By Miriam Raftery
September 27, 2022 (El Cajon) – On September 20, East County Magazine interviewed Graham Mitchell, El Cajon’s City Manager. He’s the man behind the curtain who keeps everything running smoothly in the city and on occasion, steps in to troubleshoot when concerns arise. He spoke with us about the city’s concerns over the county placing homeless people into eight motels in El Cajon, what steps the city is taking to help the homeless, as well as some other issues and some positive things happening in El Cajon.
You can hear our full interview recorded for our show in KNSJ radio by clicking the image on the left, or scroll down to read highlights.
Q: Tell us how you learned of the county’s homeless voucher program, and what happened when you went to check it out.
A: “We’ve always known that the county ran a voucher program just because of a voucher program…county staff has never approached us…we’re learning as we do with most things in the county with a price release. We started noticing a spike in crime, and our drug detectives started noticing people we’d never seen before…they were drug dealers coming into El Cajon and preying on those people in those motels…
We started digging deeper, we had our police officers go out and one evening talk to every single motel in the entire city, the front counter, and ask how many people are here on vouchers? We found out that 158 people were here on vouchers from the county of San Diego. That’s a lot of people.
Q: You had a disturbing encounter with a drug user and dealer. Tell us bout that.
A: I went out to one of the sites just to see what was going on. I asked some people to clean up trash. There was a gentleman with a dollar bill about to snort some sort of a narcotic and I asked him not to. He acquiesced and he went away. But I noticed another man slumped over…He was on Fentanyl or some sort of drug…almost in and out of consciousness. I was trying to make verbal contact with this man to see if he needs help, do I need toc all 911…there as a guy on a bicycle sort of riding around us…I was told to leave the premises using vulgarity…and I was escorted back to my car and I drove away. Then I noticed almost at the corner of that motel across the street there were people set up…waiting for people to wake up to sell drugs to, and that’s our concern. If you’re gong to turn a hotel into a homeless shelter, it should act like a shelter…ECTLC, you and I can’t just walk in. You have to have ID, a purpose to be there, they have security there and there is a security for those that are being housed they’re, they’re safe. The people that are being housed by the county under the vouchers are not safe…That is what prompted us to take action, really to protect our community.
Q: The voucher program places people who are homeless into a motel for 28 days and then the county can transfer them to another for 28 more days; around a third were transitioned into long-term housing, but there are also problems. You found problems with smoke detectors, I understand?
A: The day we went out there, 60% were missing smoke detectors or missing smoke detectors…we found propane-fired stovesThis is now an economic burden on the city.”
Q: How many homeless people does El Cajon have now?
A: You’ll hear a county supervisors talk about a spike…what’s interesting, those aren’t people on the streets. Those are people that are sheltered. If you look at number of shelter beds we believe we have, 382, and the number of homeless, over 600, either the point in time count is wrong, or the county infused another 300 people into our community. It’s almost a circular argument where county says you have so many more homeless, well no duh, you put more homeless into our community.
Q: The County has said that at least 37% or so of those placed in El Cajon’s motels with vouchers came from outside El Cajon, but the real number is higher, since the 63% from El Cajon includes the unincorporated areas as well as the city itself. You’ve submitted a records request to the County asking where these homeless people came from, among other things, and given the city’s high rates of homeless and poverty, you also asked why so many homeless from outside the city are being placed here. Have you received a response?
A: I haven’t. I wouldn’t call it a public records request at this point. I have a good relationship with County Staff. I’m hoping they will provide a response…I’m thinking it’s irresponsible for the county to put out a press release saying 63% are from El Cajon and then there is a little asterisk saying it includes unincorporated El Cajon…
A: Devil[‘s advocate question – if they only limited this voucher program to the people from El Cajon, would this be as big an issue for the city of El Cajon?
Q: It would depend. I think we’d have to look at the numbers…the other concern is the county’s contractor literally turning 100% of the hotels into homeless shelters…
Q: Now the city is fining some of the hotels, right?
A: We sent out a notice of violation to 7 motel owners…we’ll be having a meeting; I’ve invited the county, they’re not showing up….
Q: Supervisors Anderson and Fletcher, in a bipartisan press release, responded to the city’s complaints by accusing the city of trying to push homeless people back on the streets, and stated that If the voucher program no longer aligns with the City's commitment to addressing the issue of homelessness from a regional approach, we have full confidence in their ability to find solutions -- and in their police department to ensure the residents of El Cajon are safe." What’s your response to that?
