San Diego's homeless population has soared in the wake of mass foreclosures from the housing crash, the recession, and hosts of factors seen in towns across America. But as San Diego's homeless have made the unforgivable mistake of congregating around newly opened condo complexes in the downtown area, one of the few walkable, urban parts of the city, Mayor Jerry Sanders (R) and his administration have apparently opted to do away with the compassionate conservative moniker when dealing with these human symptoms of the economic crisis.
According to a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties,
On at least three occasions in September and October, police officers and environmental services workers apparently watched as homeless men and women temporarily stored their possessions in front of a fenced-off vacant lot and then walked inside God's Extended Hand, a small East Village church, or the Neil Good Day Center, a facility that provides showers, laundry, and information and referral services for the homeless. City workers and police officers then immediately descended on the people's possessions, tossing everything -- including church-owned shopping carts -- into an attending garbage truck and compactor, crushing everything. As word spread and some of the owners came running out of church begging to be allowed to retrieve their items, they were told by the police that it was too late -- "This is City property now." When one plaintiff asked what he was supposed to do now, an officer told him he could "head for the Arizona border."
Unsurprisingly, the city got itself sued. Scott Dreher of the Dreher law firm, the ACLU's co-counsel, went on to say that,
"The City knew these personal items were not trash -- they were clearly the entirety of each of these person's possessions, and included treasured family photographs and mementos, prescription medication, and blankets to keep warm. The city's actions are unconscionable."
In an interesting coincidence, Mayor Sanders met with Chargers President Dean Spanos just weeks later on November 10 to discuss the possibility of building a new downtown football stadium -- in addition to the pre-existing Qualcomm stadium the city spent $19 million in 2005 to maintain -- and again on November 30 with county Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Ron Roberts for the same purpose.
When I first heard tell of the homeless raids, I thought perhaps no one had informed the city -- already on the brink of bankruptcy -- that Fresno had tried the same thing back in July of 2008 and had their ass handed to them to the tune of $2.35 million. But when San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith responded with a letter whose tone and content simultaneously redefined "pissy" and clarified the city's intentionally aggressive attitude:
"Pursue the lawsuit and we will vigorously defend it. We believe the City's policies met state and federal law. The ACLU's failure to talk with us first will clearly indicate that this is all about attorney fees for the ACLU and not about the purported goal of a lawsuit. This motivation will be transparent to any judge reviewing this litigation."
Echoing sentiments of the now-famous "get well or die" battle cry, Sanders has defined a new degree of oxymoron by simultaneously towing the worn out "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" attitude of his party while literally throwing away the homeless's boots.
The lawsuit is currently on hold pending negotiations between the ACLU, their co-council, and the city. Hopefully the resolution reached this time around will focus less on the cosmetic and more on helping people in the most desperate and vulnerable positions possible get back on their feet, without marching orders towards Arizona.
For those interested in reading more, Kelly Davis of San Diego Citybeat has been following the debacle on her blog.