San Diego to Arrest Homeless People Who Refuse Services or Shelter

Homelessness in San Diego

A plan to arrest homeless people who refuse services or shelter is drawing ire from some San Diego advocates who argue the move could make it harder for people to find permanent housing options.

The plan is part of a controversial ordinance that San Diego’s city council passed last month to prohibit encampments within the city limits. It has a three-step process, beginning with people being offered a shelter bed. If that fails, city police officers can issue a misdemeanor citation. People who continue to sleep on the streets after being issued a citation can be subject to arrest, according to the ordinance.

San Diego Councilmember Stephen Whitburn introduced the ordinance alongside Mayor Todd Gloria. However, a spokesperson for Whitburn’s office told local news station ABC 10 that San Diego currently does not have enough shelter beds for its more than 10,000 homeless people.

Councilmembers Kent Lee, Montgomery Steppe, and Vivian Moreno opposed the ordinance. Lee said he believes the ordinance can be legally challenged, alluding to the 9th Circuit’s decision in Martin v. Boise that prohibits cities from citing or arresting homeless people when there isn’t enough shelter options available. Moreno added that the ordinance could strain the San Diego police’s resources.

Advocates like Hanan Scrapper, regional director for People Assisting the Homeless San Diego, also opposed the ordinance. That said, Scrapper agreed with the underlying premise that encampments are “not an acceptable way for any human being to live.”

“An anti-camping ordinance will not lead to the outcomes we all want to see,” Scrapper said. “Such an ordinance will only further disperse the problem around the city and region and make the jobs of homeless service providers like PATH much more difficult.”

Homelessness has been a growing concern in San Diego for many years. 

The latest point-in-time count found more than 10,200 homeless people in the city, which accounts for a 21% increase since 2019. More than half of the 10,000 homeless San Diegans counted in 2023 were unsheltered, representing an increase of more than 158% since 2019.

San Diego’s sharp rise in homelessness comes at a time when home prices and rents have both surged. Data from Redfin shows that San Diego’s median home price has increased by 48% since 2019 from around $625,000 to more than $930,000 as of July. Meanwhile, RentCafe data shows that rents in San Diego have increased from around $1,800 in 2019 to more than $2,900 in July 2023, representing a 57% increase.

Both of San Diego’s home prices and rents are unaffordable for households who earn the city’s median income of more than $89,000. At that income level, a household can afford a monthly rent of around $2,200 without spending more than the recommended 30% of their income.

US Bank’s mortgage calculator also suggests that a household earning $89,000 can afford a home valued at about $522,000 and a monthly payment of about $2,670. That’s assuming they put down a 20% down payment. However, Zillow found just 128 homes in San Diego at that price range.

Death Rate Among Homeless San Diegans Soars

As rates of homelessness in San Diego have increased, so too has the number of homeless people dying on the city’s streets. Last year, an estimated 588 homeless people died in San Diego County. That is six times greater than the number who died in 2012, according to Voice of San Diego, a street newspaper.

The rising number of deaths of homeless people is one reason why some advocates like Drew Moser, the executive director of the Lucky Duck Foundation, are supporting the encampment ban ordinance.

Lucky Duck sent a letter to San Diego’s city council on July 13 voicing their support for the ordinance. In the letter, the group argued that the ordinance could help the city connect homeless people with services and shelter more quickly than before.

To be clear, we do not in any way, shape or form endorse the ‘criminalization of homelessness,‘ Lucky Duck wrote in the letter, which was shared with Invisible People. “Rather, we fully support our city’s ability to connect our homeless neighbors to lifesaving resources off the streets to reduce unsheltered homelessness and protect public health and public safety.”

How You Can Help

Now is not the time to be silent about homelessness in California or anywhere else. Unhoused people deserve safe and sanitary housing just as much as those who can afford rent or mortgage.

Poverty and homelessness are both policy choices, not personal failures. That’s why we need you to contact your officials and tell them you support legislation that:

  • Streamlines the development of affordable housing
  • Reduces barriers for people experiencing homelessness to enter permanent housing
  • Bolsters government response to homelessness

Together, we can solve homelessness.

Robert Davis

Robert Davis

Robert is a freelance journalist based in Colorado who covers housing, police, and local government.

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