A: We’re doing that. We’re going to send out a press release highlighting four significant arrests we’ve had recently, all individuals participating in voucher program; one individual we’ve arrested three times, selling individuals to homeless people in the voucher program…We’ve started a heavy enforcement; we made six arrests just today (Tuesday Sept. 20) and we’ll be out every day doing some heavy enforcement. The County asked us to respond, so we are responding to that. The other thing that’s shocking to me, comments by two supervisors, it’s so odd to my how personal this has become. To me this is a contracting issue. Either the county didn’t know what was happening…or they knew what was happening the whole time…if you look at the number of participating motels in El Cajon (8) compared to city of San Diego’s massive 2, you could say El Cajon has 5,000 times more than the city of San Diego. For a county which talks about equity, which I believe in, you would think the county would try harder to be more equitable, and that’s all we’re asking. Just be more equitable to the jurisdictions you represent.
Q: El Cajon has done a lot to help the homeless. Can you tell us about some of the steps people might not be aware of?
A: Since the beginning of 2020, we have placed 816 individuals into permanent housing…I do not think there is a city outside of maybe San Diego that comes close to that. And not through any county voucher program, just through our own programming, we’ve helped to provide temporary short-term housing for over 2,400 individuals. Again, I don’t think you can find another city that has done that level of work.
Q: The city provides financial support to the East County Transitional Living for short-term housing…you have to be clean and sober to be in that program, right?
A: That’s right. We have a contract with Home Start…they identify individuals who are ready to be off the street…they work with them, provide some case management, if there is job assistance needed, if there are sobriety issues they’ll work with them on that; they get them into temporary housing usually through voucher programs, we use vouchers as well but we do heavy case management.
A: Is the way you do vouchers different from the county?
A: It’s very different. We do heavy case management…there is a goal in sight and we don’t put them all in one motel. We have eight motel rooms being used throughout the city…once they find housing, the city helps provide deposit assistance, maybe first month’s rent….Another program [Take Me Home] is countywide that started here in El Cajon with the Salvation Army. We piloted it, no one wanted to touch it, we said it’s a wonderful idea, but it’s helping people get back with their families…Under our contract they have to do counseling periodically. It’s been very successful…there is counseling with the family members to build some bridges …there is help when they get back to pay when they get back a bed and some clothes. It helps provide a way back home. So we’ve housed through those programs and ECTLC and Home Start, that 816 individuals…This is where I’m confused. I would think the county of San Diego would be looking at El Cajon and saying, I wish more cities would do what they’re doing.
When there are larger cities that do not have shelters, it baffles me that we’ve become sort of this target when I feel like we’re doing so much.
Q: You also have a tiny homes program?
A: Yeah, we just opened up the emergency sleeping cabins at Meridian Baptist Church for mothers and children. It’s a great program…we’ve created the model for this to happen.
Q: You created a program for homeless people with dogs who didn’t want to lose their dogs to get services?
A: We didn’t really solve it; we were hoping to; we intended to have a dog owner allow us to watch their dog for a period of time (at the animal sheslter) but state law requires if someone turns a dog into an animal shelter, they actually have to relinquish that dog and even if we promise that we’re not going to give it away or adopt it out, if you love your pet you’re most likely not going to relinquish it.
Q: Have you talked to your state legislators about changing that?
A: I think that’s a fantastic idea, especially if it’s the love of a pet that’s keeping them from saving their lives.
Q: Last Spring, the four East County cities signed a memorandum of understanding with the county aimed at reducing homelessness. Supervisor Anderson recently sent out a reminder letter that $5 million remains in a Capital Emergency Housing Solutions Grant Program but so Far, El Cajon has not applied. Why not?
A: Actually only three cities in the entire county have applied for the money and two of them, San Diego and Vista, it’s for safe parking programs. Really only one city is using for legitimate shelter – Oceanside…
Q: The County has tried to build shelters in East County, but people objected to shelters in their communities, so now the County is offering money…
A: Here’s the rub and I call it the Sacramentification of our County. There was a time when the county would reach out to the cities and say we have a pot of money. We want to help you build shelters. How can we best use the seed funds. And then the cities would have said we need help with capitol or land purchase or operations or a myriad of things. That’s not how the county works. The county says here’s our money, here are all the strings attached, take it or leave it, there’s no negotiation and then we get mad at you if you don’t apply.
Q: What are the strings of concern?
