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“A Cold and Callous Operation:” San Diego’s Mass Evictions of the Homeless

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As a terrible El Niño storm bore down on San Diego, California in early March, San Diego police officers, under the direction of Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s administration, tore down shelters that homeless residents had made for themselves, and tossed their possessions into garbage trucks. To make matters worse, the officers timed their action when many of the homeless in the area had gone inside to access restrooms at the Neil Good Day Center. When the homeless citizens went inside, police deemed their property abandoned and collected it all.

According to Michael McConnell, the former head of the homelessness advocacy group 25 Cities San Diego, these evictions came under the auspices of conducting a so-called cleanup, a move that the mayor’s office claims is a response to community frustration over the growing problem of homelessness in the downtown area. “Pressure is exerted on City Hall, and this is the only tool in the toolbox they have that can be quickly deployed.”

McConnell went on to call the plan by city officials “bad policy.” “You’re beating down homeless people time and time again,” McConnell added. “And it’s about to rain. And there were more police officers than needed…and in many cases, it was officers bagging people’s stuff. Last I checked, the police department response rate wasn’t great in San Diego. Police picking up the homeless’ stuff is a bad use of funds.”

These cleanups are nothing new to San Diego and happen almost every day along the major freeways and beneath overpasses used by the homeless as shelter. The city says it’s responding to complaints from residents and drivers and believes they are giving enough notice for the homeless residents to clean out their belongings before the cleanups take place.

“It’s not a cold and callous operation. We put up notices three days in advance that we’re coming on a certain time and date so people can get their belongings out of there,” Edward parentingwithoutgodCartagena, a Caltrans District 11 spokesman told the San Diego Reader in 2015. “We have a crew out almost every day cleaning out downtown area camps around the I-5, the 163, and the 94.”

“We get complaints about the trash and the sanitary concerns from people who live next to the freeway; there are sanitation and hygiene concerns with the camps, and motorists complain, but we also know that clearing out the camps doesn’t solve the problem [of homelessness.]”

According to the city, the homeless affected by this most recent “purge” that happened right in downtown, hours before a massive storm, had fair warning as the city had posted notices in the area that it would be conducting a “cleanup.” However, a fair warning is meaningless when you offer zero alternatives. With no alternative location to move their belongings and makeshift shelters, they stayed and the city took everything from them.

“If you’re not there, they throw your medications, personal papers, and your sleeping bag in a garbage truck without any consideration on how you’re going to live without it,” John McHough, a homeless resident said. “They say you can get it back but you have to have prove it’s yours — how do you prove it’s your stuff when they took it?”

Instead of offering solutions or help, the cleanups allow the mayor to hide the problem from the public and tell the voters he is cleaning up the city and solving the crisis of homelessness. Yet, there are roughly 9,000 homeless citizens in San Diego and approximately 250 new homeless arriving downtown every month. With only 15 shelters in the area, many of which are not open year round, and most working with limited resources, San Diego’s homeless have nowhere to turn but their own makeshift camps for protection from the elements. Roughly one-third of the unsheltered homeless have a physical disability, and one-fifth suffer from severe mental illness. These men and women need more help than is available and what they receive instead is harassment by law enforcement and the city government.

Local activists protested the city’s harassment outside of City Hall, wearing trash bags that symbolize “San Diego’s answer to an emergency shelter,” according to one activist. Homeless and Housed, a local nonprofit working to solve the homeless crisis, is encouraging a similar tactic and is asking residents to attend the upcoming City Council meeting wearing trash bags. The message: Stop treating human beings like garbage.

Time and time again, the city fails to offer any real solutions to the homelessness problem and only assaults the homeless population with these types of confiscation actions and continued harassment. Throwing away possessions and destroying homeless camps does not solve the crisis facing the city. These camps are a product of the city’s failed obligation to offer housing to those in need, giving them a shelter and a chance to rebuild their lives. The city talks about building short-term shelters to help house the homeless and move them into permanent housing, but then turn around and say there is no housing available. With mentally ill and elderly people lining our streets, San Diego must do better. These people deserve care and respect and our city’s officials are treating them as human garbage.

With reports showing an increase in homicides around San Diego County up 12 percent in 2015, one must assume these officers could make better use of their time. Instead, the police are disrupting and causing further trauma to these men and women who are being left out on the streets. It seems that for Mayor Faulconer, it’s all about keeping up appearances.

The mayor claims to have a “housing first” solution to the problem, putting homeless people into short-term shelters and then transitioning into permanent housing. The solution, which looks fantastic on paper, gives these men, women, and families a stable living situation and allows them to rebuild their lives and even reenter the workforce. However, this plan has never been successful and instead of rethinking the strategy, it seems that city officials have just thrown their arms up in frustration.

The failed promises of long-term stable housing for the growing homeless population in San Diego are keeping more people on the street and not moving those who are able to get into short-term shelters into permanent housing. City officials say they have tried to expand affordable housing for the homeless, freeing up tens of millions of dollars for the Section 8 program that subsidizes any portion of rent a tenant cannot afford, but says landlords are unwilling to join the program.

“It is not as though the city’s hand is not outreached on this,” said City Council member Todd Gloria in an interview with KPBS. “It’s that too often we don’t have anyone on the other side willing to make the deal.”

Yet, if the city has the funds and is just sitting on them, no one is being helped and a new, more aggressive plan must be drawn up that will place these men, women, and children in permanent homes. Using landlords as a scapegoat for inaction accomplishes nothing, and continuing to harass those left on the streets because of this inaction highlights a major political incompetence and a lack of empathy for the homeless population.

San Diego’s homeless crisis is not unique and throughout the entire country cities from San Francisco to New York are battling rising housing costs while more people are pushed out on the streets to fend for themselves. Like San Diego, many policies from government officials depend on cleaning up the streets and hiding the problem rather than addressing it head on.

The State of Washington found some success in using funds to build housing for the homeless, instead of relying on landlords to open their doors. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Sound Families Initiative, an eight-year, $40 million program aimed at tripling the amount of available transitional housing. In its first eight years, they managed to build 1,400 new homes.

A program such as this, launched by a city, state, or federal government could have a much larger impact when coupled with nonprofit services and programs such as those offered by the Gates Foundation. San Diego’s tens of millions may not build 1,400 new homes, but it could build some new homes and that would be better than what it is offering now.

As economic instability continues to spread, the homeless issue that seems to only be affecting major cities will eventually grow and become an issue almost too big to solve. Major cities such as San Diego should be leading the way and acting as a model for the rest of country in turning around the homeless crisis and offering real-world solutions that do not involve harassment of homeless citizens and the destruction of their property.

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Dan Arel is a political writer and social activist. He is the author of Parenting Without God and the upcoming book, The Secular Activist.

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