coronavirus and the homeless

Advocates Demand Immediate Stop to Citations and Clearing of Homeless Encampments

“Targeting unsheltered individuals is terrible public policy, and directly endangers the lives of thousands of San Diegans,” one homeless advocate said

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NBC 7

This article has been updated with a response from the city of San Diego.

Advocates for San Diego’s homeless are demanding that police immediately stop ticketing and arresting people living on our streets, in make-shift camps, and in their cars. 

In an April 13 letter to Mayor Kevin Faulconer and SDPD Chief Dave Nisliet, attorney Genevieve Jones-Wright claims the city has “continued to harass unhoused San Diegans” by issuing encroachment citations and clearing encampments during the coronavirus pandemic.

Jones-Wright claims those enforcement measures are a “terrible public policy (and) an even greater affront to the very notion of basic decency and humanity.”

San Diego police wrote a total of 110 citations, some people received more than one citation per stop, and arrested 114 homeless people in a ten-day span in late March for encroachment, sleeping in parks, and setting up tents on public property, according to city records obtained by NBC 7 Investigates.

The most arrests (36) and citations (25) were made on Wednesday, March 25.

“We started seeing the homeless population getting tickets, up to $1,000 fines, for not staying six feet away from others or for encroachment,” community activist Tasha Williamson told NBC 7.

“Why wouldn’t this mayor, and police chiefs, come together to try and figure out a plan which would not only keep officers safe but get those who don’t have homes into dignified and safe shelters,” Williamson said.

Attorney Jones-Wright’s demand letter includes screenshots of police issuing the encroachment citations, and copies of those citations. Jones-Wright, who heads Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance (MoGo), claims the city’s decision to cite and arrest homeless San Diegans “directly conflicts with the (COVID-19) prevention measures spelled out by the federal Centers for Disease Control.” The former candidate for City Attorney argues that “a moratorium on all homeless sweeps is essential to curb the spread of the virus and to protect against preventable hospitalization and death.”

Her three-page letter, with eight pages of attachments, asks the city to “issue a written order suspending the ticketing of unsheltered community members for ‘quality of life’ offenses, along with homeless sweeps and the clearing of encampments by the close of business April 14.” If the ticketing and arrests continue, Jones-Wright threatens  the city with “possible legal action” to (stop) your continued endangerment of public safety.”

The city of San Diego says its following CDC guidelines, and that San Diego Police offer warnings before making arrests or issuing citations.

"Officers are using a high degree of discretion to avoid issuing citations during this time, unless in the case of serious infractions or felonious or violent behavior," says Senior Press Secretary Ashley Bailey.

"When officers encounter individuals who are clustered in small groups, they ask individuals to conform to public health guidance regarding physical distancing... With this public health emergency, living in unsanitary conditions and clustering in groups increases a person’s chance of contracting COVID-19 or other communicable diseases."

To read the city's full statement, click here.

Jones-Wright’s demand letter follows a similar April 8 request for a moratorium on arrests and ticketing of the homeless made by a coalition of homeless advocates. 

In their letter to Mayor Faulconer and City Council President Georgette Gomez, coalition members note that “Ticketing homeless individuals who have no place to live and removing their only shelter rather than allow them to shelter in place is counterproductive, inhumane and could unnecessarily expose our first responders to Coronavirus.”

That April 8 letter was sent by the Local Initiatives Support Coalition and signed by eight community activists.

On Monday, the county for the first time reported the impact of COVID19 on the homeless population.

Speaking at the county’s daily briefing, Supervisor Nathan Fletcher revealed that the homeless account for 13 of the county’s 1,847 positive cases. Fletcher said nine of those homeless patients were from “unsheltered populations” and four from existing homeless shelters. Eleven of those homeless patients now have temporary lodging in local motels; two are hospitalized and will be moved to motels if and when they recover.

Meanwhile, the city has opened new homeless shelters at Golden Hall and the bayfront convention center. It’s unclear if police are directing the homeless to those shelters and ticketing or arresting them only when they refuse an offer of housing.

Bailey says that the convention center provides the city "an opportunity to bring in additional unsheltered individuals in off the streets."

"It must be done in a scaled approach to allow services to be also built up appropriately to serve clients responsibly," Bailey said by email.

Supervisor Fletcher said none of the homeless COVID19 patients contracted the disease at the convention center. But community activist Williamson claims the city’s shelter response is not safe for those who take shelter inside. Other cities such as San Francisco abandoned plans to use its convention center amid concerns that the close quarters housing would put those inside at more risk than if they remained on the streets.

“The convention center is a death trap, it goes against CDC guidelines, so I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Williamson told NBC 7 Investigates.

Amie Zamudio (left) pictured with Tasha Williamson (right).

Williamson -- with help from activists Amie Zamudio and Dan Smith -- also has agreements with the owners of five hotels and an apartment complex to house the homeless, as an alternative to the open-space shelter at the convention center but does not have the funds to move forward with the plan. They are raising money on GoFundMe to pay for those individual rooms, which they say are a safer choice for homeless individuals most at risk for coronavirus infection and other illnesses.

Williamson discussed efforts to assist communities across San Diego County during the coronavirus pandemic in the latest episode of INSIGHT - a podcast by NBC 7 Investigates. Listen to the episode below. 

“We are going to help as many as we can but we can’t help everybody,” Williamson said. “We try and focus on those people that have the best shot at getting into permanent housing after all of this is over.”

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