Citizen complaints fuel more police efforts
By Doug Curlee | Editor at Large
Residents in Del Cerro, San Carlos, Grantville and Allied Gardens are as aware as anyone that San Diego has a well-documented homeless problem exceeding 8,000 people.
San Diego has always been a haven for the homeless – those who really have no place to go, or who don’t really want to have a place to go.
For decades, they’ve come here for the same reason many of us did. If you’re outside in January, would you prefer Buffalo or Chicago or Minneapolis over sunny San Diego? That’s an easy question to answer.
But the homeless are now increasingly showing up in the residential neighborhoods, as opposed to the downtown places they used to frequent exclusively.
Places like the Allied Gardens Rec Center and park, or behind the shopping center at Waring and Zion, or in the many canyons around our area.
That has prompted Eastern Division Patrol Lieutenant Mike Swanson to begin building the foundation of a unit he calls the “Quality of Life” detail.
Right now, it consists of two officers who make early morning checks on complaint areas before tasking on their regular patrol functions. It’s Swanson’s hope to make it a full time detail in the coming years.
“What we’re trying to do is, first of all, offer services to the homeless we find in areas where they shouldn’t be. There are several community resources that can and will help the homeless get someplace to stay, or at least to eat and clean up. Many of the homeless don’t know about those groups and programs, so we’ll be offering that to the people out there.”
Swanson quickly points this is not just a bunch of cops going out to hassle people. Accusations like that are made all the time, but it’s not that way, he said.
“Every single sweep we make is in response to valid citizen complaints. We’re not looking for people to just toss into jail. In any contact, unless there are arrest warrants for the homeless person, we’re looking to get them into shelter. If they refuse our help on that, then enforcement is the next option, and that can and usually does include a trip to jail. “
Amy Gonyeau, Chief Operating Officer for the Alpha Project, San Diego County’s largest homeless outreach program, thinks the use of jails to solve the homeless problem is too expensive for tax payers. She said a better way is to train officers on the various services there are to help homeless and to use non-aggressive engagement techniques when dealing with them.
“The most important part is to gain their trust,” she said. “If you don’t have that, you won’t be effective.”
Gonyeau also said residents in the area can help in getting homeless into services by not “street feeding” them. Enablers who give food are one of the major causes of homeless sprawling into new neighborhoods, she said.
For resident David Delgadillo, trips to Allied Gardens Park do not involve feeding homeless, but he has noticed the increase in the problem nonetheless.
“I do see a lot of homeless around here, much more than I used to. Something needs to be done about it, but I’m not sure arresting them will do much good. I spent most of my life as an emergency room nurse, but I also spent a lot of that time as a psychiatric nurse as well. I know there are people among the homeless that just need help, and will accept it if it’s offered. I also know there are those out there who want nothing to do with programs or help of any sort. They’re where they think they need to be, and there’s not much that can change their mind.”
It’s a problem that Mike Swanson will never be able to completely cure, but he can get some people to the help that just might get their lives back on track, and out of the neighborhoods where people fear them. Right now, he’d settle for that.
––Doug Curlee is Editor at Large. Write to him at email@example.com.