Trying to make sense of amended illegal-lodging settlement
On Tuesday, a federal judge signed off on a modification to a settlement that prevents San Diego Police officers from ticketing anyone sleeping on public property between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. Under the modified settlement, a police officer can issue a ticket in Downtown San Diego only if someone refuses an available bed. City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer pushed for the amendment and made his support of a supportive housing / one-stop service center contingent on police being able to issue tickets again.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around this one.
The gist of the original settlement, in place since 2007 and the result of a lawsuit brought by nine homeless plaintiffs, says that if there are no shelter beds available, it’s unconstitutional to ticket (or jail) someone for sleeping on the street. There are only about half as many shelter beds as homeless people citywide.
The new settlement, it seems, merely articulates the intent the 2007 settlement. At least that’s how it seems to me—and I’ve been covering this thing for more than four years. Not so, said City Attorney Jan Goldsmith. He referred to the new settlement as a “clear strategic plan” for getting people off the street.
Has San Diego suddenly added more emergency shelter beds that folks can now be directed to? No. At a press conference today, Assistant Police Chief Boyd Long mentioned there were a total of five beds set aside each night at three shelters: Rachel’s Women’s Center, The Rescue Mission and City of Refuge. I spoke with Herb Johnson, CEO of the Rescue Mission, and Martha Ranson, director of services for Rachel’s, about the beds. Johnson said his organization has long worked with the police department’s Homeless Outreach Team—which includes police officers and mental-health clinicians—to try to get people in. “We’ll push and squeeze,” he said, “but we’re pretty much at capacity every night.” Ranson said Rachel’s has held a bed open for HOT in the past for emergency situations and has agreed to add another bed.
“The caveat is, it’s a one-night deal,” she said. “The HOT team comes back the next day and works with them to get them to move to something else—whether they need treatment… sometimes there’s board-and-care beds. They’re trying to reach these very resistant people.”
It’s true—that’s what HOT does. They build relationships with people who are mentally ill and chronically homeless and who’ve often had bad experiences at shelters and programs. They try to find the right program for that person without bringing punitive measures into the mix. Trying to use a ticket to get someone into a shelter is “ludicrous,” Ranson said. “Why would you give a homeless person a ticket? It’s not going to make them less homeless.”
The third provider, City of Refuge, isn’t mentioned on any shelter lists, their website is down and their phone line goes to an answering machine.
Goldsmith criticized former City Attorney Mike Aguirre for agreeing to the 2007 settlement. He said that Aguirre “gave away the streets” and described San Diego’s streets as “worse than Manhattan.”
(If Manhattan’s got fewer homeless people, it’s not because police can write illegal-lodging tickets; it’s because of ambitious initiatives like Common Ground’s Street to Home program.)
And, I’d argue, the settlement isn’t what’s caused an increase in the Downtown homeless population, which was just over 1,000 people according to a September count. Even under the 2007 settlement, police could write as many tickets as they wanted between 5:31 a.m. and 9:29 p.m. Instead, blame the loss of residential hotels—the housing of last resort. In the last decade some of Downtown’s most affordable residential-hotel units have been torn down or converted to fancy hotels: the Maryland Hotel, Pickwick, Hotel San Diego, Churchill, Capri and State hotels. That’s at least 1,000 units right there. Blame cuts to to rehabilitation programs for people on parole, the increase in homelessness among Iraq and Afghanistan war vets, the economy.