A: Security, three meals a day, washer dryer…I don’t know if that’s feasible for some cities…the other is timing. It takes a long time to acquire land, acquire a motel…it goes back again to a collaborative approach. There used to be a collaborative approach?
Q: What help does El Cajon need to reduce homelessness?
A: There’s two answers. One is if we were to build another shelter, that’s a long-term cost. It’s not a short-term thing. But we already have more shelter beds than any other city in the county…We actually would like to see the county use its own money to build shelters where they are needed in Lakeside and Spring Valley. So the better question is county, why aren’t you using this money to build shelters in your jurisdiction?
You said the four cities signed an MOU with the county of San Diego (which was in the County release). That’s not accurate…the reality is the four cities got together and had an MOU in the can ready to go when we started having a discussion with county staff on maybe there was some value in getting them involved. We worked with county staff for maybe 6-9 months…The county slapped their logo onto the corner and called it the County MOU. It was the cities’ MOU and the county took credit for it….
Q: What do you see as the answer for those among the homeless who don’t think they need help, the ones who are mentally ill or drug addicted?
A: First is understanding why we’ve had this huge spike in homeless in recent years…it has nothing to do with people being sick or losing jobs (during COVID). It has to do with changes in our criminal justice program. …for decades the state’s homeless solution has been jail….a prison system probably is an expensive way to house the homeless and …not a humane approach…Although that’s not a great model, the state and county said we’re going to start pushing people out of penitentiaries, we’re gonna reduce penalties for crimes, and we’re not going to book people into county jails unless they have committed a serious crime….Is it better for them to be in jail? No, it isn’t. But you can’t just change that policy and then expect the problem to go away. The voters passed Prop 47 and Prop 57 which decriminalized a lot of crimes, and there’s ramifications to that. No one worked on how are we going to address that? Although the county may be saving money on housing people in county jails, the cities are now suffering with the cost and the burden of these people being on city streets.
Not everyone has a drug problem or mental illness, but when I see a guy outside my office…there is a gentleman who will strip completely naked, we have a fountain that no longer has water due to drought, he things he’s scrubbing his armpits and rinsing himself, putting clothes back on…that’s not humane…but as a city manager I have no ability to help him because he won’t respond to our outreach….There’s got to be a solution at the state level.
Q: Do you support the CARE court which was just signed by the Governor with strong bipartisan support, to create a way to force someone into institutionalized care for a limited period of time with safeguards, where it would periodically come before a judge?
A: We were, I think the first city in the county to endorse the plan. We have a conservative city council but we were invited, Mayor Wells was invited with the Governor in Sacramento….it’s not the end game but it’s clearly a tool.
…I think most people don’t like the banter going back and forth between the county and the city. We’ve been very careful not to focus on personality, to focus on policy…There’s been some swipes at me…one press release referred to a poorly run city. That hurts a little bit. I pride myself on being professional and I think we’re one of the best run cities in the county….but I hope the residents of El Cajon will recognize we’re fighting for them, but we are also working toward solutions.
Q: What else is happening in El Cajon that you would like the residents to know about?
A: There’s a lot. We have a lot of development happening right now. We just adopted an economic strategic plan, so we’re working out with the mall properties to figure out a long-term strategic plan for the mall…the mall is actually owned by five independent owners, so getting them all together has been a challenge…it has so much potential…we want to help on that process. That’s one of the big goals we’re working on.
…The city council just placed measure P on the November election (half cent sales tax increase to increase policing and address homelessness) and also increasing fire capacity. …I think El Cajon residents appreciate the work that we’ve done but recognize that we need to take this to the next level, and I think we recognize that we don’t have a magic wand..it takes money to make money, it takes money to make improvements. And I think as we make the right strategic improvements it will actually increase sustainability so the tax base increases and the sales tax base can decrease. And one of the things we instituted, I think it’s the first in the county, is the council actually has the ability to lower the sales tax. That’s unheard of….
Q: You’ve got everything going on with the theater –
A: The theatre is booming. We’ve got some big shows coming up actually. Belinda Carlise from the Gogos..Morrisey from the Smiths are coming…we’re actually at our next council meeting doing a financial report on how the Magnolia is doing.
There’s a lot of positivity. We’re bullish on El Cajon. It’s a great place to be, I encourage everyone to participate and get involved. We need your help.
One last thing. We have a great mobile phone app, so you can report…if you see tagging, or a homeless encampment. I encourage people to look up in the app store, City of El Cajon, download it and it helps us to be more responsive to your concerns.