slavskii says no, but “it’d be nice not to have the problem.”

Cervantes’ cell

“I’m one of the few, a rare instance, where this cat is trying to get his shit together. And you, you, made it hard for him.”

The cat in question is David Cervantes, a 28-year-old homeless man standing in front of his tent on an East Village sidewalk. His tent is one of many, lined up side by side in a long and unkempt row — an encampment. The “you” he’s railing against is collective, more of an “it” really, an institution: one of the better-known downtown shelters. Cervantes was staying there, happy to be doing so. He’d have been happier to be housed, of course, but at least the shelter gave him the stability he’d need to find a job. And then one day, he says, his cell phone was stolen — by the shelter’s staff. “Not street people,” he emphasizes —“from staff, from staff.” He says that when he made a fuss about it, he was kicked out of the shelter and found himself back on the streets.

“I pushed an issue because I paid for that phone,” he continues. “And now you want me gone?” Whatever you think of David Cervantes, this cat knows how to air a grievance. And he is still very much aggrieved, even though all this happened six months ago. “I’ve been…what’s the word…rum—”

Ruminating?

“Yeah, ruminating. It’s been eating away at me. Now I’m out here. You gonna put me outside because you stole something that belonged to me? And I have no right to say, ‘Hey, give that shit back’?”

Cervantes says he came out to San Diego to care for his ailing mother. But when she got better, she took off with her boyfriend for Vegas, leaving her caretaker to fend for himself. “I know how to be independent, self-sufficient,” he says, a trait he attributes to being from New York. “I could get a job real quick and hold it down. Real quick. Gonna be off the streets in a couple of months. Saving my money now.” His can-do attitude in the face of adversity is impressive. Maybe he’s putting me on, playing me. Maybe he’s playing himself. Who knows?

Cervantes says he has been cited by the police for sleeping on the sidewalk. He was supposed to go to court but didn’t see the point. “What are you gonna get out of me? Yeah, you gave me a ticket. How am I supposed to pay it? Yeah, like, what were your plans after you found out I can’t pay the money?”

His sarcastic spiel continues. “Really, like, show your work. Show me a chalkboard or whiteboard. Expand on the idea, please. How am I supposed to pay that back? I’m homeless. How is that gonna work out for you?”

Cervantes says he had a job while he was living on the streets. “And I would come back from work and see certain things were missing. I don’t like it when they touch my stuff.” He’s referring to an abatement or clean-up, which is conducted by the city’s Department of Environmental Services. Teams of workers in yellow vests arrive at the encampments bright and early, often accompanied by San Diego Police Department officers for their safety. They usually start at 17th Street and work their way up and down the streets and alleyways, sorting through trash, personal items, papers, food, and other items. Last year, Environmental Services’ crews removed more than 1000 tons of waste from homeless encampments. But homeless people and their advocates say that “waste” includes papers, furniture, bicycles, and other items they deem important, and which they will never see again. (The agency’s website says  that impounded items can be retrieved.)

“I found out after they tossed my stuff that they’re not allowed to do that,” says Cervantes. He says he was told by a judge that “it’s not okay for them to take my property. It’s not constitutional.”  A man in his early sixties, standing ten feet away but listening in, sings sarcastically: “Oh the Constitution, our beautiful Constitution…” 

Does Cervantes have a point? Yes and no. Courts have ruled that cities have the authority and duty to ensure public health, safety, and quality of life — for both the community overall and homeless people in particular. Still, there are constitutional limits on the city’s power to conduct abatements. If not done properly, abating encampments could violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures, and/or the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prevents the government from taking personal property or papers without due process.

Advocate Michael McConnell, who’s been coming downtown for more than 10 years to observe and support homeless people, isn’t convinced that things have changed much.

To stay in accordance with the Fourteenth Amendment, the city — specifically, the Department of Environmental Services — must give those residing in encampments ample notice of imminent abatements. That’s what the green notices are for. 

“When homeless people see the green notices, they know they have to move their belongings,” says Michael McConnell, a homeless advocate who has agreed to give me a walking tour of the downtown encampments. “What happens during the abatements is, if they’re not with their belongings — say they’re in the hospital or something — then the city comes along and throws all their stuff away.” According to the Environmental Services’ website, the green notices must be posted on each individual tent in an encampment within 24 hours of an abatement — or three hours prior to an emergency, or expedited, clean-up.

