City allows sleeping in public
Homeless people won’t be ticketed
By Jeanette Steele
February 22, 2007
DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO – Sleeping on San Diego’s public sidewalks and doorways at night will no longer earn you a ticket, the city announced yesterday as part of settling a lawsuit brought by homeless advocates.
Mayor Jerry Sanders, who in the past opposed creating homeless “free zones,” called it a “fair and equitable solution to a large societal problem.” City Attorney Michael Aguirre said San Diego has taken “the leadership in the state of California” on homeless sleeping issues.
Starting immediately, people can sleep on city property from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. without fear of police citations. That is unless they are doing something illegal, such as being drunk or fighting.
Exceptions will exist, though police said there will be few. For example, citations may still be written if there are continued complaints about someone who refuses services and won’t move from one spot, said Bill Maheu, executive assistant police chief.
The City Council also still needs to approve the settlement.
Tim Cohelan, lawyer for the homeless plaintiffs, said the real solution is more shelter beds to get the estimated 9,600 homeless in San Diego off the streets.
But, he said, “I think this is a tremendous step forward.” Cohelan is a San Diego lawyer who waived attorney’s fees for the case.
The city was largely forced into this decision after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in April ruled that a Los Angeles ordinance barring sleeping on sidewalks was illegal when there weren’t enough shelter beds. The San Diego lawsuit was filed in 2004 on similar grounds.
In October, Aguirre announced that the city would stop locking up sleeping offenders in light of the Los Angeles precedent.
Asked if the homeless now are getting a virtual “free pass” in San Diego, Sanders said no.
“We’re not giving anybody a free pass,” Sanders said. “Between certain hours we’ll go out of our way to make sure we’re availing them of all the options that are available, or letting them sleep if that’s all that they’re doing.”
Sanders also said the idea of carving out sleeping “free zones” – something Aguirre had proposed – was a nonstarter because it was unfair to neighborhoods that might have been chosen.
“I didn’t see anyone volunteering to have the free zone in their neighborhood,” Sanders said.
People ticketed in days past may be off the hook as well. Aguirre said the city will honor the spirit of the settlement when looking at past incidents.
There are safeguards if this arrangement doesn’t work, all sides said. The settlement, registered in federal court yesterday, allows the city to return to the judge in certain circumstances, such as something like a public health crisis.
It was vindication for homeless advocate Larry Milligan, who has fought the illegal lodging law since 1991, arguing that it was unconstitutional.
Milligan, 60, waged a 19-day fast in October 2004, during which he lost 37 pounds, in hopes of prodding the city to stop issuing the so-called sleeping tickets.
“It was worth every second (of protest) because these guys can now sleep in peace,” Milligan said yesterday.
Jeanette Steele: (619) 293-1030; firstname.lastname@example.org