You can’t talk about the East Village without talking about homelessness.
For many San Diegans, the neighborhood encompasses the heart of the county’s homelessness problem. Tents dot the sidewalks throughout the area. Imperial Avenue intersects with entire encampments, with ground trash, bio-waste, drug paraphernalia and more. It can be shocking to see for people who only visit the area once in a while.
“I think it got worse,” Jeff Stapp told us. “Previously when we used to come down here it was centrally located in an area. Now it’s everywhere. It’s truly sad. It really is.”
“I just feel bad for people,” Debra Nunez said. “They are human beings. I’m not bothered by them at all, just wish we could help them more.
But on Thursday, the homeless issue was harder to see. On the opening day of Major League Baseball, the Padres welcomed baseball fans to Petco Park to watch their team on the big screen. But the area around the stadium visibly lacked the usual signs of homelessness.
David Carrera told NBC 7 Investigates that the change is superficial and temporary by design.
“There’s an event happening at Petco Park and like magic the bystanders and the homeless have disappeared,” he said. “It’s because the police are here at six in the morning and they’re pushing everyone out of the area to make tourists think, ‘Hey, the East Village is a great place.’ And once upon a time, but things have changed, so I feel like it’s almost wrong at this point.
Carrera would know. He has lived in East Village for four years and also works there. He has a message for Mayor Todd Gloria.
“Honestly, I would like to know if he walks around downtown,” he said. “I would like to see [Gloria] here on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday afternoon when there is no event.
NBC 7 Investigates spent weeks trying to quantify the problem, but found it wasn’t easy. Local government agencies and nonprofit groups rely on annual “point in time” counts of homelessness, conducted by the San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness. While critics say these tallies aren’t perfect, no one was even counting in 2021 because of the pandemic, and 2022 numbers have yet to be released. The group hopes to release its latest report in late April or early May. Preliminary data from this heatmap shows high concentrations of homelessness downtown, including in the East Village.
The San Diego Regional Task Force isn’t the only group trying to bring homelessness under control. The Downtown San Diego Partnership conducts monthly counts of neighborhoods with high homeless populations. It contains data going back to 2012 and the total number of unprotected individuals is higher than ever. Data shows 740 people slept on East Village sidewalks in February, the highest number since the group ranked individual neighborhoods five years ago.
Carerra says the situation is dangerous both for the homeless and for the people who live, work and play in East Village. He remembers a homeless man robbing the restaurant where he works with a butter knife stolen from a dining table.
“There were eight police officers who responded, and by then he was long gone,” Carerra said. “You know, it’s just, what are you doing?”
NBC 7 Investigates analyzed police calls for service in the East Village over the past three years and found that the number of calls for the most serious crimes increased each year.
San Diego Councilman Stephen Whitburn represents the East Village neighborhood, where he also lives. He believes the city’s efforts to increase shelter bed capacity and build more affordable housing will work in the long run.
“I think there are things we can do in the short term to help alleviate the situation,” Whitburn said.
One possible solution is called a safe village, a designated land where people can live in tents, use sanitation facilities, and access health and other resources. East Village Residents Group president Kathleen Hallahan agrees with a safe village, with one caveat.
“My feeling is that as long as they don’t concentrate more people here, it’s okay,” Hallahan said. “But we take the lion’s share of all homeless people across the county. We take the lion’s share of permanent supportive housing.
Hallahan worries that adding more homeless services to the East Village will only draw more homeless people to the neighborhood. She would prefer to see these resources distributed throughout the county.
“Yes, it’s a problem and it’s a concern,” she said. “Because we all invest a lot of time and all of our resources in this neighborhood and in our lives. And there doesn’t seem to be an understanding of what’s at stake.”
She thinks East Village still has a lot to offer and told us, “We wanted to live in a place that had a more concrete, creative and innovative energy, and East Village is that and always is.”
But others say they cannot keep waiting for a solution to a humanitarian crisis that appears to be worsening.
“Our taxes are still astronomical,” Carerra said. “But where is the money really going? It’s a very interesting aspect and makes me think that maybe East Village isn’t for me anymore.