The downtown business community and many residents believe the city and SDPD need to be more aggressive in both carrying out abatements and enforcing the law, while homeless advocates claim that seizing the property and papers of homeless people — and criminalizing their activities with citations, fines, and sometimes even arrest — makes it harder for them to get back on their feet again and find housing. As David Cervantes says, “They’re not supposed to throw my stuff away, but they did. It sucks. It’s like starting all over again.”

The ordinance

Cervantes is one of 1370 homeless, or unhoused, individuals currently living in downtown, according to the Downtown San Diego Partnership. (The county is estimated to harbor more than 10,000 homeless people.) The numbers are big enough that our fair city has become a testing ground for how policy makers should address the problem. In July, the city council passed Mayor Gloria’s Unsafe Camping Ordinance, which bans camping on any city sidewalk if any  shelter beds are available. It also bans camping in parks and canyons — and within two blocks of schools, homeless shelters, and transit hubs — regardless of shelter capacity. Enforcement began in August, with priority given to schools and parks. The county is now considering a similar ban. Advocate McConnell, who’s been coming downtown for more than 10 years to observe and support homeless people, isn’t convinced that things have changed much. “I guess around some parks and schools they might be using the new ordinance, but primarily they use what was already on the books.”

“When homeless people see the green notices, they know they have to move their belongings,” says homeless advocate Michael McConnell.

What the SDPD had on the books, even before the new ordinance was passed, was plenty. According to a University of San Diego study, police have 11 municipal codes — also called “quality of life” violations — that they use to cite homeless people. They can ticket homeless people (or anyone else for that matter) for sleeping on the beach, in a park, or in their car. But by far the most common tool they have at their disposal is the encroachment ordinance, the bread and butter of anti-encampment enforcement, which prohibits sleeping on or blocking a public sidewalk. Between 2010 and 2021, encroachment citations made up 47% of all citations for homeless people. During that period, SDPD wrote 5861 citations and arrested 414 homeless people.

SDPD didn’t need the Unsafe Camping Ordinance to clear out homeless encampments in East Village, insists McConnell. “The new encampment ban is just something that was for show, to make it look like they’re doing something new. But they’re really not. It’s just the same thing they do over and over and over again,” he says. “They call it different things. They do it a little bit differently. Sometimes it’s more aggressive than others. But it’s essentially the same thing over and over again.”

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Pro bono attorney and city council candidate Coleen Cusack says one of the big misconceptions surrounding the anti-camping ordinance is that it results in homeless people serving jail time. According to one media report, since implementing the new ordinance, San Diego police officers have issued warnings to 148 people, given citations or tickets to eight people — and arrested only one person. “Homeless people are not going to jail,” says Cusack. “They’re just being chased by police. Very few are arrested.” And even if they are arrested, “the prosecutor or judge ends up dismissing the case,” sometimes at the urging of the City Attorney.

McConnell agrees: “It seems the City Attorney doesn’t really have a lot of motivation, or maybe they don’t have the bandwidth to prosecute all of these minor cases.”

Mayor Gloria, for his part, has urged patience. The city began implementing the ordinance by prioritizing schools and parks. But now, more shelter beds are being reserved for the police, so they can offer that as an option to people sleeping in sidewalk tents, instead of citing or arresting them. This, some observers say, may indicate the city and SDPD are preparing to ramp up enforcement. But again, McConnell is dubious. He points out a report by the Housing Commission, which runs the shelter system, indicating that four out of five people can’t get into a shelter. “So the mayor can sit there and say there’s always beds available. Yeah, because he’s keeping beds available. But what good is it if most people can’t get in?”

Shelter and shunting

San Diego has close to 2000 shelter beds in all. And while they’re important, homeless advocates consider shelter beds a band-aid solution. The real solution —  the only solution, they say — is getting homeless people into homes and apartments. One example: Rachel Hayes went from homeless to housed after living on the streets for ten years. The nonprofit Alpha Project helped her navigate the cumbersome paperwork and move in to an apartment in San Ysidro after an almost two-year wait. The first time she turned the key to open her door, tears ran down her face. “My place is coming along slowly but just needs a few more items of furniture to be completed,” she says. 

But these feel-good stories are overshadowed by the enormity of the problem. “You have more people becoming homeless than getting off the street,” says McConnell. A report by San Diego’s Regional Task Force on Homelessness shows that in October, 855 previously homeless people found housing, while 1159 people became homeless for the first time — including a significant number of seniors. “So it doesn’t matter what they do. If they’re not helping people get off the street, they’re just spinning in the wind.”

