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Society

3 Die When Car Hits 9 People in San Diego Homeless Camp

SAN DIEGO — A driver plowed through a sidewalk homeless encampment Monday in downtown San Diego, killing three people and injuring six others, authorities said. 

Craig Voss, 71, was heading through a tunnel underneath a community college campus when he drove his Volvo station wagon up on the sidewalk shortly after 9 a.m., San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit. 

Voss was arrested at the scene. He faces three counts of vehicular manslaughter, five counts of causing great bodily harm and a felony DUI, Nisleit said, adding that Voss did a field sobriety test by a drug recognition expert. He did not elaborate or identify whether Voss was under the influence of alcohol or other substance. He said additional charges may be coming.

It wasn't immediately known if Voss had a lawyer who could speak on his behalf. 

The deadly crash highlights the inherent risks to the homeless population in California, where their tents and tarps line not only downtown sidewalks but are near ramps where cars accelerate as they enter freeways.

More than 150,000 people are homeless statewide. The number has increased during the coronavirus pandemic that has upended the economy.

Mayor Todd Gloria said most, if not all of the nine people who were struck were homeless.

"They were there because they felt like they had nowhere else to go," Gloria said. "This crash this morning did not have to be so devastating. Let me state it very clearly, a street is not a home."

Three people died at the scene. Five of the six others who were injured were taken to hospitals. Two were in critical condition. San Diego Fire Chief Colin Stowell said both were "awake, alert and answering questions."

The mayor, who took office in December, said the encampment had been there awhile. More people Monday might have gone to the short tunnel under the San Diego City College campus because the cement bridge provided cover on a rainy day. 

On a typical weekday morning it is a busy area with students walking by, but classes have been online during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Gloria said the city needs to act now to address its homeless problem, and it was starting by offering shelter Monday to the other homeless people who were in the tunnel and escaped injury. A handful accepted. The city also sent mental health professionals to help. 

"We want to make sure that they did not die in vain," Gloria said of those who were killed. 

But he added that the city is facing a shortage of beds at its shelters and he pledged to talk to state and federal officials to get more help, calling the current situation "not acceptable."

"It's not humane or safe to keep allowing our unsheltered neighbors to sleep under bridges, in alleys or in canyons," he said. 

Lisa Brotzman said she was peering out of a window in her tent just as the car swerved to the right shoulder, "spun out of control" and jumped onto the sidewalk in the tunnel where people were waiting out the rain.

"Someone was screaming, 'Ahhh! Ahhhh!'" Brotzman told The San Diego Union-Tribune. "Two or three people were yelling and screaming. It was scary."

The driver got out of his car and tried to help people before identifying himself to police, Nisleit said. 

"He was cooperative, (and) did not try to run away," the chief said, correcting earlier reports from police that he had tried to flee. 

Ambulances, five fire engines, a helicopter and more than 60 first-responders responded to the scene. 

"Our crews found, obviously, a tragic incident under the bridge," the fire chief said. 

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