San Diego calls housing a human right but may soon ban tent encampments
SAN DIEGO (CN) — Israel Elzy didn’t have a bad location. It was down the street from a stop on San Diego’s trolley system, a couple blocks away from the East Village area of downtown San Diego where new luxury apartment buildings shine in the sun. But the best part is that it was close to a nonprofit where Elzy could get his mail and take a shower as he waited for a bed at a local shelter.
While he’s been waiting for seven months now for a lower bunk bed, the 65-year-old has been spending some time sleeping in a tent on a block full of other tents with others living on the street like more than 582,000 people across the country according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Human Services.
As home prices and rent continue to rise, wages stay stagnant and affordable housing opportunities shrink, cities, towns and rural municipalities across the country struggle to respond to the rising number of people living on the streets. In June, the San Diego City Council will vote on a bill to ban tents on public property if shelter beds are available. The law would also ban tents within two blocks of schools, homeless shelters, trolley tracks, transportation hubs, parks and waterways, even if there aren’t any shelter beds available.
The council member proposing the bill says the ban will protect public health and safety while the city builds more services. Advocates and people living on the street say it will not only further criminalize people for trying to find some form of shelter, and it won’t actually do anything to help people into permanent housing.
“Fundamentally I’m confused by the proposal,” said Eric Tars, the legal director for the National Homelessness Law Center, noting the council previously voted unanimously to approve a resolution declaring housing a fundamental human right.
“If they’re committed to that language and framework, then criminalizing people without a home doesn’t make any sense,” Tars said.
Tars represented a group of homeless residents in Boise, Idaho, who sued the city after they were cited for violating a law that banned sleeping on public property. After years of litigation, the Ninth Circuit ruled in 2018 that citing someone for sleeping outside when there aren’t any available shelter beds violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, meaning all nine Western states and two U.S. territories in the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction can’t cite people for sleeping on the streets.
Tars said the National Homelessness Law Center had hoped the ruling would direct governments to get people living on the streets into permanent housing and connected to social services, but some have instead tried to find loopholes because of a footnote in the ruling that leaves undecided whether governments can set some limits on where camping can be banned.
San Diego’s proposed law would also ban people from setting up a tent in Balboa Park, one of the city’s biggest attractions.
“They’re inviting litigation there,” Tars said, on top of lawsuits the city is already fighting for passing an ordinance that criminalizes people for sleeping in their cars.
“There’s no strategy on anything involving homelessness in the city of San Diego,” said Michael McConnel, a homeless advocate who often records police encounters with people during sweeps of encampments, when sanitation workers and police forcibly disband encampments and remove people’s property from the area to clean the street. “That’s what’s gotten us here today. There’s no leadership. Todd Gloria talks a lot, but does very little,” he said, referring to the mayor of San Diego.
McConnel said if the City Council ends up passing the encampment ban, it’ll just make it easier for the city to criminalize homelessness. Already, people living on the streets can be ticketed for encroachment, a city law that prohibits trash cans from blocking sidewalks, which is also used to cite and even arrest people living on the streets if they refuse to go to a shelter multiple times.
“They’re trying to wear us down,” said Rachel Hayes, who lives on the streets near San Diego’s trolley line.
Hayes said her encampment was swept every day one week in mid-May, and four times the week after, forcing her to move all of her belongings to the opposite side of the street each time.
She thinks the frequency and intensity of these sweeps are a precursor to the City Council's passage of the encampment ban.
After lots of paperwork and 10 years of waiting, Hayes said she’s finally found a spot in a permanent supportive housing program. She just has to wait for it to pass an inspection before she can move in.
While she’s been waiting, Hayes has gotten involved in advocating for the homeless community. She said she’s thinking about a future run for a City Council seat to be a voice for people without a voice.
“All I know is what they are doing is not working,” Hayes wrote about her future policy proposals. “It didn’t work before the pandemic and it’s not going to work again. I know jails are not the solution. I know that treatment needs to be included and available for those that want it. I know what shelter policies need to change.”
As Elzy’s been waiting for a shelter space he’s collected lots of stuff like clothes, dog food, and trays of fruit, all of which he and his girlfriend had to frantically sift through and decide what should be kept and what should be thrown away under the eye of a police officer, as a group of nonprofit workers who help with encampment sweeps bag up and throw away their belongings.
The way Elzy describes it, the officer checked on him earlier that morning by shaking his tent.
“When he saw the mess he took out his knife and started cutting my tent,” Elzy said.
What led to that encounter, or the action taken by the officer, the officer refused to say. When contacted, the city also did not clarify the situation, other than to say that the city regularly has crews in the area conducting enforcement and abatements.
“The teams didn’t have a ‘planned’ abatement effort in the area, however that doesn’t mean we didn’t receive a complaint or the officer saw something or any number of things could have happened,” wrote Ashley Bailey, the strategic communications officer for public safety and homelessness for San Diego, in an email.
“What happened wasn’t in their policy. It was a one-off thing,” McConnel said. “It seemed like a one cop, one tent sweep,” whereas sweeps, or abatements as the city refers to them as, are usually enforced on blocks, not individuals.
Whatever happened, Elzy said he appreciated the officer for giving him what he referred to as a breakthough.
“You start gathering shit and you don’t know it,” he said.
His girlfriend had a slightly different response.
“Where am I supposed to go?” she asked.