Now our walking tour has brought us to 17th Street. “It’s always had people on it. It has more people on it than normal right now because the city has cleared out some of the neighboring streets, so people just come here,” says McConnell. He tells me that there used to be maybe ten to 15 people on 17th Street. Now there’s maybe 40 or 50 tents. The street is essentially one long encampment. From here, I can see downtown’s elegant high rises jutting into the blue sky, while right in front of me, I see homeless people going about their business. It’s nothing new, but the juxtaposition is still jarring.

When we reach the Homelessness Response Center on 14th and Imperial Avenue, operated by the Housing Commission and its partners, we see a long line of people congregating around the building. They come with the slim hope of getting shelter and services. “They come even before it opens,” McConnell explains, “but there’s not much available. A few people might get something. But as you can see, there’s lots of people begging for help.”

From there, we make our way to the homeless frontier. “Now I’m going to show you where people have moved to when they get pushed out of downtown,” McConnell tells me. He takes me to 19th Street and Imperial, on the east side of highway 5. Technically, we’re out of downtown. Technically, we’re in a residential neighborhood. But across the street from the modest, well-kept homes, an encampment overlooks the freeway. The police have succeeded in pushing some of the homeless people here out of downtown, explains McConnell. “This gets their downtown count-number down, so they can point to some kind of success.”

The plight of R.J.

This is where I meet R.J. Only 18, R.J. is forlorn, like a lost puppy you want to take home — but in a flash, he can turn into a furious bulldog. I’m not going to say he’s mentally ill, because that’s above my pay grade. Let’s just say this boy from Alabama has some anger issues. He may have good reason to feel angry. R.J. tells me, “I’ve been on the streets most of my life, ever since I came out to San Diego.” He arrived in 2018. The idea was to be with his dad, who was stationed here. Apparently, that didn’t work out too well. “I’ve been on the streets the entire time I’ve been here.” He tends to sleep in a different spot every night and has no family to speak of, except for his fellow street people. “They are my family,” he says. When I ask him what his plan is, he responds, “Honestly, me personally, I’m trying to get the hell out of San Diego.”

R.J. is angry at the cops. “Yeah, there’s been citations, and all that is just bullshit. All they ever do is hassle and harass me, just being dicks like they always are.” He’s fallen through the cracks, as they say. The system’s let him down. I suspect he has made some bad decisions as well. Like the time, just a few months ago, when he was busted by the cops for being in possession of a knife. “I had a knife. Even though it’s out so everybody can see it, and it’s concealed in a sheath, you fuckin’ idiots!”

He’s under no illusion that the police — or anyone else, for that matter — are here to help him. “They don’t…” R.J. repeats it for emphasis, drawing out the “o,” the hint of a Southern accent revealing itself as he gets angrier and angrier: “They don’t, they don’t, they don’t care about us. They don’t give a fuck about us. I’m just another paycheck for them.” I’m tempted to think to myself that his toxic negativity and “cops don’t care about us/it’s just a job” refrain must be over the top. Except his words exactly mirror McConnell’s.

When I ask R.J. if he would want a subsidized apartment and a job, he turns gentle, even vulnerable. “I mean, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, yeah, I’m just speaking for myself, but I’m sure everybody here on this block, on any block, would straight up fuckin’ just love that: somewhere to call home, someone to be there, to love you.” Then he catches himself. “But the world’s nothing but bullshit. Just gonna get worse each and every day.” R.J. is only 18, and already, he’s dejected and rejected, derailed and standing on the sidelines of his own life. If someone doesn’t help him, it’s hard to see how he gets out of this.

Help and hope

Hector Cruz was born south of the border, in Tijuana, but raised in San Diego. I find him in front of a transitional storage center on 16th Street, a facility operated by Think Dignity. It’s a place where homeless people can store their belongings when they go to a doctor’s appointment or on a job interview. Cruz tells me in broken English that he is fortunate to have a big family — seven girls and a boy, 21 — with whom he lives. He says that were it not for his family, he too would be homeless. Cruz works two or three days a week painting, but today is his day off and he’s on his way to “talk to the people about God,” which he does when he’s not working. “I come here to be with the people,” he says.

