‘They cannot say no to leaving the sidewalk’: San Diego officials call for ban on homeless encampments

Homeless encampments such as this one in San Diego could be banned under a proposed ordinance.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Homeless people would be offered shelter, but camps in some areas, such as shoreline parks in La Jolla, would not be allowed even if no alternatives are available.


With homeless encampments in his district surging in recent months, San Diego City Councilman Stephen Whitburn announced March 16 that he will propose an ordinance banning tents and makeshift structures on public property.

“We’ve heard too many stories of people camping on our streets who have been randomly attacked, stabbed to death or even set on fire,” said Whitburn, who represents District 3, which includes urban core areas such as downtown, Balboa Park, Bankers Hill, Hillcrest, Little Italy, North Park, South Park and University Heights. “These encampments are unsafe. They are also a danger to our neighborhoods.”

A federal legal decision prohibits law enforcement from citing or arresting people for camping outdoors if no alternatives are available. The ordinance proposed by Whitburn would follow that rule but make exceptions, with law enforcement allowed to cite people for public camping in certain areas, regardless of the availability of shelter beds.

That enforcement would apply to encampments at shoreline parks in La Jolla, Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Balboa Park, Mission Bay Park and Presidio Park and to camps within two blocks of schools or homeless shelters, in any open space, waterway or natural area abutting a waterway, within any transit hub, on any trolley platform or along any trolley tracks.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria joined Whitburn in the announcement and said he supports the proposal and would urge the full City Council to approve it.

The same day, representatives of counties throughout the state proposed a plan designed to create more housing and services for homeless people while increasing accountability and transparency.

Gloria said the new local ordinance would get tough on people who refuse to accept help or move their tents, but still would take a compassionate and progressive enforcement approach. People camping in public places, including canyons and sidewalks, would be offered a shelter bed and cited or arrested only after multiple contacts with law enforcement.

Gloria and Whitburn also said the city is planning to open another “safe” parking lot in the near future and is looking for a location for its first safe campground.

“I want to be clear — once we have these resources in place, the answer from our homeless population can no longer be ‘no,’” Gloria said. “They cannot say no to leaving the sidewalk or no that they prefer being on the street or no to services and help. When we ask you to come off the street and we have a place for you to go, ‘no’ is not an acceptable answer.”

But with about 2,000 homeless people in downtown alone, there are not enough vacant shelter beds or other alternatives to offer to everyone on the street, even with the new parking lot and campground.

Gloria, however, said he still expects the enforcement to happen because many homeless people are able to find some form of housing on their own.

A monthly report from the Regional Task Force on Homelessness states that many homeless people do rent units themselves. The report from February says 725 homeless people were housed that month, with 522 people renting units.

The proposed San Diego ordinance is similar to one proposed last year by state Sen. Brian Jones (R-Santee). The bill, which is up for a committee hearing Tuesday, March 28, would ban homeless encampments from public parks and near schools, libraries and other sensitive areas.

Gloria said the city in April also will begin enforcing its ordinance prohibiting people from living in their vehicles, a law that had been on hiatus since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Homeless advocate Michael McConnell, a vocal critic of enforcement already being conducted at homeless encampments, said the proposed ordinance appears redundant.

“We already have a state law against illegal lodging as well as a municipal code for encroachment,” he said. “I’m not sure what this additional law is going to do. Homelessness is basically criminalized every day in San Diego.”

McConnell said he doesn’t want people living on the street but doesn’t see additional enforcement working until there are more safe places for them to go.

In another announcement March 16, representatives of San Diego and other California counties unveiled a proposal they said would coordinate homeless efforts statewide while creating more transparency and accountability.

Dozens of recommendations are included in the AT HOME plan, an acronym for Accountability, Transparency, Housing, Outreach, Mitigation and Economic opportunity.

San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Nora Vargas participated in the announcement with other members of the California State Association of Counties, including representatives of Los Angeles, Riverside, Alameda, Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties.

She and other supervisors emphasized a need for greater collaboration and streamlining processes in addressing homelessness.

“I’ve heard the loud voices in my county, and I’m sure all of you have as well,” she said.

Vargas said the San Diego area already is demonstrating local cooperation, with one example being a city-funded shelter on county property with the county providing behavioral health services.

More such services as well as outreach efforts are needed, she said.

“We do not have enough behavioral health care workers to support the needs of our community, especially of our unsheltered neighbors,” Vargas said.

The AT HOME plan supports exempting from California Environmental Quality Act review all permanent supportive housing, shelters and transitional housing projects that meet specific criteria, which Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson said would be a “sea change” in providing services and housing faster.

Other recommendations would explore new funding mechanisms, streamline rules about development and work to help local governments where housing projects are stalled because of objections from some community members, Carson said.

Graham Knaus, chief executive of the California State Association of Counties, said AT HOME is the most comprehensive plan ever developed to address homelessness and that implementing parts of it would require acts from the state Legislature. But it could be done within the year, Knaus said.

For more details and a list of recommendations in the plan, visit

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.