Amid controversy last week over a proposal to carve out sleeping zones downtown where San Diego's homeless citizens can't be ticketed, Bob McElroy spotted an opportunity. McElroy, who heads the homeless-services program Alpha Project, is resurrecting a plan to set up what he calls a “central intake facility” for the homeless on a portion of city land just north of downtown, at 19th and B streets. Such a facility would offer a bevy of services-from showers and employment assistance to substance-abuse treatment-that right now are spread out among various social-service agencies.
Alpha Project proposed a similar plan to a City Council committee in January 2005. What happened to that plan? The city's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee agreed to consider it, “then they put it on the shelf,” McElroy said, “with all the other homeless reports.”
What's different now is that McElroy has tapped into private-sector supporters, including Price Charities, who see homelessness more as a financial drain than a social ill. According to numbers McElroy's collected, housing a person in a homeless shelter costs $17 day. Jailing that person costs taxpayers $66.05 per day. Putting a homeless mentally ill person in a psychiatric hospital runs about $513 a day, and if a homeless person were to be taken to an emergency room, the cost would be $1,456.21.
McElroy plans to present the idea to another City Council committee this week and hold its members to a 60-day timeline to respond. A spokesperson for Mayor Jerry Sanders said the mayor is “receptive” to the idea of a central intake facility as long as it's done on someone else's dime.
“The city doesn't have any money,” McElroy said, “so we'll go after the feds, corporations and foundations. All I'm looking for is somebody to say go ahead and do it.”
Whether or not McElroy's plan is realized, when it comes to the homeless, the city has a more pressing matter at hand: In April, a federal appeals court ruled in a Los Angeles case that if a city doesn't provide enough shelter beds, then handing out tickets to the homeless for sleeping in public violates a person's constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. San Diego faces a similar lawsuit.
“The city's going to have to do something because they're getting sued,” McElroy said.
In late 2004, attorneys Tim Cohelan and Scott Dreher sued the city on behalf of nine homeless men and women who have been cited and punished-either with jail time or community service-for sleeping in public. The city's homeless population far surpasses the number of shelter beds available-roughly 2,000 beds to 4,500 people. Dreher and Cohelan have argued that the lack of beds leaves a homeless person with no other option than to sleep on the sidewalk, or under a bridge or in a public park where they might be ticketed.
“The argument is, look, people biologically have to sleep; they can't not sleep,” Dreher said. “I don't have to drive 85 on the freeway. If I choose to do so, then I risk a ticket.... In this case, if you have nowhere to sleep, you can't help but sleep on the street. And to give someone a ticket for that, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has said that's illegal.”
Last week, Dreher and Cohelan, in a letter to City Attorney Mike Aguirre, crafted a settlement: Homeless individuals would be allowed to sleep within a defined area, “which shall include downtown San Diego,” between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.; contrary to a sharply worded Union-Tribune editorial that blasted the settlement, the defined area would not include entrances to public or private buildings-in fact, anyone sleeping within 10 feet of a building could be cited. Anyone caught sleeping outside the defined area could be cited for illegal lodging and, again contrary to what was laid out in the U-T editorial, anyone caught violating any other laws-drug laws, drunk-in-public laws-would be punished accordingly.
Aguirre was receptive to the settlement offer. But, in a press conference, Mayor Jerry Sanders and Police Chief William Lansdowne made it clear they don't agree with the terms
“His heart is in the right place,” Sanders said of Aguirre, but, “creation of such districts will result in an increase in crime.”
“You cannot make it against the law, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to prohibit people from using public property to sleep or to sit,” Aguirre countered in an interview with CityBeat. “You can do it sometimes; you can do it in some areas. What you can't do [according to the 9th Circuit decision] is make it a blanket rule: ‘No, you can never sleep in the city anytime no matter what your situation is as far as shelters are concerned.'”
Aguirre said he's going to L.A. on Thursday to meet with representatives from the police department and City Attorney's office there “to see if we can work with them to come up with good guidelines that will allow us to maintain community protection while at the same time protecting the rights of the homeless.” The L.A. City Council voted last week to continue with an appeal against the 9th Circuit ruling; for now, L.A. police officers cannot issue illegal-lodging tickets.
Absent a settlement, within the next couple of weeks Dreher plans to ask a judge for an injunction to stop San Diego police from issuing such citations.
Between January 2003 and May 2006, police issued 11,414 illegal-lodging tickets, according to numbers provided by the San Diego Police Department.
Between January and May of this year, 1,084 tickets were handed out; 3,123 tickets were issued in 2005. If the number of illegal-lodging tickets are indeed down this year, one reason could be the fact that the Alpha Project kept the downtown winter shelter open 59 days longer than originally scheduled, at its own expense. McElroy said he plans to open the shelter on Nov. 1, a month and a half earlier than the normal Dec. 15 start date. The extra 45 days would come at Alpha's expense.