April 26 2016 04:02 PM

Safety measure decried, celebrated amid mayoral leadership vacuum

The “rock garden” at the Imperial Avenue underpass
Photo by Ron Donoho

Shortly after an activist posted photos of a pointy rock installation that would deter homeless people from sleeping under a downtown San Diego bridge, his social media page lit up. People were outraged at the notion of the city spending money to seemingly go out of its way to be especially mean-spirited to the unsheltered.

People weighed in to call the plan evil, thoughtless, shameful, sad, embarrassing, inappropriate and soulless. It's like putting in metal spikes under eves to keep pigeons out—only these are humans, wrote one poster.

"The new landscaping along Imperial Avenue is meant to address safety concerns by neighborhood residents in Sherman Heights," says Bill Harris, supervising public information officer for the city of San Diego. Harris did not respond to follow-up questions about whether Mayor Kevin Faulconer considers the rock garden "anti-homeless."

Michael McConnell does. He runs the Homelessness News San Diego page on Facebook, which has amassed 15,000-plus followers in a short time. The businessman and downtown resident patrols East Village on a regular basis, photographing and chronicling the recent series of encampment sweeps being conducted by the city's Environmental Services Department and the San Diego Police Department.

He says by far the "rock garden" post generated more interactions than anything else he's documented.

"Among other things the rocks are now a garbage trap," McConnell adds. "And it's dangerous, right there by the sidewalk. And it seems like a bad design, even for an anti-homeless design."

And yet, on the eastern side of the underpass, there are those who are also concerned about homelessness but are pleased to see the rocks being put in place.

"Our community is celebrating this," says Ildifonso Carrillo, an instructional designer at National University and co-founder of Compassionate Solutions. The Sherman Heights native says he's not anti-homeless, but is pro-resident.

"The homeless are being moved into our community," he says. "That underpass is a dangerous place. We do a lot of walking—we don't get into cars. Our community walks through there to get to their service jobs that are downtown. But women were being assaulted in the underpass. And children were being harassed. It was a dangerous situation."

Carrillo says the social media reaction to the rock installation was one-sided. "People who see this as anti-homeless have never walked or biked or jogged there," he says.

The community has been working to get the city to fund beautification projects at the Imperial Avenue underpass and other underpasses in the area, Carrillo adds. He hopes artwork and better lighting are also on the way.

City spokesperson Harris says the total cost of the project will be approximately $57,000, including materials and labor costs for the landscape, new drainage system and curb improvements.

San Diego City Councilmember David Alvarez—who represents Sherman Heights—was previously unaware of the project. "Our office had no involvement in this. It was a surprise," says Alvarez's deputy chief of staff Lisa Schmidt. "At first glance, this is not how our office would move forward with plans to clean up the area."

Schmidt later emailed this statement from Alvarez: "I understand the concerns of residents being able to use their sidewalks but I'm more concerned with the missing and broken sidewalks throughout my district and feel that the money should be used on fixing our deteriorated sidewalks."

Councilmember Todd Gloria—who represents downtown and is chairman of the Regional Continuum of Care Council, which oversees homelessness issues—says "the [rock garden] concept does not address the larger issue of getting people off the streets."

"This is starting to tear me up inside," says downtown activist McConnell. He points to absenteeism on the part of the mayor and his lack of commitment to solving the homeless problem.

"I'm in this for the communities as well as the homeless people," McConnell says. "But policies of not addressing the issue are driving communities to this. East Village shouldn't be at odds with Sherman Heights. But a lack of leadership is starting to turn communities against each other. We're all tied together, though. We're in this together."

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