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Ordinance banning certain homeless encampments passes, moves to San Diego City Council for vote

The ordinance prohibits people from setting up tents within two blocks of schools, homeless shelters, trolley tracks and transportation hubs, parks, and waterways.

SAN DIEGO — The City of San Diego will now vote on a new ordinance that would make it illegal to set up homeless encampments along locations considered to be at high risk of public health and safety, after passing a committee vote 3-1.

The proposal was presented Thursday to the City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee.

More than 100 speakers showed up to voice their opinions. An additional 40 more called in to the meeting. According to city staff, it received more than 240  e-mails regarding the proposal.

Those in favor of the unsafe housing ordinance say it would make the city safer, while those against it say it doesn't solve the problem.

In order to pass out of committee, the ordinance needed at least three out of the four council members to approve it. Now that the ordinance is approved, it will go on to the full council for a vote.

“This is an ordinance that will protect public health and safety by prohibiting encampments on public property," said Councilmember Stephen Whitburn.

Councilmember Whitburn’s proposed ‘Unauthorized Camping Ordinance’ would prohibit people from setting up tents within two blocks of schools, homeless shelters, trolley tracks and transportation hubs, parks, and waterways.

“Encampments that we see on sidewalks, in parks, in the canyons along river beds are unsafe and unhealthy, both for the people who are living in the encampments, but also for the surrounding neighborhoods,” added Whitburn. 

Whitburn says the encampments create a feeling of lack of safety among people and businesses in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We want a city that feels and looks safe and healthy, and we can't do that with the encampments on the street right now,” he says. 

Whitburn says the proposal would only be enforced as long as there is shelter available for people to go to.

“We're asking our residents of San Diego to spend tens of millions of dollars to provide shelter and housing and services and I think it's very reasonable when taxpayers are footing the bill for so many services to ask people to use them.” 

Mayor Todd Gloria supports the proposal.

"This is about establishing what our expectations are when it comes to our public right of way," he said during an interview Thursday morning.

"The current conditions on too many of our streets are not safe, neither for the unsheltered people nor for the broader community. I think asserting our expectations as a community and asking everyone to live by those expectations is an appropriate thing to do," he added.

Mayor Gloria said the city has set aside $170 million this year toward the issue of homelessness. He said the city has also expanded shelter capacity by 70 percent.

CBS 8 also spoke to Deacon Jim Vargas of Father Joe's Villages. He said in order for this proposal to work, the city needs to provide more shelter beds and affordable housing.

"Otherwise, we are just moving people from one area to another, which isn't productive. And of course, we know a jail cell doesn't do anyone any good, the person in question nor the community at large," he said.

Homeless advocate, Amie Zamudio, who’s spent decades serving the local homeless community, says the city does not have enough shelter and housing available.

“We have Earl here who is age 68 and he’s been waiting for three years for housing. He’s done everything he’s supposed to do, he has stayed in shelters, he’s been document-ready," said Zamudio.

“I’ve done all the things they’ve asked for me to do, I haven’t committed no crimes, I haven’t been in jail or anything like that,” said Earl, who is homeless.

Zamudio says city sweeps led to the deaths of two homeless men who couldn’t get into shelters. She worries more people will die because of the proposed ban.

“If we’re talking about community safety and public health then we need a system that operates properly first before even having a conversation about criminalizing homelessness,” she added.

Whitburn says his proposal would also establish a Safe Sleeping Program, where people living in tents can go.

"The problem is not staying the same, it's getting bigger," said downtown resident Margo Eason, who is supportive of the proposed ban. "Something has to be done."

Downtown resident Alex Rodriguez questions if ticketing those who've set up camp will really make a difference.

"There's a lot of people who don't pay their citations, their tickets, so I don't think they'll move necessarily," he told CBS 8. "And even when cops come and move them they just come back after a bit so it's not like it really does anything."

"The ordinance basically just criminalizes homelessness, and that's all it does," countered Felipe Cervantes, a volunteer with the student-based group The Mustard Seed Project, which works to end chronic homelessness.

"It doesn't solve a problem and it punishes people," Cervantes added. "Keeping people away from these public spaces doesn't  makes sense to me at all. They need to change the language, make some compromises on this ordinance before they pass it."

WATCH RELATED: San Diego City Council considers banning certain homeless encampments (Apr 12, 2023)

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