SAN DIEGO —
A scene that played out recently at a homeless encampment in downtown San Diego captured the violence that often erupts in the unruly tent cities, the feelings of helplessness of those who witnessed it and the frustration facing law enforcement who often are unwilling or unable to intervene.
Heather Lezon, executive director and founder of the Youth Assistance Coalition in Logan Heights, said she and others at her nonprofit heard a commotion outside around 4:30 p.m. Dec. 21 and then saw a man wearing what appeared to be a bulletproof vest in an encampment punch another man, who left with a bloody face.
She began filming from across the street and saw the man in the vest go into his tent and return with what appeared to be a long metal rod, which he swung at another man who confronted him. She can be heard on the recording asking for someone to call the police, and she said six patrol cars arrived within minutes.
Yet there were no arrests, and she said an officer told her the incident was over and there was nothing they could do.
“I was like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’” she said. “This was like extreme violence of like five people fighting, and you’re just going to let it go?”
Lezon said an officer later returned to her organization, which is focused on helping homeless youths, to talk to her more about the incident.
“He said, ‘Heather, our hands are tied,’” she said. “‘We need people to go to the City Council. We need more police. We need more help. We need to be able to arrest someone. We need the community’s voice to help us be able to do our job.’”
She said she doesn’t blame the police, because they did quickly respond to the call, but she was frustrated to hear them say there was nothing they could do. She said officers told her part of the problem is they can no longer make arrests for simple drug possession because of Proposition 47, a 2014 ballot measure that significantly reduced penalties for drug crimes. Former San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman wrote an op-ed about her opposition to the proposition last March in The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Lezon said she also was told by an officer that police are under-staffed.
The San Diego City Council addressed the issue last July by creating incentives for more officers to join the department. In the preceding fiscal year, 250 officers had left the department, a 52 percent increase from the previous year, leaving 150 vacancies.
Lezon said she understands the realities of the situation, but is still frustrated by what she sees outside her door.
“The element is just getting worse and worse every day,” she said. “Allowing them to camp every day, all day long, isn’t helping anyone.”
The incident outside the Youth Assistance Coalition caught the attention of the philanthropic Lucky Duck Foundation, which is focused on helping San Diego’s homeless population. The group issued its first “Shamrocks and Shipwrecks” list last month to highlight what it called progress and regress on the issue, and it recently released an additional “shipwreck” to its list because of the incident.
“This type of criminal behavior and lack of action to prevent and eliminate it is entirely egregious,” said Dan Shea, a member of the foundation’s executive committee. “What kind of society are we living in where someone on the streets is wearing a bulletproof vest and then starts chasing people with a weapon?”
Other local violent incidents involving homeless people have been caught on video. In June 2021, security camera video appeared to show a homeless man hitting a pedestrian in the head with a skateboard in City Heights, and other security camera video showed a homeless man attacking a woman on the patio of the Royal India restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter last month. In other recent incidents that were reported on local news broadcasts, a woman said she was attacked with a brick by a homeless man outside the San Diego Zoo, and a homeless man was arrested after allegedly attacking restaurant workers with a knife at The Taco Stand in La Jolla in December.
While the recent incidents of violence are alarming, a report from the San Diego District Attorney’s Office last March shows homeless people themselves are more likely to be the crime victims.
The report found homeless people were 19 times more likely to be murdered than housed people and 27 times more likely to be a victim of attempted murder. They also were 15 times more likely to be robbed, 15 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence, 12 times more likely to be victims of aggravated assault, 10 times more likely to be victims of elder abuse and nine times more likely to be victims of sexual assault.
Homeless advocate Michael McConnell, who has regularly interacted with people on the street and in encampments for about 14 years, said he has never had a violent incident or felt threatened by a homeless person.
“I’m not saying people shouldn’t use common sense,” he said. “If there’s erratic behavior, they should steer clear of that erratic behavior.”
McConnell said there is more violence between homeless people than against housed people. He also noted that over several years of a countywide count of homeless people, the thousands of participating volunteers have never reported a violent incident from a homeless person.
San Diego City Councilmember Vivian Moreno, whose district includes Logan Heights, sympathized with Lezon.
“I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Lezon’s comments,” she wrote in an email. “The sidewalk along Commercial Street, or any other street, should not be a home. I hear from my constituents every day about homelessness. Despite historic investments by the city and the county, it is clear the problem is becoming worse. We have to do better.”
The city and county have taken steps to address issues involving some of the more unstable homeless people on the street. In December 2021, the two bodies opened a 44-bed shelter on Sports Arena Boulevard to help people with addictions and mental health issues. In September, the city and county opened a 150-bed shelter on Rosecrans Street, which also offered mental health and addiction services, and last month the city and county collaborated to open a safe haven to provide long-term residential care for 44 people in Veterans Village of San Diego.
Lezon said the same man she filmed threatening another man with a metal rod is still in her neighborhood, and she recently saw him with what she described as a medieval ball and chain.
“And I didn’t even bother calling the police, because what good is it going to do?” she said.
As head of a nonprofit working with homeless youths, Lezon said she was particularly heartbroken by the incident last month because of its effects on them.
“The other day when the incident happened, we had like 30 kids in there and they were all on the railing watching it, and it wasn’t that big a deal (to them),” she said.
When two teenagers took off in the direction of the man with the metal rod, who by then was riding a bicycle and carrying a baseball bat, Lezon said she tried to stop them.
“I said, ‘You guys, don’t go that way,’ and they said, ‘Oh, this is normal.’ And it just broke my heart that they think this is normal.”
The Dec. 21 incident was also witnessed by Penny Nathan, who has a property management company and recently created a pop-up event space at 1944 Commercial St. called The Event Warehouse.
“A couple of weeks ago when that incident occurred, we were talking and saying, ‘What do we do? Call our congressman?’ A security guard can go up and say, ‘You have to move,’ but move where?”
Nathan said she does not feel threatened by people in homeless encampments along Commercial Street, but she fears their presence may hurt her event business. She said she recently met with a potential client who had come to sign a contract for the venue, but walked away after seeing the conditions outside.
But Nathan said she also feels compassion for the people living on the nearby street.
“As a human, this is very heart-wrenching to watch,” she said. “I personally choose to drive through that block every day to try to remind myself that these are human beings.”
Nathan said she signed a 10-year lease on the property in 2018, when there were no encampments in the neighborhood. She wouldn’t sign it today.