Proposed homeless encampment ban advances to San Diego City Council

Homeless advocate Michael McConnell speaks against a proposed San Diego ordinance that would ban encampments on public land.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

City’s Land Use and Housing Committee declines to offer a recommendation and calls for a comprehensive plan.


A proposal to prohibit homeless encampments on public land in the city of San Diego got a lukewarm response this week from a City Council committee, which agreed to move the item to the full council but without a recommendation.

In a 3-1 vote April 13, the Land Use and Housing Committee agreed to forward the proposed ordinance, along with a companion information piece that called for a comprehensive plan that included expanding shelter options, dedicated outreach, consistent enforcement and other items.

City Councilman Stephen Whitburn and Mayor Todd Gloria announced plans for the ordinance last month as a way of addressing a growing number of homeless encampments in Whitburn’s downtown district.

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.

As proposed, the ordinance would prohibit encampments on all public property when shelter beds are available and would prohibit them regardless of shelter bed availability at Balboa Park and shoreline parks and near schools, shelters, waterways, trolley stations and transit hubs.

City Council members Joe LaCava, Vivian Moreno and Kent Lee, who make up the four-person committee along with Whitburn, each had issues with the proposal as written.

Lee voiced the strongest objection and cast the only vote against advancing the ordinance to the full council after questioning how it could be enforced when the availability of shelter beds is sometimes as low as 3 percent.

“Data clearly shows our city’s available shelters are far from that amount needed to support the needs of the unhoused and even allow this to be enforced on an ongoing basis,” he said. “It leaves me concerned that if this were adopted, we would be rushing through this not only without addressing the actual issues but rather possibly exacerbating them instead.”

The wording of the ordinance was intended to follow restrictions of the Martin v. Boise court decision, which prohibits citing homeless people for sleeping outdoors if no other options are available.

Moreno said she had problems with the ordinance as written because it identifies only Balboa Park and parks near the shore and not smaller parks in less-affluent neighborhoods.

Whitburn agreed that the ordinance could be changed to include all public parks in the city.

Moreno also asked that the ordinance include written enforcement and operations plans, a site for a safe-sleeping area that would allow people to legally camp outdoors and a written legal analysis from the city attorney.

LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, questioned why a proposed 11-page ordinance is needed when existing laws already prohibit people from camping on sidewalks, and he said a more narrowly focused ordinance probably would gain support more easily.

Just over 100 people submitted requests to speak in person on the issue and more than 30 called in. Public comments appeared evenly divided in favor or opposed.

Several speakers who favored the ordinance were residents of downtown San Diego who recalled violence and other incidents involving people on the street.

“Every day we have to walk over people who are overdosing,” Jarvis Leverson said. “I walk my children by people smoking meth.”

Perkins School Principal Fernando Hernandez said his students have walked past homeless people fighting, doing drugs and defecating on the street on their route to and from the downtown school.

Many opponents of the proposal said it would do little but move people from one place to another and could not be enforced because there are not enough shelter beds or other options.

Among the speakers in opposition was Jordan Beane, chief of staff for the San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness.

Beane noted that recent task force reports have said the number of people who fall into homelessness is outpacing the number of homeless people who are housed each month, and he said more housing is needed for long-term solutions.

“In the interim, we need all types of shelter options connected to coordinated street outreach to see real reductions,” he said. “This ordinance brings us no closer to what we need to be successful.”

Despite a 2018 state law intended to end the practice, local advocate Amie Zamudio says she encountered more than 500 homeless people last year who were discharged in the middle of the night with no transportation.

Homeless advocate Michael McConnell said the proposal is unnecessary and could make the situation worse.

“We’ve seen the aggressive enforcement San Diego already does,” McConnell said. “This is actually nothing new. You’re just being sold a bill of goods.”

LaCava said he is sympathetic to the people who have concerns about encampments in their neighborhoods but also is sympathetic to those who oppose the ordinance.

“Both sides were right,” he said. “It is sad that we have people living on the streets in deplorable conditions and it’s sad that we have not done anything about that in the city.”

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.