If you want to see a hundred people who care passionately about OB, come to an OB Town Council meeting. They may not all agree, but they let their opinions be known. Everyone is welcome – newcomers find out what is happening in our community, families bring their children, people come and go – it was more OB than ever.
And what is more OB than a community complaint fest against the homeless.
So, when the new Police Captain for the Western Division, Captain David Rohowits, was introduced, the tone of what had been billed as a “community meeting” appeared to devolve into a verbal complaint session against the homeless in OB, and despite the chair’s best intentions, the regular agenda items were pushed to the end of the meeting and truncated.
Even newly-appointed Councilman Ed Harris – there to introduce himself – got into the mix.
The topic of discussion had many names: the homeless, vagabonds, travelers, bums, visitors … but there seemed to be a general consensus of impatience, frustration and outrage against what was felt were violations of the common civility of the community of those attending.
Captain Rohowits did ask people to differentiate between homelessness – which is not illegal – and breaking the law. The first problem, he reminded people, is our climate. People who are given a free bus ticket to anywhere don’t choose Detroit, Chicago, or Phoenix in the summer. They choose San Diego.
Even breaking the law, such as minor littering, the Captain continued, would not result in a misdemeanor arrest, but might result in a citation for a small item. Arrestable offenses are either misdemeanors or felonies. He added that police have many different criteria to evaluate when to make an arrest.
Captain Rohowits also discouraged people from making citizen’s arrests, although these are permissible by law. He cautioned that although guns are not common, many transients do carry knives.
The perception this evening of those who attended is that people living on the streets in a transient lifestyle are partaking in various levels of crimes.
The Captain’s plea of insufficient resources within the police department did not elicit much sympathy from the attendees.
A number of community speakers got up and were to the point.
From the Point Loma Surf Team Coach: when the Surf Team comes to OB to practice, they get their backpacks invaded and items stolen while they are getting ready to surf, as their 6:00 am start time is just when people are starting to get up on the beach.
His students do not feel safe. A worried parent of a 15-year old daughter voiced the same concern. Merchants spoke of customers being intimidated by hordes on the sidewalks outside the businesses.
Council member Harris took over at that point, and he had a lot to say. He has already met with new Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman on the problem. Harris – having been a marine – used military type language to describe going after the problems of homelessness, as he told the community he’d “bring in the air, land and sea – hit it from every angle.” People want protection for the neighborhoods where they live. This former lifeguard told us that lifeguards can and do make arrests.
There didn’t appear to be any advocates for the homeless at this community meeting. And the complaint session was overly one-sided, with the Police Captain voicing one of the few of reason and compassion.This has happened before at community meetings that devolve like this.
The apparent consensus at this gathering of the irate was: the message needs to get out that the community no longer is tolerant of the illegal activities seen in Ocean Beach on a daily basis – drinking and drugs, sleeping in public spaces, defacing the cliffs, public urination.
There were some practical suggestions – enforce the Oversized Vehicle Ordinance, for one. There was some support for locking the parking lots at night, as is done in La Jolla Shores. People were urged to telephone when you see something illegal. Take a picture with your iphone, text it to the police, get involved.
However, there didn’t seem to be any collective-memory of the series of workshops on homelessness held in OB a number of years ago nor the results of those workshops. No one from the church-led efforts to feed and cloth the homeless nor those efforts were represented.
But it’s very OB to complain about the homeless. It’s also very OB to feed and cloth and care about the homeless.
Whether organized or not, spontaneous or contrived, the verbal slug fest against the homeless that erupted during the introduction of the Police Captain and the new Councilman appeared to derail the regular agenda of the good Town Council. And the chair seemed to bend over backward to ensure that everyone had a chance to get their opinion out.
Next time there’s a community-wide discussion on the homeless, let it be fair – allow all the sides to be heard.
The regular program topic of “Civic Engagement + Innovation” had been pushed to the end of the meeting. Ilisa Goldman, from the City of San Diego Civic Innovation Lab, talked about turning troubled properties into usable spaces, and Rebecca Taylor invited everyone to join Nextdoor.com.
With the primary election coming up June 3, Jeanne Brown from the League of Women Voters encouraged everyone who is not registered to take that action. She encouraged everyone to get your neighbor who is an unregistered voter to take get registered.
Many council updates, announcements, many promised activities in Ocean Beach. President Gretchen Newsom, as always, managed to fit everyone in and stretched the time to accommodate all. Everyone who wanted to had their say and somehow it all got said. That’s the OB way.
Lois Lane contributed to this article. All photos by Lois Lane.