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Santee cracking down on homeless encampments along San Diego River

The ordinance has the full support of Santee city leaders who said that it will help protect nearby communities. But homeless advocates are blasting the move.

SANTEE, Calif. — The City of Santee is cracking down on homeless encampments set up along the San Diego River. 

A new ordinance will essentially make it illegal for people to set up camps or to start fires along the riverbed. 

While this has the full support of Santee city leaders, who said that this ordinance will help protect nearby communities, homeless advocates are blasting this move.

More than a hundred people live in encampments along the San Diego River in Santee and according to city officials, more than 200 fires have been reported along the riverbed area since September of 2020. 

This new ordinance aims to reduce both of those numbers.

One of those fires took place on Thanksgiving day in 2020. It was a fire that started along the riverbed, in the Walker Preserve area in Santee. It eventually spread to 18 acres, threatening homes and forcing evacuation warnings.

"This is public safety," said Santee Councilmember Laura Koval, "Highest priority right here."

This ordinance, which already received unanimous approval by Santee's city council in an initial vote, would essentially make it illegal to camp or start fire along the riverbed.

While questions remain as to what specific penalties would be imposed, or exactly how the ordinance would be enforced, these new city-wide rules would help sidestep a federal court ruling that people can not be removed from public land, if a city doesn't offer any shelter beds. 

The only homeless shelter currently in East County is located in El Cajon.

The captain for Santee's local sheriffs station says this ordinance will provide "legal teeth."

"We can use all the teeth we can get, because quite frankly, we haven't had much legal teeth lately," said Captain Michael McNeill, "And so anything that can give us more, I'm all in favor of."

Santee's mayor said that this ordinance, "does not punish somebody for being homeless."

"But what it does is, it gives us the ability to protect our communities," said Mayor John Minto. "They can go anywhere else, they just can't stay there."

"Criminalizing homelessness perpetuates the issue," said homeless advocate Michael McConnell, who called this move by Santee city leaders, "Short-sighted."

"They are basically saying, we are going to try to just push these folks out. Let somebody else deal with them," he told CBS 8. 

By not offering any actual resources, McConnell said the issue will just get worse.

"The answer is not to take somebody in their riverbed and kick them out on to the sidewalk," he added. "The answer is to take somebody in the riverbed and get them the help that they need, so that they are out of the riverbed and into housing with services."

A final vote on this new ordinance is scheduled for Jan. 25. The new rules would then take effect 30 days after that vote.

WATCH RELATED: San Diego's homeless community struggles to find shelter from storms (Jan. 2023).


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