Homeless Advocate Attorneys Ask City to Cease Enforcement at Midway District Encampment

Attorneys say citations given to residents of the camp on SPorts Arena Boulevard on Monday are illegal

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Two homeless advocate attorneys met Tuesday with San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria to ask the city to cease enforcement at a large homeless encampment in the Midway District, which they consider criminalizing homelessness.

"We demand and end to criminalization, that the city not use the police and ticketing of these vulnerable individuals as a way to coerce compliance with services they may not need and do not lead to housing," attorney Coleen Cusack said.

Cusack and attorney Scott Dreher sent a letter dated Feb. 12 to Mayor Gloria, Chief of Police Dave Nisleit, City Attorney Mara Elliot, and Councilmember Jennifer Campbell asking the city to end enforcement at the encampment.

"We are writing you now on behalf of the class and the individuals therein asking that you immediately stop, and refrain from executing, these sweeps and actions and meet with us first, in order to discuss and attempt to reach a mutually-agreeable resolution to this issue that respects the rights of all the parties involved," reads the letter.

At her meeting with Gloria, Cusack said the two discussed the concept of enforcement as criminalization and how advocates believe enforcement is more expensive than a housing-first model.

They discussed no-barrier shelters in every council district, including tiny homes, hotel rooms, and safe lots for tents, RV’s, and vehicles. Those locations should include dumpsters, toilets, clean water, mail service, showers and secure storage.

"The mayor was open to everything, but committed to nothing," said Cusack, who added future meetings are planned with the City Attorney present.

A spokesperson for Mayor Gloria told NBC 7 the meeting was productive, and that Gloria was open to continued discussion.

Nearly a third of the tents and other shelters that had been there were gone Monday by the time enforcement began, reports NBC 7's Artie Ojeda.

The city resumed enforcement at the encampment on Monday, after a months-long pause due to COVID's impact on local shelters. San Diego police made contact with 17 people, with four accepting shelter services, according to a city spokesperson.

The city is using what it calls a "progressive enforcement" model, meaning if people do not accept shelter services, they will first be given a warning, and then an infraction citation, followed by a misdemeanor citation, and eventually the possibility of arrest.

On Monday, eight people were given verbal warnings, three people were given an infraction citation and one person was given a misdemeanor citation. One other person was arrested for an outstanding misdemeanor theft warrant.

The attorneys say the citations are illegal.

"The idea that people who are struggling and vulnerable and who need help are going to be threatened with arrest if they don’t accept the help the city has intended, help that in a lot of cases, puts them in a greater risk of harm,” Cusack said.

The attorneys also cited case law that requires cities to have adequate shelter before issuing citations. Cusack also says vague municipal codes are often only applied to the homeless.

"The Mayor's position is that City officials should not enforce illegal lodging and encroachment laws when there is no place for unsheltered residents to go. Last year, he directed the SDPD’s Neighborhood Policing Division to cease enforcement when no shelter beds are available,” said Mayor Gloria spokesperson Dave Rolland in a statement to NBC 7.

"When shelter is available, the Mayor believes the City should do everything it can to help people to accept it – because in addition to keeping folks safe from the dangers of life on the street, shelter and the social services that come with it represent a pathway to permanent housing. We are seeing that play out with Father Joe’s Villages’ newly opened Saint Teresa of Calcutta Villa. Among the first residents of the project’s permanent supportive housing units will be upwards of 100 people who are coming directly from the City’s shelter network,” said Rolland.

Meanwhile, Cusack also expressed concern that recent enforcement will interfere with the homeless census count scheduled to happen next Thursday. The encampment site in the Midway District has seen the number of tents reduced significantly in the last several days.

"The mayor can take credit for reducing homelessness, it will be fewer shelters that they have to provide under the law, and there’s a lot of benefits to claiming reduced numbers," said Cusack.

In response, the Mayor’s office said it would pause enforcement starting on Monday.

“Prior to receiving Mr. Dreher’s letter, Mayor Gloria directed the Environmental Services Department and the Neighborhood Policing Division to cease street cleanups and enforcement of illegal lodging and encroachment violations starting Feb. 21 until after the Point in Time Count is completed on Feb. 24. Mayor Gloria wants an accurate count of people experiencing homelessness. That’s how San Diego gets the federal funding to which we are entitled, and which helps fund the local programs that end homelessness one person at a time," said Rolland in the statement.

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