Community advocates for people experiencing homelessness in San Diego held a press conference on Wednesday to address the crash that injured nine people this week, killing three of them, saying that the tragedy could have been prevented.
The crash happened under a bridge on the 1400 block of B Street near San Diego City College known to provide shelter to houseless individuals, especially on cold and stormy nights, like the one on Monday.
“This is just one tragic event of many that have happened. Will this be the catalyst that actually finally wakes up our elected officials and moves us forward? We are waiting to see that,” said Michael McConnell, a local advocate for people experiencing homelessness.
McConnell was joined by several others who said the crash could have been prevented if there were better options for unsheltered individuals, especially during a public health crisis when some might not want to go to a large shelter like the convention center.
The community advocates stated that of the 2,000 hotel rooms that the county allocated for the regional COVID-19 response, only 200 were reserved for unhoused people and most of the rooms have gone unused.
Advocates were referring to Project Room Key, a program during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide hotel rooms for isolation needs if an individual gets sick. The hotel rooms were intended for anyone who needed one, but could also be used for homeless individuals 65 and older or with chronic health conditions.
“The night these individuals were killed, county procured hotel rooms were empty,” said Parisa Ijadi-Maghsoodi, an attorney with Disability Rights California. "Those individuals had the underlying conditions that made them eligible for these rooms that stood empty."
Mayor Todd Gloria’s Chief of Staff, Nick Serrano, responded to the press conference in an email sent to NBC 7 saying:
"This week’s crash was devastating, and we understand the calls from the community in wanting to do more for San Diegans sleeping on our streets. Mayor Gloria always has and will continue to share that objective.”
Serrano added, “Mayor Gloria has been clear in his direction for the City to adopt a person-centered approach to homelessness. We will turn over every stone and use every tool in the toolbox in order to provide shelter and services for people experiencing homelessness.”
During the pandemic, homeless individuals were housed in a temporary shelter at the San Diego Convention Center. But in early March, Mayor Todd Gloria announced the operation would end and those without shelter would be relocated to other shelters where they would receive the same services. Move out for about 600 people was scheduled to begin March 22.
After the tragic crash, the city deployed mental health clinicians and outreach groups to provide those affected with support and options for temporary housing. San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said at least three individuals took them up on the offer.
Gloria said at a media briefing the same day the city of San Diego would not turn a blind eye to homelessness and, instead, would “deal with it head-on.”
“We can and we will provide shelter to those who need it,” he said. “I want to speak to those without homes in our city – accept the help we are offering. We have beds, we have services, we can connect you with family – and offer you a safe place to stay.”
Gloria also called on those in the homeless community to accept help and make use of the services that are currently available. He stressed the need to provide more beds, but advocates say the mayor needs to go further.
“No one should have died here this week and any contention that this is an unpreventable tragedy is based on a false premise,” Ijadi-Maghsoodi said.
Ijadi-Maghsoodi added that the City of San Diego needs to improve its shelters and resources to include options that are “medically appropriate” for high-risk individuals.
Geneviéve Jones-Wright, Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance, called on San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and City Council to stop criminalizing homelessness and to stop ticketing unhoused people. She also called to stop conditioning access to shelters and services.
“The same things we are asking for today are the same things we were asking for in 2006," Jones-Wright said.
The San Diego Police Department says 71-year-old Craig Voss, who is suspected of being impaired at the time, drove his car onto the sidewalk, hitting a group that was near tents and other belongings.
One of the three people who was killed has been identified by San Diego County’s Medical Examiner as 40-year-old Rodney Diffendal, who is believed to have been unsheltered.
According to SDPD, Voss was booked into jail on three counts of vehicular manslaughter, plus five counts of causing great bodily injury while committing a felony. He also faces one count of felony DUI.