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No Room to Rest — Series Part 4: Homelessness and crime: Will La Jolla ‘lose our Village’?

A homeless person sits among his belongings outside the La Jolla Recreation Center on Dec. 2.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The issue presents a quandary of how to ‘balance civil rights with the needs of the community,’ local police say.

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This La Jolla Light series looks at local homelessness, explores the complicated factors that contribute to it and highlights the various viewpoints about potential solutions.

“Homelessness is not a crime,” says San Diego police Capt. Erwin Manansala.

However, for various reasons, some homeless people do commit crimes, and that has caused a lot of concern among residents in La Jolla and elsewhere in the San Diego area.

“What we tend to see is a segment of the population that have mental health or substance abuse issues and are not seeking treatment, which can drive them to commit certain crimes,” said Manansala, who works in the Police Department’s Northern Division, which includes La Jolla. “All homeless people are not committing crimes, but those afflicted with those issues sometimes will.

“That paints the population with a broad brush.”

Those crimes “run the gamut” from theft to assault, Manansala said.

He said he was unable to provide the number or percentage of local crimes committed by homeless people. He did say that some who commit crimes in the La Jolla area are repeat offenders.

Manansala said people tend to notice criminal activity in “high-profile cases.” One of those was an attack in which a homeless man is suspected of cutting the Rev. Pat Mulcahy, pastor of Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church, with a box cutter outside the church’s Stella Maris Academy on Herschel Avenue in La Jolla on Oct. 18.

More recently, a homeless man is suspected of attacking a senior citizen and taking her purse while she was walking along Pearl Street on Nov. 20.

(See more on those cases later in this story.)

Though being homeless is not itself a crime, some homeless people may violate the San Diego municipal code by encroaching or lodging on private or public spaces by erecting a tent or blocking the sidewalk. Other behaviors are evaluated for possible violations on a case-by-case basis.

“Panhandling on its own is not an offense, but if [those who do it] are aggressive about it or threatening people, that could be an offense,” Manansala said. “It’s a similar situation with loitering; if it is private property and they are asked to leave, they could be subject to a trespass violation. But if they are just hanging out in a public area, they are not in violation of anything.”

Potentially illegal encroachment or lodging can be reported on the city’s Get It Done app.

The Police Department “finds itself in a tough position because we understand residents might be uncomfortable with homeless people being there,” Manansala said. “But ... we have to balance civil rights with the needs of the community.”

La Jollans weigh in

A homeless person's belongings lie on the sidewalk on Fay Avenue in La Jolla.
A homeless person’s belongings lie on the sidewalk on Fay Avenue in La Jolla.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Jonathan Colby, a La Jolla resident and criminal court judge who has dealt with the mental health issues of those who appear before him, said La Jolla is “way out of balance” between the rights of unsheltered people and the rights of residents and shop owners.

“We must take action or we’re going to lose our Village,” he said.

Colby walks his dog multiple times a day throughout The Village and said he’s observed the same group of homeless people setting up encampments at night along Girard Avenue and near CVS Pharmacy on Eads Avenue, with many openly urinating and defecating.

Colby said he has had confrontations when trying to help people being harassed by homeless people and has encouraged shop owners to obtain stay-away orders against homeless people who are confrontational or breaking the law.

The stay-away orders are effective, he said, because police won’t need probable cause to arrest those reportedly in violation of the orders.

Colby said he calls police when he sees illegal activity by homeless people, but he added that law enforcement has its “hands tied” due to federal court rulings in lawsuits brought by civil-rights organizations.

“All homeless people are not committing crimes, but those afflicted with [mental health or substance abuse] issues sometimes will. That paints the population with a broad brush.”

— San Diego police Capt. Erwin Manansala

Because there’s little government remedy, he said, homeless people are starting to commit more violent crimes because there aren’t enough ramifications for their property crimes.

The problem is “growing by leaps and bounds every year,” he said.

“You have to balance the needs of one population vs. another in determining justice,” Colby said. But “why should [peaceful taxpayers] submit to a homeless person causing undue stress?”

La Jolla resident Joanne Standlee, who co-founded the nonprofit Housing 4 the Homeless with fellow La Jollan Amie Zamudio, said crime by the local homeless population is mainly petty theft from stores as people try to steal food they can’t afford.

“I don’t think equating homeless with thefts and people acting erratically is a fair comparison,” Standlee said. She noted that her husband, Mark, owns the Racket Stringing Workshop on Draper Avenue and has never experienced crimes by homeless people.

Standlee said she doesn’t see the homeless population in La Jolla carrying out larger thefts, saying those are usually more organized.

Two weeks after meeting with community members about a series of residential burglaries in La Jolla linked to a South American crime ring, San Diego police told the La Jolla Town Council on March 10 that another burglary occurred about a week ago, bringing the local total attributed to the ring to 19.

La Jolla has many homeless individuals and “more people with serious mental illness [and] more seniors,” Standlee said.

