Arrests of homeless people in downtown San Diego have spiked in recent months as the city tries to fight a deadly hepatitis A outbreak, and there’s no sign things will change with the planned opening of large tents that will shelter hundreds.
“They’re going to use the tents as another reason to shoo people from downtown,” said homeless advocate Michael McConnell, who often chronicles arrests on his Facebook page, Homeless News San Diego.
“I just had a conversation with somebody on the tents. They said, ‘When the circus tents go up, what are they going to do with us?'” he said.
McConnell responded that he believed more people would be cleared out.
Hepatitis A is spread through unsanitary conditions, and the outbreak has disproportionately affected the homeless population. More than 370 people have been hospitalized and of the 20 people who have died, 11 were homeless.
Partly in response to the outbreak, the city has moved 200 homeless people into a temporary encampment near Balboa Park, and it plans to open next month three large tents downtown and in the Midway area that together will shelter 700.
City-hired crews also have been spraying sidewalks in some neighborhoods with chemicals to kill the virus.
Cleaning the streets at times has meant getting homeless people to move, one way or another.
A public records request submitted by Voice of San Diego showed police made 270 arrests of homeless people in September for encroachment or illegal lodging, three times the number as in September 2016.
That same month also saw 149 citations for the two violations.
McConnell and others said they have witnessed more than a dozen police units at times citing and arresting people on and around 17th Street, which once had a dense stretch of homeless tents.
Records show that officers from the downtown Central division issued the most tickets and made the bulk of arrests for encroachment and illegal lodging in September, but they were assisted by officers called in from the Northern, Western, Southeastern and Mid-City divisions.
The downtown crackdown appeared to first focus on citations and arrests at 16th, Market and J streets and Island Avenue before focusing on 17th Street on Sept. 14, when two people were arrested and three citations were issued.
On Sept. 19, five people were arrested on 17th Street, and 10 people were arrested the next day. Another six were arrested Sept. 21, and 14 were arrested Sept. 23.
Among the people arrested was Lisa Shankle, a Navy veteran who said she served in Operation Desert Storm from 1988 to 1991.
“We were just sitting there resting,” she said, recalling the night when an officer approached her while she was in a tent on a sidewalk along Commercial Street. “We were not doing anything. I have a clean record, but because I have priors, I was arrested.”
By priors, Shankle met she had three prior citations for encroachment. Like many homeless people who are ticketed, she didn’t go to court, leading to her arrest.
Shankle said she has post-traumatic stress disorder and had an anxiety attack while being arrested, so she was was taken to a hospital rather than jail. Now she’s residing at the city’s temporary homeless camp.
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s Press Secretary Greg Block acknowledged there has been an ongoing effort to get people off the street during the hepatitis A outbreak.”The focus will remain on keeping public areas clean and preventing the unsanitary conditions that helped fuel the outbreak from returning,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Block also wrote that police officers treat every homeless person they encounter with respect, and each is offered a shelter bed and supportive services.
An arrest may mean a few days in jail and a fine, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a court case.
“The territory has changed a lot in the last year and a half,” said Michael Ruiz, supervising attorney with the County Public Defender’s’ office.”The prosecution of the homeless has changed. The City Attorney’s office is taking more of a holistic approach by implementing certain programs.”
Those programs include the Community Justice Initiative, formerly Community Court.
Under the initiative, the City Attorney’s office will offer an opportunity to do 16 hours of community service for either the Alpha Project or Urban Corps of San Diego County.
Ruiz said since 2016, the Alpha Project has placed 80 people in the initiative with case managers who work with them to overcome homelessness. .
Another initiative is SMART, San Diego Misdemeanant At-Risk Track, which provides housing for people who repeatedly are cited for low-level infractions.
Ruiz said fines for encroachment and illegal lodging violations are $277, but judges usually suspend $150 of that.
While there is more of a thoughtful effort in helping the homeless in the legal system, Ruiz said the increase in arrests has been a problem.
“As far as the cases themselves go, yes, there has been an uptake for encroachment violations,” he said. “We’re not too happy about it.”
Ruiz said the city has been circumventing a 2007 settlement to the Spencer vs. San Diego lawsuit. In the settlement, the city agreed not to ticket people on the street for illegal lodging between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. because homeless people on the street have no where else to go.
Last year, police began citing homeless people for violating a city encroachment ordinance that is not affected by the settlement for illegal lodging, which is a state law.
McConnell and other critics of the practice said the encroachment ordinance is being misused because it was intended to keep businesses from blocking sidewalks with large plants and trash cans, not to run off homeless people.
Scott Dreher, the attorney behind the Spencer lawsuit, filed a class-action suit against the city’s use of the encroachment law in July.
His partner, attorney Kath Rogers, said her office overlooks Fault Line Park in East Village, where many homeless people have moved to since the crackdown at 17th Street.
“The other day the police showed up while I was there, and I saw the enforcement take place,” she said, describing a scene of officers asking homeless people for identification and giving them warnings.
Rogers said she asked an officer where the people should go, and he suggested the new city-sanctioned camp site.
She called the idea ludicrous because the camp site is full, and people aren’t allowed to just show up, anyway.
“They’re using the new camp site as a place where everyone is suppose to go, and it’s almost like they’re using that as justification for ramping-up enforcement,” she said.
Rogers said the pending class-action suit against the city addresses constitutional rights violations and argues the encroachment law is not being enforced evenly.
The suit names 10 homeless plaintiffs, but since it was filed one person has died, she said.
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