The city is expecting its biggest month of tourism ever but efforts to tidy up in time have angered advocates for the most vulnerable locals.
Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game will flood downtown San Diego with sports fans on July 12. Coupled with July 4th celebrations and the massively popular Comic-Con that starts on July 21, the city has spent all year tidying up for what it expects to be its biggest month of tourism ever.
But local homeless advocates argue that it’s making room for more tourists by pushing its most vulnerable out—similar to what San Francisco did during its preparations for Super Bowl 50, except more secretive and less coordinated.
It started back in March, when fliers first appeared throughout East Village, a downtown neighborhood where the bulk of the city’s homeless service centers are located. If you were living on the streets, the signs indicated, you had 72 hours to pack up your stuff and move before municipal crews would come through to clean the area. Fail to move out in time and you’d lose your stuff or get a ticket for encroachment.
Michael McConnell, a local homelessness activist, thinks that cleaning up encampment areas helps keep both the general public and homeless populations safer. But he also thinks that giving tickets to people who can’t afford to pay them only adds fuel to the cycle of homelessness in San Diego, which has the 4th largest homeless population in the United States.
“It’s a process of criminalizing homelessness,” says McConnell, speaking about the city’s protocol when it comes to its clean-up sweeps. If you have outstanding tickets, you’re liable for arrest, and one of the bargaining chips police might use in that case is a stay-away order for the area you were ticketed in, according to McConnell, who regularly interviews the homeless. “[It’s] the ultimate displacement because if you come back to that area, then you just continually get arrested,” he says.
The San Diego Police Department did not respond to inquiries about its ticketing procedure for the street clean-ups, or about how many encroachment tickets it has given out since this year’s sweeps started.
Last April, plots of jagged rock began appearing along the sidewalk of a pedestrian underpass frequented by homeless people that leads to Petco Park, home of the MLB’s Padres and this year’s All-Star Game. At first, no one in East Village or Sherman Heights—the two San Diego neighborhoods bordering the underpass—knew where they came from.
McConnell snapped a couple shots of the rock garden, since derided by activists as “anti-homeless rocks,” and uploaded them to a popular homelessness news page he runs on Facebook. The photos collected more than a thousand comments and shares, and stoked news coverage from local outlets.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office eventually claimed responsibility on behalf of the city, defending the project and its $57,000 price tag. It said they were trying to prevent homeless people from sleeping beneath the underpass after a slew of complaints from Sherman Heights residents who complained they feared for their safety when walking home along the passage at night.
But while resident complaints of homeless encampments are common in San Diego, a public records request showed there were other forces at play.
Emails about the rocks were obtained by a local media outlet, and none of them mentioned residents of Sherman Heights. Instead, John Casey, the city's former liaison with the San Diego Padres, seemed to be leading the charge to keep homeless encampments out of the area. “The Padres and SDPD are asking me when we can see the curbs painted red as well as the rocks at the underpass and Tailgate Park wall," he wrote to city staff members.
Although Councilmember David Alvarez has demanded that Sherman Heights residents get an apology for being used as the initial scapegoat for the rocks, the mayor’s office has yet to publicly address that request.
Most major San Diego news outlets have since questioned city officials on the sweeps and the rocks, and activists have taken to the streets to decry what they say are links to a larger operation. On July 6, a group of protesters gathered at an overpass in Bay Park and held up a series of lights that read “Stop #ASG Sweeps” (ASG being short for “All-Star Game”).
Martha Sullivan, 57, was one of them. “It’s appalling,” she says. “How much are we spending on these damn things? Compared to how those resources could be used otherwise?”
While she supports getting people out of encampments and into long-term housing, she says indirectly barring people from streets near the city’s homeless service centers undermines other homelessness initiatives, some of which have produced real results. Last year, for example, the city converted a 16-week winter housing facility with 350 beds into a service center where people can stay for up to a year. Another city initiative, called Connections Housing, has helped get 750 people out of the streets and into long-term housing since 2013.
Even after the sweeps and the rocks, more revelations came last month that added to the All-Star Game ire when Pastor James Merino, the head of local non-profit the San Diego Dream Center, claimed he was threatened by cops and the city’s Clean & Safe organization to halt his free weekly meals in the city during the month of July.
During a February 12 meeting with the San Diego Police Department and Clean & Safe, police officers allegedly threatened to "bring the hammer down" on Merino if his non-profit hosted one of their meals during the week of the All-Star Game.
At least two other organizations that do street feeds were asked by the San Diego Police Department not to conduct feedings during the month of July, according to McConnell and Sullivan. Police did not respond to requests to verify this information.
The city denies that it’s coordinating a municipally-backed homeless purge, but it doesn’t deny that there’s been an increase in cleaning sweeps. “The city began conducting [sidewalk cleanings] in March,” says Craig Gustafson, the city’s press secretary. “They used to be bi-weekly but they’re doing it on a weekly schedule now because the complaints [about the encampments] have really been increasing” from residents and business owners, he says.
The city also hasn’t commented on its email flop or the Merino incident. Scott Dreher, Merino’s lawyer, says the city recently backed down in private from their request that Merino and others halt their feeds after news started circulating that they were considering a lawsuit.
“They said ‘Are you going to sue us?’” adds Dreher. “And we said ‘Well, here’s a copy of the proposed lawsuit, this is what we think.’ And they’ve since given us what we want. They said ‘Look, that’s wrong, we’re not going to ticket anybody, we’re not going to threaten anybody. Feel free to continue the feedings.’”
Telling a religious organization to stop fulfilling one of its core principles can be treated in court as a violation of constitutional rights. That’s why Gary Allen Peterson, a minister who’s been living on the streets in San Diego for two years, was baffled when he heard about Merino’s encounter with the police. “My Bible tells me that if a person is hungry, feed ‘em,” he says.
“If it was one of their loved ones out here, they’d be coming [out here] to do something about it,” adds Peterson.
It’s not the first time San Diego has been accused of trying to sweep street populations under the rug. Advocates and some homeless claimed the city was conducting a “purge” ahead of the Comic-Con event in 2014, according to a local news article that has since been taken down.
Homeless sweeps have made headlines this year in major cities along the West Coast, where three out of the four top homeless cities in the US (Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Diego) are located. San Francisco was blanketed with news coverage in February for its decision to shuttle homeless people to a shelter in the Mission District ahead of Super Bowl 50. Seattle is facing its own criticisms for trashing homeless people’s personal belongings during sweeps throughout the city, which it started increasing at the end of last year.
For his part, Dreher, who won a case against the city in 2011 after police threw a man to the ground as he tried to intervene during their interrogation of a homeless woman, doesn’t think there’s a city-wide plan to push out its homeless population. But when he looks at a city like San Francisco, he says at least officials there were reasonable enough to tell the public what they were doing beforehand.
“[San Diego] could have easily taken this opportunity to say ‘Look, we’re not so bad, we want to help. During the All-Star Game we’re going to set up a temporary place so [homeless people] can take showers and get food and get shelter.’”
“Instead they have a guy send an email that says, ‘We want to look mean,’” adds Dreher, referring to emails about the rocks.
As for Daniel Buendía, 56, a homeless man who woke up to one of those green fliers posted on the streetlight across from the square of concrete he sleeps on, all the city efforts since March, coordinated or not, will neither push him out of downtown nor get him off the streets in time for the All-Star Game. “After they clean up,” he says, sitting on the ground in front of his blue tarp, “we’ll move back.”