SAN DIEGO (CNS/News 8) - 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 today.

"This is a crime: this is not just a ticket," said City Attorney Jan Goldsmith. "But we are dealing with people who need help."

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 beauty of it is,  by enforcing the law, we are offering beds, and we're getting these folks off the streets, into shelters and into services," said deputy City Attorney Daniel Bamberg.

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," Goldsmith said.

"If that person continues to refuse, it could be that that person is physically taken into custody and placed in a custodial environment in jail," said Assistant Police Chief Boyd Long.

Even those violators who are jailed will also be offered access to services and resources to help them get off the streets.

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.

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.

But some local homeless advocates, like Larry Milligan, say this move will do little to help the overall homeless population.

"I think they're going to go into hiding," Milligan told News 8.  "They'll go back to where people can't see the, because they're not going to feel safe anymore."

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.