COVID-19 Isn’t the Only Reason to End Homelessness in San Diego, but Change is More Urgent Now Than Ever

Think Dignity

By Mitchelle Woodson

SAN DIEGO – The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated longstanding inequities that criminalize and punish individuals experiencing homelessness.

Unsheltered San Diegans not only face some of our country’s most expensive home and rental prices, but they must also struggle against discriminatory and unjust policies. Given these circumstances, it is no wonder that San Diego County has the fourth-largest homeless population in the U.S.

In its 2020 Point-in-Time Count, the county’s Regional Task Force on the Homeless (RTFH) identified 7,619 people with no permanent home. Half of them had no shelter at all, meaning they lived in places such as the streets or in vehicles.

When shelter-in-place orders and social distancing policies were implemented in March due to the pandemic, unsheltered individuals were left with extremely limited or no proper safety measures to protect their health.

With affordable housing in short supply in our region, homeless individuals have been forced into congregate emergency shelters where they risk become infected and dying from COVID-19. This is because many of them have preexisting health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic digestive issues that make them vulnerable to the virus.

Unsheltered people are subject to arrest for a myriad of “quality of life” violations, such as sleeping on the sidewalk or living in a car. These kinds of actions are often deployed by law enforcement against individuals experiencing homelessness. Data shows that San Diego law enforcement officers made nearly 12,000 quality of life arrests between 2016 to 2018.

Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, local law enforcement agencies continue to make these arrests. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, more than one in four people booked into county jails between March 12 and April 30 – the early days of the pandemic lockdown – were arrested for minor and low-level offenses. These crimes included disturbing the peace, vandalism, evading trolley fare and illegal lodging.

Arresting and jailing people during a pandemic demonstrates a blatant disregard for human life by placing San Diegans in crowded jail facilities, where social distancing is nearly impossible to practice.

This relentless criminalization of poverty not only endangers people’s lives, it creates even more legal barriers for people to access housing and employment, and thus perpetuates conditions that lead to homelessness.

The need for change is even more urgent in the midst of a global pandemic. This should be a time when San Diegans care for and support one another. We can and must address the root causes of homelessness and poverty in our region.

Our elected officials must implement policies that address the unmet needs of our homeless community, such as:

  • De-populating emergency shelters and immediately increase investments in non-congregate forms of shelter, such as the Hotel & Motel Voucher Program;
  • Prioritizing the development and implementation of affordable housing as a long-term solution; and
  • Placing a moratorium on all fines, fees and arrests associated with poverty, especially during this public health emergency.

Government officials and community leaders have taken some steps to minimize the harm in response to this pandemic, such as eviction moratoriums and hotel voucher programs. This demonstrates the power our community has to create a more just and equitable society. Now more than ever, we must stand with our homeless neighbors to demand dignity, justice and a safe, affordable place to live for everyone.

Mitchelle Woodson is the executive director and managing attorney for Think Dignity.