The incident last month on Pearl Street, in which the assailant bumped into the woman with his shoulder and then struck her with a plastic grocery bag full of items and kicked her before taking her purse, is not an isolated one, some residents say.

It reminded La Jolla resident Gail Ermer of when she and a friend were walking between the Children’s Pool and La Jolla Cove a few weeks ago and a homeless man who frequents the area “very aggressively” hit her arm, she said.

Nothing more happened, though it “seemed to have a purpose behind it” and left her shaken up, Ermer said.

Ermer added that she now gives homeless people she passes a wide berth to avoid potential confrontation.

La Jolla resident Jessica Rohm said she feels the homeless people who frequent the area “have become much more aggressive and brazen since we moved here 10 years ago.” She said she often sees homeless people in front of businesses such as the Pavilions supermarket “surrounded by filth such as empty food containers” and has observed people using drugs on the street.

“If I had seen this when we were looking for a place to move, I wouldn’t have chosen La Jolla,” she said. “You are constantly bombarded by the homeless population.”

Rohm said she was accosted by a homeless person while walking in The Village a few years ago.

“I was walking on Pearl Street and [the person] chased me, so I started running,” Rohm said. “I ran into CVS and called 911. I left out the back door and went home. The police eventually called me back and took a report.”

After that, Rohm said, she would see the same homeless person, who often would yell at her.

“If I had seen this when we were looking for a place to move, I wouldn’t have chosen La Jolla. You are constantly bombarded by the homeless population.”

— La Jolla resident Jessica Rohm

Businesses and public spaces

The Flower Pot Cafe and Bakery on Fay Avenue in La Jolla
The Flower Pot Cafe and Bakery, which opened in September on Fay Avenue in La Jolla, hasn’t had any confrontational encounters with homeless people, according to co-owner Amanda Morrow.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Amanda Morrow — co-owner of the Flower Pot Cafe and Bakery, which opened Sept. 20 on Fay Avenue, and co-owner of the former Pannikin cafe on Girard Avenue — said there’s been an increase in the presence of homeless people, but “we tend to have pretty peaceful interactions [with them] in general.”

Morrow said her employees have not encountered human waste or other signs of property misuse and that unsheltered people are treated with the same respect as anyone else.

“Everyone’s been super mellow,” Morrow said. “It takes all kinds to pull a village together.”

Representatives of other places where homeless people are often seen nearby, such as Warwick’s bookstore and the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, declined to comment.

At the La Jolla Recreation Center on Prospect Street, staff reported an increase in homeless people sleeping onsite, according to San Diego city spokeswoman Ashley Bailey.

However, Rec Center staff members talk to them and they generally move along without further issues, Bailey said.

Enhance La Jolla Chairman Ed Witt and La Jolla Maintenance Assessment District manager Mary Montgomery said the presence of homeless people can hinder their objectives. Enhance La Jolla is a nonprofit that administers the MAD, with authority to enhance city-provided services.

“We take care of the trash abatement [and] … all kinds of other items the homeless leave or throw around,” Witt said at a La Jolla Town Council forum on homelessness last month. “We do power washing, sometimes late at night and in the early morning, and sometimes we disturb the [people sleeping on the street].”

Still, he said, “we watch with careful eyes for the people that are on the street, and we ... treat them with a lot of respect.” 

Montgomery said in a statement to the La Jolla Light that “I can confirm [that] homelessness impacts our janitorial and pressure-washing operations. … A majority of the time, messes are quietly taken away and effectively neutralized. There have been a handful of incidents where unhoused individuals have harassed our vendors. The approach we take is moving to another location in these circumstances. It’s a large district, with many areas needing attention. We can always return to an area.”

The sidewalk pressure washing is “most impacted by unhoused individuals” because it occurs mostly at night, she said.

“[Homeless] people are trying to sleep in areas that our crews are trying to clean and sanitize,” Montgomery said. “In addition to drips and spills from food and drink, pressure washing has been crucial in mitigating some of the biohazards that have occurred in public right-of-way areas.”

Update on Stella Maris attack

Police responded to an altercation outside Stella Maris Academy in La Jolla on Oct. 18.
Police responded to an altercation outside Stella Maris Academy in La Jolla on Oct. 18.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

In the Oct. 18 assault outside Stella Maris Academy, the homeless man was asked to leave the parking lot “and he responded to that by attacking [Mulcahy] with a box cutter and a half pair of scissors,” cutting Mulcahy’s hand, according to police. The man soon fled toward Park Row, where he was apprehended and arrested.

Mulcahy called his injury superficial and said he hopes his assailant “gets the help he needs.”

Less than two weeks after the attack, the suspect’s attorney asked a judge to suspend criminal proceedings in accord with Penal Code Section 1368, which is invoked when a defendant’s mental competency is questioned.

Police said the suspect is still in custody and is scheduled for another hearing Thursday, Dec. 15.

The fifth installment of the series will look at how various cities in the area address homelessness.