SAN DIEGO (CN) – It took a city attorney, police officer, public defender, activist and a judge to get a man a spot at a homeless shelter in San Diego this summer. It also took a jury trial and 12 citizens finding the man guilty of two counts of illegal lodging and encroachment to pull those resources together. On Friday, he was sentenced to two years’ probation and ordered to stay away from where he’d pitched a tent on a city street in downtown earlier this year.
Richard Stevenson’s case highlights the incredible amount of resources which go into tackling homelessness in the Southern California city that’s experiencing a housing crisis and a hepatitis A outbreak which has killed 17 people and sickened more than 450 people. Courthouse News covered one of the cases brought by the San Diego City Attorney’s Office against homeless people for living on the street and discovered frustration and dueling approaches to the best way to get people into stable housing.
Nowhere to go
Richard Stevenson wore the same brown t-shirt and plaid shorts three days in a row when he was at San Diego Superior Court in late June facing misdemeanor criminal charges for encroachment and illegal lodging.
Stevenson was arrested April 5, when an officer with San Diego Police Department’s Quality of Life Team knocked on his tent and woke him up at 5:45 a.m. on a misty spring morning – 15 minutes after the city policy allowing people to sleep in public ended.
It wasn’t the first time Stevenson had been contacted by police, who, by the city attorney’s count, had citied the man multiple times and made contact with him over two dozen times. But this time, Stevenson was arrested, taken to the police station and later to jail for violating a city municipal code originally intended for citing residents who left their trash cans out long past trash day.
San Diego has been sued before for excessive enforcement of the state’s illegal lodging law and now faces another class action for ticketing and arresting people living on the street. A group of disabled activists have also threatened to sue the city over its RV parking law, which forbids oversize vehicles on city streets and in public parking lots from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. They say the law discriminates against disabled homeless people who live in their vehicles and have nowhere else to go.
While arrests and citations for encroachment are up, most people who show up for their court date, plead guilty and are sentenced to probation and a stay-away order which makes it illegal for them to be in the area where they were arrested.
Stevenson decided to fight the charges and was represented by public defender Sarah Brand in a one-day jury trial where multiple police officers were called to testify against him.
Quality of Life Team Officer Cara Ellison, who arrested Stevenson, testified she’s made between 50 amd 100 arrests for illegal-lodging violations. Footage from Ellison’s body-worn camera shown during the trial showed the officer admonishing Stevenson about having his belongings on the sidewalk.
“You’re allowed to lay down at 9 o’clock, but you can’t have a tent. I’ve been telling you and everyone it can be you, blankets, a backpack and maybe one trash bag worth of stuff, but not six bags, not those bins,” Ellison said on the tape.
Ellison disputed homeless people need tents, tarps, or other makeshift shelters for protection, saying: “Violent crime has been shown to increase when enforcement of tents is down.”
Stevenson, who has multiple sclerosis, told Courthouse News he wanted to fight his case, in part, so he could tell his story.
“A lot of people don’t know what you’re going through. If they’re going to convict me, at least they know my story,” Stevenson said.
“I never thought I’d get caught up over a tent.”
Enforcement discretion causes confusion
Stevenson was sentenced Friday by Judge Melinda Lasater, after his original sentencing date was pushed back twice in the hope he would secure permanent housing. Lasater told Stevenson earlier this summer if he stayed off the street, she would consider dropping the charges.
While Stevenson was able to stay in a local shelter for two months, an altercation between him and a staff member got him kicked out in August. He was able to save money while staying at the shelter and decided to move to Rosarito, Mexico, where he rents a one-bedroom apartment he found on Craigslist for less than $200.
Because of the altercation with a shelter staff member, Deputy City Attorney Michael Cosgrove asked Lasater Friday to sentence Stevenson to 60 days in jail, probation and a stay-away order to “send the message to other citizens that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.”
“We need not just a stick, we need a carrot,” Cosgrove said.
The judge declined, saying Stevenson’s new residence in Mexico is “working.” She also dismissed another pending case against him.
“I’m personally not in disagreement with the way he’s approaching this,” Lasater said, adding: “I would be remiss not to comment on the outbreak of hepatitis A. He needs to stay off the street for his own safety.”
Following the hearing, Monty Randhawa, also with the City Attorney’s Office, told Courthouse News: “The end goal is not to put every defendant in jail; it is to get them help.”
When asked if there is a number of contacts police must make with a homeless person before they are arrested, Cosgrove said there is no standard. He said they don’t arrest those contacted for the first time, and those who are arrested have been talked to by police multiple times.
According to a 2015 San Diego Police Department training bulletin on illegal lodging, officers are advised to only enforce illegal lodging in areas where they’ve received complaints and to arrest those who’ve “been repeatedly contacted for the same violation within a short period of time.”
Homeless people and advocates have been pushing all summer for the city to take action to resolve the crisis of unsheltered people in the city and county – especially given the hepatitis A outbreak which has been exacerbated by conditions on the street.
That pressure seems to be working, as Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced earlier this month he would open three tent-bridge shelters for people while they wait for permanent housing. Democratic City Council members who didn’t believe that proposal went far enough have since proposed coming up with a ballot measure for 2018 to prevent and respond to homelessness and fund affordable housing.
Councilman Chris Ward, who serves as chair of the Select Committee on Homelessness, also issued an emergency homelessness response plan last week calling for the city to immediately implement safe park and camp zones where people can live in their vehicles or in tents and have access to restroom facilities. People would not be cited or arrested while camping in the designated areas.
But San Diego homeless advocate Michael McConnell, who attended Stevenson’s trial and helped him navigate the legal system, said Stevenson had to get himself out of homelessness without the city’s help.
“The fact he was willing to move to Mexico showed he wanted to get himself out of homelessness,” McConnell said.
“I’ve lost a lot of respect for the City Attorney’s Office and [Faulconer]. They should be embarrassed.”