What strikes me about Cruz is his humility and the pride he takes both  in doing his job and helping others. He says he receives no assistance from the government. “My daughters say that is not right. They don’t like help from the government. They tell me I need to make my own money.”  Just two months ago, Cruz tried living on the streets, in a small tent, so he could be there “to help the people.” He says it’s a very hard life. But he says he didn’t have problems with the police. “I’m down here every day, and they do their job. Sometimes they stop me to know what I’m doing. Yeah, that’s right, that’ s okay, I like that.”

Today, Cruz is accompanied by his friend, Luis Castaneda, 53, who is homeless. “It’s a hard, hard life,” Castaneda says with weary resignation. By 2030, according to the AARP, nearly one million older adults will call San Diego home. We tend to think of the aging baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, as the wealthiest generation ever. And that’s still true — surely  there are plenty of them in the surrounding high-rises, plenty of them filing encampment complaints with SDPD, which receives hundreds of reports daily via the city’s Get It Done app.

But the boomer generation has another face, one that’s considerably less wealthy and, increasingly, homeless. According to Paul Downey, CEO of Serving Seniors, 30 percent of the city’s homeless population is over age 55. San Diego’s Regional Task Force on Homelessness reports that roughly half of San Diego’s homeless seniors are experiencing homelessness for the first time, and more than half have a physical disability.

I find Michael Wright on 10th Avenue, his 69-year-old body stretched out over a piece of carpet in front of a store. Unlike most of the people I’ve seen today, he is by himself and not part of a larger encampment. I am immediately struck by his gentle demeanor and openness. “I sleep under the freeway right up the street from here,” he says. Wright was born in Washington D.C. “My father was in the Air Force, and we traveled all around the world. I lived in Turkey, Germany, England, and Greece.” The family eventually moved to San Diego and he was raised in Clairemont, where he attended Madison High School, graduating in 1973.

Michael Wright’s been homeless for 30 years, almost half of his life, and would probably be categorized as chronically homeless.

Being a drummer has always been an important part of his identity. “All my years in school, I was part of the school band,” he says, and he later played locally in different bands. He was friends with Steve Pearcy, the founder of the heavy metal band Ratt, who attended Clairemont High School. “Before Ratt, the band was known as Mickey Ratt,” he notes.

He’s been homeless for 30 years, almost half of his life, and would probably be categorized as chronically homeless. But maybe not. “I actually had my own place for almost three years,” Wright tells me. “Paid rent and my utilities, no problem.” But he was evicted by his landlord because he always reeked of marijuana, though he says he made it a point to never smoke in his apartment. “But I smelled like I did,” he concedes. The landlord gave him his 60-day notice on his birthday and, once again, he was homeless. That was just three years ago. Wright still enjoys weed, but recently, he has discovered edibles. He has no mental health needs and has $1000 in the bank, a source of obvious pride.

Wright, who has siblings but no children, says he is grateful for the many homeless service agencies in downtown, especially for seniors, including the Senior Center on 4th and B and Father Joe’s. “The worst part about living on the streets,” he says, “is that people lie and steal from you.” Most recently, his geode was taken. “We think we know who did it, but can’t prove it.” He’s more worried about people who rob him than the police, though he did receive a ticket for sleeping by the freeway.

I ask him about his social life. “The first time I ever came downtown, many, many, many, many years ago, I was at the Neil Good Day Center,” he says of the homeless services center on 17th Street, “and I saw a guy with a guitar case. I started talking to him because I identified with someone who was musical. We’ve been friends ever since.” Although Wright no longer has his own drum kit, he says most of the churches do. One time, he was at a downtown church, sitting behind a drum set, “when all of a sudden people flocked in to the church. They gave me money as a tithe and I had to accept it. I didn’t understand that. I just wanted to play music.”

There used to be maybe 10 to 15 people on 17th Street. Now there’s maybe 40 or 50 tents. The street is essentially one long encampment.

So, where do we go from here?

“Things are only going to get worse,” predicts homeless advocate McConnell. “Greed is nothing new. Everybody wants their property to go up. Everybody wants to build these three-to-five-thousand-a-month apartments, and nobody gives a shit about the people dying out here on the street,” he says. Last year, around 600 homeless people died in San Diego County. “So why are we surprised that we get what we get? People sask, ‘Why do we have so much homelessness?’ Well, the system is designed to get all this homelessness. And so, unless there’s a radical redesign of how the system operates and what we invest in, this isn’t going away. It’s going to continue to get worse, unless we start caring for our people.”

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