San Diego Police Department officers visited a homeless encampment in the Midway District Thursday and told residents that next week they'll be asked to leave or risk citations or arrest.
The encampment near the Sports Arena exploded in size amid the wintertime COVID-19 case surge as shelters closed their doors to new guests. The city estimates around 180 people currently live in the camp that stretches for blocks on Sports Arena Boulevard.
Residents and homeless advocates say that for weeks, SDPD officers would come every Tuesday and Thursday and tell them to move their things to the opposite side of the road so city crews could clean. Most would then return to the other side of the road after the it was cleaned, until they were asked to move again.
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"[Thursday], the big difference was the people were on this side, the police went over there, started to go one-by-one telling them, 'Oh, you're trespassing over here. Next week you’re going to start getting ticketed and arrested and you have to leave this area," McConnell said.
The city of San Diego told NBC 7 that they had suspended this type of enforcement in recent weeks when the homeless shelters in the city stopped taking in new people due to the COVID case surge, but now that shelters are accepting new guests the city says the progressive enforcement will resume.
"One of the key components of the City's Progressive Enforcement Model is the offering of shelter and services to individuals experiencing homelessness before any enforcement action is taken," a spokesperson for the city said in a statement.
Marvin C. is a disabled veteran who has been living in the encampment for approximately eight months. He says he doesn't want to go to a shelter.
"Because of sickness, you know, and I have mental issues and physical issues and I have accumulated quite a few things," he said.
The city says outreach teams have been working in the area for months, but only eight of the more than 180 people they estimate to be staying there have accepted the city's offer for shelter.
McConnell said the shelters are not a good option for many people who have to work or who don't want to get rid of their things.
"If you don’t want the folks who are out on the street, then you have to create better options. Right now we don’t have better options. The shelters are not good options for many people. We have to create safe camp zones, we have to create, certainly, just more housing opportunities because that’s what solves homelessness," McConnell said.
SDPD officers typically issue encroachment or trespassing tickets to homeless people to try to get rid of encampments, according to McConnell.
The city said it continues to take a compassionate approach, but adds that it must also balance that with the need to address the health and safety issues that persist in an encampment of that size.