SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Ten San Diegans experiencing homelessness filed a class action lawsuit in federal court Monday, challenging enforcement of the City’s “encroachment” code as unconstitutional.
The code, initially intended to address dumpsters, has become the City’s primary enforcement tool to address homelessness — affecting thousands of people living on the street.
“Talk to nearly anyone on the street, and chances are they have been cited or arrested for encroachment —probably multiple times,” said attorney Scott Dreher.
The suit alleges that people who are homeless cannot avoid being targeted by this law.
“If people are living on the street, where do we expect them to put their things?” said attorney Kath Rogers. “The City is effectively punishing people for being homeless.”
Plaintiffs argue the City’s actions undermine its goal to eradicate homelessness.
“Once someone is touched by the criminal justice system, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to do exactly what we expect from them: find a job, clean up, get off the streets," said Anne Rios, Executive Director of Think Dignity.
Plaintiffs allege the City is selectively targeting people living on the street.
“Police are not treating people equally under this law,” said Dreher. “A business owner is given notice and warnings, whereas someone living on the street is punished on the spot, arrested, and pressured to sign a ‘stay away’ order barring them from the area.”
Dreher successfully settled two prior cases with the City dealing with homelessness — resulting in the formation of a city-funded homeless storage center, a ban on police destruction of personal property during “homeless sweeps,” and halting the City’s enforcement of the state’s illegal lodging statute between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m.
The suit reflects a nationwide legal and policy shift away from the criminalization of homelessness. If successful, the City could no longer punish people living on the street for placing belongings on public property when they have no other alternative.
Erica Perez lives in Little Italy, and has seen the homeless population skyrocket in the last three years. She has had several encounters with homeless people camping on her porch or confronting her in the street.
“I don’t walk around my little teeny quarter of a mile block without mace in my pocket now," she said. "It’s terrible. Screaming, throwing stuff, digging through trash, laying out their wet clothes, doing essentially their laundry literally on the corner. It’s a nightmare.”
Perez feels that the lawsuit does not address the real concern.
“It’s not just people that are homeless and down on their luck, quietly sitting in the corner. That’s not the issue that we’re talking about," she said. "It’s the people that are the chronic, they’re the chronic homeless and the ones that have, you know, the mental disorders or the alcohol and drug abuse.”