The green “Notice of Cleanup and Property Removal” signs recently posted over a surprisingly wide swath of East Village caught the eye of Michael McConnell. Something was brewing. McConnell, a downtown resident, local businessman and former head of the homelessness advocacy group 25 Cities San Diego, set out early on Monday morning to document the San Diego Police Department sweeping homeless encampments.
In two locations—both in the vicinity of where the Chargers are hoping to erect a billion-dollar-plus football stadium—McConnell observed a large contingent of police officers asking individuals to disperse, gather up belongings and take down tents. Then at approximately 9 a.m. a widely forecasted El Niño thunderstorm blew into downtown.
“This is bad policy—you’re beating down homeless people time and time again,” McConnell said. “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.”
McConnell saw otherwise, but the “San Diego Police Department was on hand to provide safety while the city’s Environmental Services Department crews did cleanup work,” SDPD spokesperson Sergeant Lisa McKean wrote in an email.
“Several individuals ignored the posted signs and remained at the locations,” according to McKean. “They were asked to vacate the property and take their belongings with them. The vast majority complied without incident.
“Four individuals were arrested for outstanding warrants and their property was loaded into garbage bags and taken to Police Headquarters where it will be held until each respective owner comes and retrieves it (the picture that was tweeted out, showing black bags in the back of a SDPD pickup truck, was the arrestees’ bulk property),” she added. “A fifth individual was detained and taken to a sobering center. All other persons at the locations were allowed to leave and take their belongings with them.”
McKean wrote that the enforcement ended around 9 a.m., when it started to rain. To see more photos of the sweeps go to McConnell’s Facebook page, called Homelessness News San Diego.
I caught up with McConnell on Tuesday while he was out on the streets of East Village, again observing and taking photographs.
“These action are a buildup of frustration in the downtown community that has complained to the mayor’s office and the Downtown San Diego Partnership,” he said. “Pressure is exerted on City Hall, and this is the only tool in the toolbox they have that can be quickly deployed.”
McConnell said police did a better job Tuesday, but believes there is still no political “sense of urgency” in town to address homelessness problems with longer-term solutions that have been shown to be successful all over the country.
“I’m here to advocate putting pressure on elected leaders,” he said. “[City Councilmember] Todd Gloria is a supporter but everybody could step it up a notch. And I don’t think the county supervisors really understand the situation.”
A written statement from Gloria concluded: “I remain focused on advancing solutions that move homeless San Diegans off the streets and into housing which would avoid situations like today.”
There’s a growing concern among homelessness advocates that the city is planning a broad sweep this summer in advance of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game on July 12 at downtown’s Petco Park, and that this week’s actions are a precursor.
Asked if that were true, the mayor’s office sent a one-page fact sheet on the city’s longstanding abatement program. City of San Diego senior public information officer Jose Ysea denied that the cleanup details are related to the impending Padres season or the All-Star Game.
McConnell is skeptical. “No, that’s my thought,” he said. “And if that is the case I plan on making it as embarrassing as possible for them. They want the cameras to see a certain image of America’s Finest City. But if this is not handled in the right way the city’s going to be hurt—image-wise—for not handling it right.”
Incidentally, the areas swept on Monday were by Tuesday morning already re-occupied by tents, tarps and vulnerable people attempting to stay dry.