Drones help find San Diego homeless before annual count

In an effort to make this year’s count more accurate, San Diego police scheduled helicopter flights with thermal technology to detect homeless encampments


Gary Warth
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — While area law enforcement agencies are making an effort to include more homeless people in this year’s point-in-time count, some are accusing San Diego police of trying to decrease the number in one neighborhood.

Homeless advocate Michael McConnell took to Twitter and Facebook this past week with claims that police were cracking down on homeless people in East Village in anticipation of the annual count scheduled for early Friday morning.

Police and city officials called the claim unfounded, and said there had been no change in enforcement of laws against encroachment and tents on sidewalks.

Municipalities that receive federal funds for homeless programs conduct counts around this time each year as a requirement of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In an effort to make this year’s count more accurate, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department scheduled helicopter flights with thermal imaging technology to detect homeless encampments in Lakeside.

Chula Vista police used drones on Thursday afternoon to fly over several areas, including “The Jungle” — an open area near the Westfield Plaza Bonita Mall — to find homeless encampments. Using photos taken by a drone, officers from the department’s homeless outreach team planned to walk into the area in the predawn hours Friday morning to count and interview homeless people there.

“What probably would take five or 10 officers an entire day to do, we just did in 10 minutes,” said Sgt. Lamar Barrett after one flight.

The Chula Vista Police Department has nine certified drone pilots and seven drones. On Thursday, Officer Chris Bearss flew a drone with a remote control connected to a touch-screen monitor that took videos and still photos of images picked up from an attached camera.

On one flight, he manuevered the drone to fly over what appeared to be a blue tarp in the far distrance. The high-powered camera zoomed in and revealed a significant campsite, and the tarp was one of two large tents held up with sturdy internal frames.

“People drive by this every day on the freeway, and they don’t even know what’s there,” he said.

As the drone flew over Chula Vista on Thursday, homeless advocate Michael McConnell chronicled what he called a crackdown on homeless people by San Diego police around 17th Street and Imperial Avenue.

“The sweeps they’re doing are the largest they’ve done in a long time,” he said about police activity. “For some reason, they have decided that their success rests on how East Village looks.”

McConnell posted photos on Twitter of officers arresting homeless people and said he believed the actions were directed by the Mayor’s Office and timed to clear homeless people from streets before the Friday count. McConnell said the sweeps had been happening for about a week, and the extra effort involved officers who were not usually assigned to the neighborhood.

Attorney Scott Dreher, who has represented homeless people in lawsuits against the city, agreed with McConnell.

“Common sense says they’re pushing the people away so they’re harder to count, and they’ll say, ‘See, what we’re doing is working,’” he said.

On Twitter, Greg Block, senior press secretary in Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office, called the claim “ridiculous.”

Capt. Scott Wahl, who oversees the neighborhood policing division that includes homeless outreach teams, also said the claim was unfounded.

“This is Michael McConnell making things up,” he said.

Wahl said monthly counts by the Downtown San Diego Partnership have shown that there has been an overall decrease in homeless in the East Village for the past six months, so there would be no need to reduce the population further. He said the enforcement did not include officers who do not usually work in the neighborhood, and was not connected to the count.

The crackdown, he said, was in response to a number of tents that had gone up during recent rains. While they are not allowed, Wahl said that out of compassion, they were left alone during the rains.

Now that the rains have stopped, officers were responding to complaints about tents on the sidewalk, Wahl said.

“It had nothing to do with the homeless count,” Wahl said. “There was nothing different in enforcement. Their assignment was the same as every other day.”

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©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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