Ocean Beach In an alleyway in Ocean Beach, near the intersection of Newport and Bacon, Keith Morgan sits in a white plastic chair padded with two pieces of cardboard. He’s slept in that chair since May, when he returned to San Diego from Maryland to try to rekindle his relationship with his kids. The alleys are his home now, where he spends his time when he’s not out trying to find odd jobs or sell the jewelry he makes from beads. He’d rather stay on the beach — he has a tent — but his homeless friends have warned him against that, especially if he wants a drink. “It’s not worth it, man, it ain’t even worth the trouble,” he says. “No, this is my spot. I got some shade and a cool breeze. It’s not worth going to the beach and getting an open-container ticket.”
Since last January, when the City of San Diego banned drinking at the beach, complaints have risen in beach communities about an increased number of homeless people loitering in alleys in residential areas and hanging around in business districts. Some believe the ban has moved homeless people from the sand to farther inland.
Prior to the ban, from noon to eight at night, the beaches served as safe havens for the homeless, a place where they could go to drink and stay out of trouble. Since the ban, much has changed.
O.B. Boston James sought refuge at the beach for eight years, and you can tell by his tanned face and the dried-out, scabby skin on his arms. He went to the beach to hang out with friends and have some beers. But since the ban, he’s found refuge in alleys. “I’m going to drink no matter what. I just have to be a lot more discreet now, that’s all. It’s like a child’s game now, like hide-and-seek,” he says as he slips behind a Dumpster and takes a swig from a large can of beer. There are laws against drinking in alleyways too, but according to James, the alleys provide a cover that the beach does not. “Now we’re always ducking and dodging the police,” he says. “I know they’re only doing their job. I didn’t tell them what profession they should go into, but if they want to spend three times as much gas and energy trying to catch me drinking, let them do it.”
Midday in Pacific Beach, near the corner of Garnet and Cass, in the center of the business district, a group of homeless individuals drink from Slurpee cups and sip on bottles of Gatorade. “Robby,” a long-haired, bearded man in his late 20s, is among the group. When asked what has changed since the alcohol ban went into effect, he responds, “We stay away from the beach, but besides that, not much. Everyone still drinks, but we just pour it into cups. The cops can’t search every cup on the streets. It would be total harassment. What, are they going to stop everyone from drinking out of cups? Are they going to smell everyone’s drink?”
Another Pacific Beach homeless man, “Gabriel,” says he sees people drinking on the beach all the time, but instead of drinking right out of the can or bottle, they’re drinking out of red plastic cups. He feels the ban targets the homeless. Otherwise, he says, the cops would be handing out tickets to the younger crowd carrying the red cups. Instead, they’re chasing the homeless around town.
Benjamin Nicholls is the executive director of Pacific Beach’s business improvement district, Discover Pacific Beach. Since the ban, Nicholls has heard more complaints from business owners about homeless people. “One of the issues with the ban is that before, homeless folks could sit on the beach and drink and not bother anyone, plus there are public restrooms they could use. What they’ve done now is they have moved into the alleys. If you drive around PB’s alleys, you’ll see homeless people camped out. It’s a little ‘out of sight, out of mind’ — people don’t see the homeless folks on the beach, and they sort of congratulate themselves about the success of the ban.”
Nicholls expected the ban to push homeless people into the business district. “We knew it was coming because it just makes sense,” he says. “These people have a problem, and banning them from drinking at the beach doesn’t solve those issues. They’re going to find a place to drink. It’s a little bit disappointing this city can’t find a way to help these people. I don’t think the number of homeless in Pacific Beach has increased, but there are definitely more around the business district since the ban started.”
Farther south, in Ocean Beach, Denny Knox, director of the Ocean Beach Mainstreet Association, hasn’t seen much change. She says OB’s business district has always had a large number of homeless people. According to Knox, her office was getting more calls about drunk and disorderly people at the beach before the ban took effect than it’s getting now about homeless people loitering in alleys and around businesses. Residents have complained about more homeless congregating near Sunset Cliffs and about a few pockets of problem beaches, she says, but for the most part, the police have addressed those issues.
Officer David Surwilo, community liaison for the police department’s western division, says his division has seen a spike in complaints about homeless people loitering in the alleys and in business districts. “We knew that there were going to be some negative side effects that we were going to have to work through,” he says. “We knew many of these homeless people would be displaced, and they were likely to move off of the sand and into the alleys and behind the liquor stores. So we expected that, and we had a plan that addressed it. On May 10, we stood up our beach team, so now they are on the beach and in the alleys. It’s a misconception that the beach team only covers the beach. They cover the entire beach community — the alleys, the bars, the house parties, everywhere during the summer months — and so far it has been effective.”
Some in the community feel that making it harder for the homeless to find good spots to get sauced up is beneficial. They say that allowing them to drink legally on the beach reinforced their bad habits and that homeless substance abusers cost the police, fire, and emergency rooms time and money.
Deni McLagan, a program manager for three regional recovery centers in San Diego, is one of those people. She thinks that anything that makes it harder for the homeless to abuse alcohol or drugs is a step in the right direction. “It used to be that they used to get free beers from beachgoers, and their sole income was from aluminum cans they collected off of the beach. Now they can no longer support themselves from canning, nor do they have the beach to drink at. So, needless to say, they’re not happy about it. The ban puts pressure on them, and however it does that, whether it’s making it harder to get free beer or collect an income, I’m all for that.”
Of course, McLagan is aware that there will still be drinking in the homeless community. “You just have to be a little more creative, that’s all,” Jon Baker says, after gulping down a mini-bottle of vodka in an alley in Ocean Beach. When asked where he goes to drink, he responds, “Right here, brother! I’m definitely not going to the beach, that’s for sure.”