Arrests of homeless San Diegans more than tripled last month as the city ramped up efforts to fight a deadly hepatitis A outbreak that’s disproportionately afflicting those living on the street.
Police made nearly 270 arrests last month for two offenses commonly aimed at San Diego’s homeless compared with just 84 in September 2016, according to data released following a public records request.
Minor citations that are also associated with homelessness and don’t result in arrest dipped 15 percent during the same period.
City attorney’s office data obtained through a records request revealed an 83 percent spike this September in prosecutions for illegal lodging and encroachment, which penalize homeless San Diegans for staying in tents and blocking sidewalks.
For many, that’s meant days in county jail and legal cases that have upended lives. Those who’ve avoided arrest describe near-constant orders from police to move elsewhere as they await the arrival of crews who power-wash areas dominated by homeless camps.
Meanwhile, some East Village streets that have long drawn complaints from residents and business owners are now cleared, including a stretch of 17th Street once dubbed San Diego’s Skid Row.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer and police officials say the increased enforcement has been a necessity that’s allowed city contractors to sanitize sidewalks populated by the homeless. The city posts notices prior to those operations.
As those efforts kicked up, police said they pulled officers from areas outside downtown to help clear the sidewalks for power-washing and to offer those living there hepatitis A vaccinations and opportunities for help.
”We’ve dramatically increased our sanitation efforts, and we’ve had to,” Faulconer said this week. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Faulconer, Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman and a police spokesman said police are offering services and help before citing or arresting anyone and trying to strike a balance between public complaints and homeless San Diegans’ rights. They say they’ve seen an increase in homeless people taking up offers of help and that many have moved along willingly, avoiding arrests or tickets.
“Our No. 1 posture is: How do we get people help that are on the street? And that will continue,” Faulconer said.
Those living on the street describe a different reality.
Many say police rarely offer help and are constantly asking homeless San Diegans to move elsewhere.
Those who’ve been arrested say their lives have been rocked by the enforcement.
Jean DuBose, 49, said she and boyfriend Rashad Burns, 38, were awakened just after 5:30 a.m. on Sept. 23 by an officer trying to unzip the tent they shared on 17th Street.
The timing is significant: 5:30 a.m. is when a 2007 court settlement allows police to begin enforcing illegal lodging without needing to offer a shelter bed to the person being arrested.
“They said, ‘It’s illegal to have a tent, you know that,’” DuBose recounted.
Within minutes, police handcuffed DuBose and Burns and arrested both for encroachment and illegal lodging. The couple looked on as police bagged their belongings. DuBose said she wasn’t wearing a bra or socks at the time.
She was released from jail five days later, ending up downtown at 11:30 p.m. lacking nearly all of her things.
Records clerks at the San Diego Superior Court said this week they had no record of charges filed against either of them.
All that’s resulted from the arrests thus far, DuBose said, is that the couple lost most of their belongings including medications, prescription glasses and electronics. They’re now staying elsewhere.
DuBose is still trying to retrieve her belongings and learned last week that police had thrown away many items.
“We cannot impound anything that would attract ants, bugs or rodents,” an officer wrote in an Oct. 12 email to DuBose. “Some of the items you listed were taken by the sanitation department due to bugs, food, human waste, soiled, stained or wet.”
Ginger Stamper, 52, had a similar experience this month. She was arrested for illegal lodging and encroachment Oct. 6 on 13th Street downtown. Police took her dog Bambi and impounded the property she had set on the sidewalk.
Stamper spent a miserable five days in jail, she said, worrying about her dog and her boyfriend Tony Rodriguez, 59, who had returned to where they’d been staying on the afternoon of the arrest to find Stamper and their belongings missing.
The following Wednesday, Stamper agreed to plead guilty in exchange for three years’ probation and a stay-away order barring her from the area.
“I said, ‘I don’t care what you do, I want out today,’” Stamper said.
In the days since, the couple has paid $102 to recover Stamper’s dog and moved to another neighborhood. They’re still pursuing a permanent home at Cypress, a downtown supportive housing facility.
The arrest delayed that process, Stamper said.
Stamper and DuBose’s stories aren’t unusual.
Veteran public defenders say encroachment and illegal lodging cases are often settled at arraignments because homeless San Diegans are eager to get out of jail. City attorneys also sometimes opt not to pursue charges.
That’s meant public defenders and court officials have yet to notice a major surge in court cases despite a significant uptick in both arrests and decisions to prosecute those cases.
Gerry Braun, chief of staff to City Attorney Mara Elliott, said city attorneys have up to a year to decide whether to pursue cases and try to offer alternatives to jail time whenever possible.
Lt. Scott Wahl, a police spokesman, said many homeless San Diegans who’ve been approached by police for possible encroachment or illegal lodging violations in the last month have been arrested instead for warrants or more serious charges.
A recent case that went viral on social media is an example.
Early last Saturday morning, homeless advocate Michael McConnell photographed a woman on 17th Street, head bowed as she was handcuffed by a police officer. In another photo, an officer placed the woman’s teddy bear on the hood of a police SUV.
“This elderly woman was a victim of the homeless sweeps this morning,” McConnell wrote in a Facebook post shared more than 2,500 times.
Police said this week that Candace Davis, 57, was arrested from a felony warrant for elder abuse, more than a year after she was accused of striking a 72-year-old man in the head with a cane.