Unsafe Camping Ordinance Puts The Cart Before The Horse

OPINION: Passing an unsheltered sleeping ban without a concise shelter plan means the mayor and city council now own the homelessness issue
Hundreds of public speakers participated in a 10-hour San Diego City Council meeting on homelessness on June 13, 2023.

The San Diego City Council has voted to put the cart before the horse by passing the controversial Unsafe Camping Ordinance.

By a 5-4 council vote, after hundreds of passionate public speakers and a 10-hour political-dog-and-pony show, an ordinance that paves the way to criminalize homelessness was passed on June 13, 2023.

[UPDATE: The City Council finalized the vote on June 27. The mayor promised to immediately sign the ban into law.]

Proponents of the ban should understand it does open the door for criminalizing the unsheltered. The ordinance does not follow best legal practices and is similar to pending litigation elsewhere in the country. 

Proposed by downtown’s City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, and blessed by San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, the Unsafe Camping Ordinance bans tent encampments in public areas at all times when shelter beds are available.

That seems fair. Fact is, though, shelter beds are almost never available.

By willful neglect over a span of decades, San Diego has not created significant shelter space. To get around that deficit, the new ordinance will also ban public camping within two blocks of schools, existing shelters, some parks…and very nearly everywhere else. All the time. Regardless of available shelter space.

Clearly, homelessness is a monumental blight on the city. It’s the top concern of tax-paying, hard-working folks in downtown San Diego, with East Village and Barrio Logan as the epicenter.

As a downtown resident, I agree with the urban neighborhood groups, business owners and public speakers at the recent council meeting who demanded tents erected on city sidewalks by our unsheltered neighbors be mitigated.

A breaking point has been imminent. The encampments have been unsightly for too long. Nobody should have to walk out onto the street to avoid sidewalks filled with tents, tarps, bikes, folding chairs, spoiled foodstuffs and all manner of litter. 

The situation has been an ongoing health hazard. For tent dwellers and the general public. The preponderance of human feces in the streets is an outrage. The illegal drug use and criminal activity has spiraled fatally out of control.

Recall that Mayor Gloria had previously declared it illegal to erect a tent on a downtown sidewalk during the day. Enforcement? Toothless.

The new ordinance goes farther. Yet no new law enforcement staffing has been offered, or seems to be available. 

The ideal complement to the ordinance would have been a comprehensive plan to house the unsheltered people who will be swept off newly banned parts of town.

Instead, the ordinance comes with one new shelter at the ready. The city maintenance lot at 20th and B streets will have space for 100-plus tents. The lot will be equipped with bathrooms and offer services that might help people get back on their feet and out of a shelter.


[UPDATE: The site is open but the initial rollout has been rocky.]

Another open-air shelter is tenuously proposed to open later this year. The “O Lot” site near the outskirts of Balboa Park could provide hundreds of tents and similar life-mending services to those currently unsheltered.  


The city has explained that the O Lot will live up to promise. And that more shelters are on the way. And that enforcement of the ordinance will be slowly ramped up.

Now, I see the logic of my downtown neighbors who say the ordinance was necessary to get the ball rolling. Something had to be done, right?

What fails to add up, however, is the city’s readiness to quickly enact a ban and not have a clearly defined shelter plan. 

During the June 13 city council meeting, city staff quietly admitted not being prepared to offer shelter to those who would be banned from nearly everywhere.

San Diego City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn listens to comment during the June 13 marathon council meeting.

Mark Twain said: “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”

The mayor’s office likes to mention it has increased homeless shelters by 70 percent since Gloria took office. Well, great! But:

  • There are currently 2,401 emergency shelter beds in the city.
  • On any given day there are essentially no vacancies.
  • Of the 2,401 beds, almost 1,000 are scheduled to be relocated, many within the year. That includes more than 400 going away at Golden Hall.
  • The Downtown San Diego Partnership’s monthly count of unsheltered people just in 92101 (downtown) is more than 2,100.
  • There are 13 people going into homelessness for every 10 currently coming off the street, according to the city.

In other words, after the ordinance is reread in late June, and the 100-tent safe camping site opens in July, don’t expect the encampment issue to magically disappear.

Rather, keep an eye on the city’s next steps. If new shelters do begin to emerge, the ordinance (if it can pass legal challenge) might begin to make a small difference.

However, as Winston Churchill noted, we who fail to learn from history are bound to repeat it. 

Homelessness has a history of attracting political lip service. And campaign promises made by politicians seem to fade from to-do lists after elections are won.

Next year is an election year. The mayor and half the city council are up for reelection. Gloria and Whitburn had to do something about homelessness in this election runup.

The ordinance was their something. 

An attentive electorate should hold them accountable. Not for spending 10 hours at a council meeting passing the promise of clean streets. But for concrete progress that might ensue.

For the rest of 2023, members of downtown’s unsheltered population will continue to shit in public. They’ll still be pacing city streets and screaming at unseen demons. 

Some of us will feel compassion. Others will be angry. All of us are exasperated. Can we agree that by passing the Unsafe Camping Ordinance, the mayor and the city council now fully own the problem?

I’ll praise any progress made. But if it turns out the ordinance was a nothing burger cooked up to try to win four more years in office, remember that on election day.  


The proposed renovation of Gallagher Square was quietly approved by the City of San Diego.

Despite protests from the East Village Residents Group, the San Diego Padres received approval from the City of San Diego on June 16, 2023, for a $20M renovation of Gallagher Square.

The EVRG and an ad hoc group of residents have been voicing concern about excessive noise from EDM and hard rock concerts held at Gallagher Square (formerly the Park at the Park).

See this story for more details: Group claims team ignored noise complaints for years; wants to take over the public green space near Petco Park without public review

Residents also voiced concern about an artificial turf flooring that the Padres intend to install at Gallagher Square.

See this link for details: Noise mitigation and new turf are two reasons downtown San Diego residents say the Padres renovation plan needs to slow down

“Staff from the City’s Development Services Department have completed their land use consistency review of the proposed building construction application for the renovation of Gallagher Square and determined it is consistent with…approved land use documents…” wrote José Ysea, Public Safety Media Services Manager/PIO for the City of San Diego.

Regarding the noise complaints, Ysea wrote in an email to The San Diego Sun: “…we are aware of the surrounding community’s concerns relating to concert noise, lighting and public access to the park. These concerns are not related to the proposed renovation plans; these are operational issues that are related to the current site as it exists today. The City is continuing to analyze the concerns raised by the residents and will be working closely with the Padres to address any compliance issues that may arise.”  SDSun


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