SAN DIEGO (CNS) - The city of San Diego will be able to enforce its illegal lodging laws against the homeless at night for the first time in about five years, but there is a catch, city officials said Wednesday.
Under terms of a settlement of a lawsuit filed by homeless advocates, San Diego police officers can issue citations for illegal lodging and even take someone into custody. But there has to be a bed available in a shelter, and the person in question has to refuse it.
Previously, police were not allowed to cite the homeless between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m.
The terms of the settlement are being incorporated into training guides for police officers, who will first make any homeless person they encounter aware of available services and try to provide help.
"It will help people in San Diego get a bed and help themselves with treatment," City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said.
The problem of illegal lodging is critical downtown, where transients line the sidewalks in some areas at night -- a concern of both safety and neglect visible to residents and visitors to Petco Park, the Gaslamp Quarter and downtown hotels.
Just Wednesday in The San Diego Union-Tribune, a letter to the editor was published from a resident of New Zealand, who visited San Diego last week for an electrical engineering conference and was appalled by the homeless population.
Jonathan Clark of Auckland wrote that as he walked through downtown, "I was taken aback with the number of shelterless people packing up their meager belongings." He said it was an unacceptable situation for the wealthiest nation on the planet.
"What we're announcing today is vitally important to downtown San Diego," said Kevin Faulconer, the city councilman who represents the area. "This step will make downtown a nicer place for residents, businesses and tourists."
About five beds per night will be available for the homeless contacted by officers who choose to go to a shelter, according to an agreement between the SDPD and homeless service providers.
City officials believe the majority of the homeless will turn down the offer of shelter space, but will move on to avoid a ticket.
"The settlement and the associated enforcement procedures strike an important balance between providing the beds and services homeless people need and deserve, and equipping our police officers with an important enforcement tool," Faulconer said.
The city of San Diego is also working on creating a permanent 220-bed shelter, which could open in a year and a half.
The settlement approved by U.S. Magistrate Judge William McCurine was reached after numerous meetings between plaintiff lawyers Timothy Cohelan and Robert Scott Dreher, the City Attorney's Office and Faulconer.