SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Convention Center has opened up to house homeless people, but the majority of the people staying there were already living in shelters. They were moved to relieve overcrowding and allow for more room for social distancing.
Meanwhile, on the streets, San Diego's homeless community wondered, “What about us?”
Making a bad situation even worse for the county’s unsheltered residents, San Diego police have forced homeless people to move, even while it's pouring rain outside. They are also issuing tickets for everything from sleeping in public parks to illegal lodging.
“It's absolutely ridiculous,” said homeless advocate Michael McConnell. “Every morning at 5:30 to 6 o'clock, the police are out there - even in the rain - just shooing people around.”
The homeless people still on the street have heard that services are out there, but they said no one has actually informed them of what's available, ways to register, or how they're supposed to get there.
“The ability for folks to even help themselves is very limited,” McConnell added. “The library is closed [which is] the place that people used to go and charge their phones, use the internet, stay up on things, [and] have a safe place to sit for a while. Lots of things have changed.”
McConnell isn't the only person questioning what's happening to San Diego's homeless communities. Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance sent a demand to cease and desist letter to city leaders urging them to stop the police sweeps and tickets to the homeless for quality of life offenses.
At Monday’s media conference, County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher announced that 13 homeless San Diegans have tested positive for COVID-19. Fletcher is on the regional task force on the homeless.
“It is something that is of increased complexity and increased difficulty to address," said Fletcher. "It's something we have to continue to monitor. It's something we have to continue to work on. It's something we have to continue to strive to do better.”
With so many empty hotels across the county right now, McConnell wondered why a deal can't be worked out to open some of them up. As he pointed out, this is an issue that impacts all of San Diego.
“Keeping homeless people safe is keeping the entire community safe because if this does get into the population - and a lot of those folks have to use a hospital bed - well, that's one less hospital bed for the entire community," said McConnell.
News 8 reached out to the mayor's office for comment and received this:
- During this pandemic, the City still has a commitment to the community to respond to calls for service that involve individuals experiencing homelessness. SDPD’s usual practice is to start interactions with education before issuing any citations. Officers are using a high degree of discretion to avoid issuing citations during this time, unless in the case of serious infractions or felonious or violent behavior.
- With this public health emergency, living in unsanitary conditions and clustering in groups increases a person’s chance of contracting COVID-19 or other communicable diseases. The CDC and national homelessness experts indicate that encampments should be restructured so there is at least a 12 x 12 ft. area for each tent. The CDC issued guidance with regard to not "clear" encampments, based on the reasoning that people living in encampments that have existing connections to service providers would be dispersed, and lose that connection to that service and potentially spread the illness. Many cities across the country have large-scale, long-established encampments that meet this description: where the encampment is a community that has its own social structure and safety systems in place. San Diego has few of this type of encampment and is in a good position to, with proper education, prevent newly established encampments from forming and minimize health risks that could be exacerbated by unsanitary conditions, such as COVID-19 and Hepatitis A.
- For the purpose of COVID prevention, outreach teams have been reaching out to individuals to provide education about prevention, access to care, and the importance of physical distancing. Specifically, the City’s Homeless Outreach Teams have been working side-by-side with County public health nurses in special teams to get this message to people in need, along with hygiene kits. When officers encounter individuals who are clustered in small groups, they ask the individuals to conform to the public health guidance regarding physical distancing. The officers also expect the individuals to remove items that block path of travel as well as remove trash.
- The Convention Center provides an opportunity to bring in additional unsheltered individuals in off the streets. It must be done in a scaled approach to allow services to be also built up appropriately to serve clients responsibly. As we have done with our bridge shelters, coordinated outreach efforts will be conducted to identify clients wishing to get off the streets. Homeless Outreach Teams, service providers, the Downtown San Diego Partnership, County behavioral health and Regional Task Force on the Homeless will work in partnership with one another to ensure that each person is triaged to the right interim housing solution for them.