The Marine colonel in charge of a San Diego base has shot down some advocates’ idea of housing the city’s homeless people on the installation’s land.
Sunbreak Ranch is a concept for “a large-scale temporary ranch” that would be a “temporary home” for homeless San Diegans, according to its website. The advocates pushing for the ranch are eyeing several possible sites, including at least five at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, which is located in San Diego, according to George Mullen, who has spearheaded the idea.
But in a letter to San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria on Oct. 2, first reported by Voice of San Diego, the commanding officer of the California base argued that the Miramar property east of Interstate 15 “is not a suitable location” for the ranch.
“In the last twenty years four aircraft have crashed in this undeveloped area,” Col. Thomas Bedell wrote to the mayor, noting that the area is in the approach corridor for aircraft preparing to land aboard the air station.
The noise and safety concerns make the land unsuitable for most uses, especially housing, Bedell wrote. World War II-era live-fire ranges contain unexploded ordnance, and current live-fire training nearby would pose its own risks, the colonel added.
Then there are the environmental issues, according to the colonel, who noted the air station’s shallow vernal pools provide habitats for endangered plant and animal species.
“Finally, any course of action that increases the risk of wildfires to the local community is not supportable,” Bedell wrote.
In an email Thursday to Marine Corps Times, 1st Lt. Jacoby Hawkins, a spokesman for the California installation, confirmed the authenticity of the letter linked by Voice of San Diego and referred to the letter as “our general statement regarding the entire situation.”
Mullen said in an emailed statement to Marine Corps Times on Friday, “Naysayers and pessimists are a dime a dozen…this plan is too damn good not to have our Marines involved.”
The Sunbreak Ranch initiative aims to “provide real help to our homeless brothers and sisters (and stop pretending that allowing them to sleep, urinate, and defecate on our city streets is helpful or humane to anyone)” and “return our cities to the Rule of Law,” Mullen wrote in a Times of San Diego op-ed in January with former NBA star Bill Walton.
Mullen told Marine Corps Times that no one would be forced to relocate to Sunbreak Ranch.
But if the ranch became operational, San Diego would have met its legal requirements under the 2018 court decision Martin v. Boise, Mullen said in an email to Marine Corps Times. In the case, judges for the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled it was unconstitutional to prosecute people for camping and sleeping outside — if there was no other shelter available.
So Sunbreak Ranch would mean that “camping, loitering, open drug use, defecating, urinating on our streets, canyons and public parks will no longer be an option,” Mullen wrote, adding, “Those who continue to violate these laws will risk going to jail, just like they would for any other crime.”
Gloria, the mayor, maintained that the city has available shelter beds, though local news reporting has found that isn’t always the case, according to CBS 8.
Mullen argued to Marine Corps Times that a decision by the Marine Corps on the proposal to put Sunbreak Ranch on the San Diego base would have to come from a higher-ranking leader than a colonel.
Retired Marine Maj. Phil Kendro, who has led multiple veterans’ organizations in San Diego, told Marine Corps Times on Monday that he is concerned about “housing first” approaches to addressing homelessness, “as opposed to addressing the root causes of homelessness which is often due to mental health or drug addiction issues.”
“When I was in Boston a number of months ago I had the fortune of speaking with one of the Program Managers at the New England Center and Home for Veterans,” Kendro said via email. “He was very detailed in the fact that their Veterans had numerous rules to follow and mandated counseling sessions, thus it wasn’t just about the housing, but actually taking care of the Veteran overall.”
Mullen and Walton wrote in their January op-ed that residents of Sunbreak Ranch would have access to services focusing on substance abuse and mental health. There would be a shuttle to downtown San Diego, the pair wrote.
Dave Rolland, a spokesman for Gloria, said in an emailed statement Thursday to Marine Corps Times that the mayor “has demonstrated an openness to any and all ideas that will help get people off the street and into safe shelter or permanent housing.”
But Gloria has told proponents of Sunbreak Ranch the first step is to secure suitable land, and they haven’t yet done so, Rolland noted.
And Gloria “defers to” the Marine Corps’ determination that the air station wouldn’t be a suitable site, Rolland said.
Editor’s note: This article was updated Monday with comment from retired Marine Maj. Phil Kendro.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.