Mayor Demands Solutions After Two Days Undercover With Homeless
San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor, fresh from a two-day undercover journey through the haunts of the city’s homeless, called Tuesday for a stepped-up city response to “out of control” drug traffic, “pervasive” male prostitution in Balboa Park and “filthy” downtown streets.
“I felt very strongly that in certain parts of our city it’s open season on drug use, on alcohol use,” O’Connor said after Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “Being out there on the streets for 48 hours made me see some things.”
Accompanied by a pair of undercover police officers and reporters from The Tribune and KCST-TV (Channel 39), a disguised O’Connor spent Friday and Saturday wandering downtown and Balboa Park to experience the life of the center city’s homeless, estimated at 3,000 people. She slept one night in a Balboa Park canyon and another in the YWCA women’s shelter. She also cleaned furniture in another shelter in exchange for the privilege of taking a shower.
Rampant Drug Trade
What she found, according to news reports and a memo O’Connor released Tuesday, was a rampant drug trade downtown, male prostitution in the park, and filth in both locations.
“Drugs are out of control,” O’Connor said in her memo to City Manager John Lockwood. “They are being sold openly on many street corners and throughout the park. The availability of supply and the presence of the requisite cash is astounding.”
O’Connor also wrote that “on Friday there was no visible police presence between 10 a.m. and midnight either downtown or in the park. Horse patrols and dirt-bike officers could not be found.”
“We’ve got to get more police on the streets,” O’Connor said in an interview, “especially on Fridays, when everybody gets their paycheck. It’s a cash-and-carry business, and everybody’s got lots of cash.”
The mayor also wrote in the memo that “canyons in the park were so filled with debris as to constitute a fire hazard and facilitate illicit activity.”
She reserved her praise for the human service agencies struggling to cope with the tide of homeless downtown.
“Homeless agencies are doing an exceptionally fine job providing good referrals, professional assistance and non-judgmental compassion,” she wrote. “Facilities were clean and, on the days I observed them, had available capacity.”
The mayor also demanded that the city improve its ability to respond to citizen complaints after working hours, prompted in part by her discovery upon her return home that her electricity was out. The frustrated mayor failed in attempts to get aid from San Diego Gas & Electric Co., the police or high-level city staffers.
The two-day trip was vintage O’Connor. The mayor has in the past collected garbage off city streets, ladled out food to the homeless and ridden with Washington police in neighborhoods infested by drug dealers.
Nevertheless, O’Connor said that impersonating a homeless person was not a symbolic statement on her part, nor was it planned as a counterpoint to the America’s Cup yacht race being staged here starting today. She said she planned the trip to coincide with her vacation, when she knew she would have the time to spend on the streets.
While O’Connor said that she had known the problems existed, she was not aware they were “that blatant.”
“I always pride San Diego as being a little bit different than other major cities,” she said, “and I found we’re experiencing the same problems as other major cities.”
O’Connor instructed Lockwood to forward his recommendations on how to cope with the problems she witnessed, and said that city officials must redouble their efforts to persuade state and federal governments to provide funds for dealing with drug and alcohol abuse and the mentally ill on the streets.