City's Cleanup of Homeless Encampment in Midway District a ‘Sleight of Hand': Business Owner

Mayor Todd Gloria said the cleanup is a “concentrated” effort to connect the people camping along the road to shelter and social services

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San Diego city employees began cleaning up a large homeless encampment along Sports Arena Boulevard Tuesday morning, though the move from Mayor Todd Gloria did not seem to appease business owners who are fed up with the increase in tents outside their properties.

SkyRanger 7 saw San Diego employees at around 8 a.m. alerting people in tents at they would need to move their belongings so the city’s Environmental Services Department can conduct a cleanup operation.

"This is just a band-aid. This hasn't solved anything other than to clean up the sidewalk and street a little bit," homeless advocate Michael McConnell told NBC 7's Artie Ojeda.

For the next several hours, city crews swept trash and debris and cleaned up unsanitary conditions along half of the stretch of roadway. But once city crews left the scene, it appeared people were moving tents and belongings back in.

When one relocated individual was asked where he planned to go, the individual told NBC 7 he was staying right there.

NBC 7 reached out to the city of San Diego to determine the goal of the operation, since it appeared unclear if the effort was meant to relocate homeless individuals from the area or solely to clean up unsanitary conditions.

A spokesman for the mayor's office, Dave Rolland, send this reply:

The intent of today’s action was to allow City Environmental Services staff to go through the area and clear it of waste and debris that poses a threat to public health and safety. A concentrated outreach effort to connect residents in the area to shelter and services occurred over the past three weeks, during which only seven people out of an estimated 183 who reside in this encampment accepted shelter. Today’s action was aimed at immediately remediating health hazards in the context of a sustained, long-term effort to persuade unhoused residents to move off the streets into shelter. We have always understood – and communicated – that fully clearing the encampment will require repeated clean-up operations and continued outreach.

As long as this encampment exists, the city will continue to conduct regular cleanings like what occurred today, and outreach teams will continue to work with residents on interventions that work for them.

The effort only increased frustration among business owners in the area, including Karen Andersen-Thatcher of Walter Andersen Nursery, who told NBC 7 she considered the clean-up a “sleight of hand” from the city.

"They did pick up the trash, which I do appreciate, but they've done nothing to help the homeless," Andersen-Thatcher said. "So now all the homeless have moved back to where they were and are resetting up their camp."

Andersen said she and other nearby business owners are witness to daily unsightly and unsanitary conditions.

A homeless encampment in San Diego’s Midway District is being cleaned up. NBC 7’s Madison Weil has more from the process and a homeless advocate.

Gloria announced Monday the clean-up would be completed to “protect public health and safety for both the residents of the encampment and the surrounding community.'' Advance notice of the cleanup was posted along Sports Arena Boulevard on Friday.

Gloria said his team had made a “concentrated” effort to connect the people camping along the road to shelter and social services.

“The situation on Sports Arena Boulevard in the Midway community is wholly unacceptable,” Gloria said. “The potential for an outbreak of disease and the threat to public safety compels us to act now.”

“As we continue to provide shelter and wide array of supportive services to unsheltered people living in the neighborhood, we cannot wait for something terrible to happen before we take decisive action,” he said. The outreach effort to those in the encampment was led by People Assisting the Homeless under the direction of the city’s Homelessness Strategies and Solutions Department and the San Diego Housing Commission.

During the outreach, PATH found 94 tent structures and an estimated 183 people living on Sports Arena Boulevard between Rosecrans Street and Pacific Highway. Multiple other city, county and nonprofit organizations assisted in the effort.

Homeless advocates estimated about 30 tents were relocated on Tuesday with about 40 individuals.

“Thank you to the mayor for the assistance that my staff and I have been advocating for,” said City Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, who represents the Midway community. “The situation in Midway is intolerable for all parties involved. It is inhumane to allow our unsheltered neighbors to live on our streets or under bridges.”

“I hope those living on Sports Arena Boulevard will accept the services and shelter provided to protect the health and safety for all,” Campbell said.

The after-action report on the outreach counted 157 encounters with unsheltered residents and 457 instances of service. According to the county, its personnel provided 62 people with CalFresh assistance and 56 people with MediCal assistance.

Additionally, seven people accepted placement into shelter -- six of them in the Community Harm Reduction Shelter that Gloria and County Board Supervisors Chairman Nathan Fletcher opened nearby in December to serve residents who struggle with substance abuse and mental illness, and one at PATH Connections Housing downtown.

“I appreciate the coordinated efforts of so many partners and advocates to provide an extensive targeted outreach effort,” said Tamera Kohler, CEO of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness. “We must be very attentive to the residents and the community’s health and safety needs, treating everyone with dignity and respect, and offer clear information and openness on how the city must address the potential hazards posed to residents in this encampment and provide sustained services including cleanups and clearance when needed.”

Due to the increase in COVID-19 cases, there has been a lack of resources for those who experience homelessness in San Diego. NBC 7's Artie Ojeda reports.

According to a city statement, outreach workers reported residents of the encampment openly discussed their substance-use issues and accepted various services. Based on their observations, outreach workers said they are concerned about criminal activity happening in the encampment. The vast majority of people living in the area were hesitant to accept shelter placement despite knowing cleanup operations were imminent.

“The community has felt the impact of this sprawling encampment for months now,” said Dike Anyiwo, vice chair of the Midway-Pacific Highway Community Planning Group. “Our planning group meetings are dominated by reports about illegal drug use, litter, violent assaults and theft of property from nearby homes and businesses. People here are desperate for action.”

Environmental Services Department staff who have been through the area to collect waste reported makeshift structures that likely have cooking fuels that pose a fire risk and items soiled with feces, urine, and food or pet waste -- making the encampment a public health concern.

On one day during the outreach operation, multiple residents approached outreach workers and said that some residents were not accepting help because they were suffering from stomach illness, which was reported to county public health officials.

San Diego’s standard cleanup practice involves individuals moving their belongings from the area to allow city staff to remove waste, abandoned property and items that are unsanitary or in disrepair.

Staff are trained to handle with care items believed to be personal belongings, a statement from the city reads. All items are sorted to identify those that are deemed in good, usable condition or of irreplaceable personal value, such as paperwork, photos, Bibles, journals and medication, and those personal belongings are taken to a city storage facility with notice left in the area for how to retrieve it.

Last year, Gloria reformed procedures involved in encampment cleanups to include a less-visible police presence. However, due to reported safety threats to workers during cleanups in this area in the recent past, officers will accompany Environmental Services staff during the cleanup.

Unsheltered residents are not being cited for illegal lodging or encroachment, but residents who refuse to move during the cleanup to allow this public health operation to proceed will be arrested.

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