When attorneys for nine homeless plaintiffs reached a settlement that allowed their clients—and anyone else who's homeless in San Diego—to sleep on public property between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., there were 2,518 emergency- and transitional-shelter beds available citywide, leaving roughly 2,000 people with no place to sleep. This unmet need was the crux of the lawsuit: Attorneys argued that sleep is a biological necessity, and because the city's homeless population exceeded the number of available beds, penalizing someone for sleeping in public violates the U.S. Constitution's protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
That was in 2006. If the settlement's goal was to increase shelter beds, in the last two years, San Diego's moved backwards. A December 2008 count by the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless came up with 2,424 shelter beds—94 fewer than in 2006. The task force report counted 1,658 people in need of shelter but emphasized that the street count should be considered a minimum.
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith considers the unmet need “unacceptable.”
“There are not sufficient beds,” he said in an interview last week. “There's no ability to enforce our illegal-lodging laws. I don't think anybody is being helped by this.”
As a candidate for city attorney in 2008, Goldsmith told CityBeat he wasn't pleased that then-City Attorney Mike Aguirre had agreed to settle, rather than challenge, the illegal-lodging case. And while Goldsmith—who beat Aguirre in last year's election—hasn't changed his position, he said he's not going to challenge the settlement now. Rather, he wants to use it as an incentive to drive community cooperation. He described a scenario where the city would be divided into regions and “when there's a certain number of beds and services available in a region… the [ticket ban] would be vacated in that region.”
He emphasized that any proposal requires agreement from all sides.
“It's not just an advocacy thing, where we go to the court and file a motion and try to get the judge to see things our way,” Goldsmith said. “We've got to be cooperative.”
Scott Dreher, who filed the lawsuit along with attorney Tim Cohelan, said that at a recent meeting, Goldsmith suggested a plan that would involve dividing up Downtown San Diego using a grid system. If business owners and residents want police to enforce illegal-lodging laws within their portion of the grid, they'd have to be willing to contribute to a solution.
“You approach the people in these squares and you say, ‘For this two- or four-block area, if you do this, we'll agree to reinstate the ticketing in that area only,'” Dreher said. “So, eventually, you follow the squares in the grid and you cover Downtown.”
What people would be asked to contribute isn't clear—it could be something as simple as support for a transitional housing program on their block. Goldsmith emphasized that a fee assessment is not part of the discussion and that he's looking for a plan that involves more than simple shelter beds. “A bed means nothing; it's the services that go along with it—that's what's going to make an impact.”
Dreher described Goldsmith's grid concept as “creative” (Goldsmith declined to take credit for it) but said that in a follow-up meeting that included City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, whose district includes Downtown, the grid concept had shifted to “regions”—the term Goldsmith used in an interview with CityBeat—and the focus from Downtown to citywide.
According to the regional task force report, 92 percent of the city's homeless services are located in Faulconer's district, and he's made it clear that he'd like to see those services more spread out.
“It's not just a Downtown issue,” Faulconer said in an interview. “We're willing to take the lead on finding a solution that can work, but it's going to be up to my [City Council] colleagues to find out what's important in their areas; it's going to be up to other cities to look at that, as well.”
Dreher said that there needs to be a nexus between the street count, the number of beds and where they're located—and the street count puts the Downtown homeless population in the 800-plus range.
“There's no way you're going to build a shelter in La Jolla, for example, to house 200 people when that number doesn't exist there,” he said. “Beds have to be ‘available,' and 20 miles away to someone with no car is not ‘available,'” he said.
“There has to be an available bed for them,” he said. “They have to have a place to sleep without fear of getting a ticket.”
San Diego Police Capt. Chris Ball agreed that Downtown residents and business owners want the illegal-lodging tickets back, but he's wary of the tickets being used as a tool to get people off the street.
“Everybody's looking to the police department: ‘What's the police department doing?'
“The homeless issue is not a police-department issue,” he added. “If I was to take the California penal code, you're not going to find a section on homeless.”