By Miriam Raftery
“It’s very likely that we won’t be able to provide the same level of service that we do today….The County has no walk-in services for the homeless, and pretty soon that’s going to be the way it will be in El Cajon.” – Mary Case, Executive Director at Crisis House (photo, left)
June 25, 2020 (El Cajon) – El Cajon’s City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve an early lease termination agreement to oust Crisis House from city-owned property at 1034 Magnolia Ave. For the past 26 years, the city has leased the property to Crisis House for a dollar a year, recognizing the value to the community of the services provided by Crisis House, which has a mission to “break the cycle of poverty, domestic violence and homelessness and strengthen families and individuals so that they can thrive and transform their lives.”
The city wants Crisis House gone from is current location near the new Hampton Inn hotel. So the Council-approved measure offers Crisis House $700,000 if it vacates the property by September 30th. That amount diminishes to just $350,000 by year’s end and $150,000 by March 31, or zero if Crisis house remains until the lease expires on June 30, 2021.
But Mary Case, Executive Director of Crisis House, says that’s not enough time to find an affordable space, adding that the action will almost certainly mean major cuts in services.
“We can’t find something for $700,000,” says Case, who has already begun looking. “There is very low inventory and prices are high because of that.” Given that the nonprofit’s budget for rent has been zero, facing the prospect of paying high rent amid a pandemic is daunting. Case says a real estate advisor has told her that more properties will likely come onto the market in the future due to the pandemic forcing some businesses to close or downsize, but that this isn’t expected to occur by the September deadline.
“Now is not a great time to fund raise for our cause, when people are losing money in the stock market and worried about going to the grocery store,” she says, adding that Crisis House already operates on a lean budget with no development staff and personnel focused on providing direct services.
She says she first learned that the city planned to not renew the lease in April but did not secure an agreement on funding for early vacating until June 21, leaving only three months to secure new space.
Crisis House has been serving East County for 50 years. Previously on Main Street, the nonprofit lost that space 26 years ago due to redevelopment. But back then, Case recalls, the city found a new space for Crisis House and paid for its relocation.
Redevelopment is again a factor, but this time, the city is not providing relocation, only a modest financial incentive at a timetable that may be impossible to meet. Of the $700,000, Case says, “Realistically, they’re banking on me not being able to use it.”
Councilman Gary Kendrick told East County Magazine, “If we didn’t care about them, we wouldn’t offer them that $700,000.”
Asked why the city wants to oust Crisis House, he replied, “We’re trying to revitalize that area. That’s the wrong place for a homeless center. It’s right by our new hotel that’s opening and there’s a lot of homeless going over there…We have a problem with homeless camps around Crisis House and behind Home Depot. We’re trying to get these people into programs and most of the people left on the streets right now are pretty hard-core.”
File photo, right: Outreach to a homeless individual in East County.
City staff has recommended selling the property where Crisis House is currently located, which was bought with Community Development Block Grant funds back in 1994.. After any early lease termination money paid to Crisis House, the rest of any revenues would be used for other CDBG-eligible capital projects such as improving Wells Park, improving lighting and sidewalks, or adding curb ramps for pedestrians.
Kendrick insists that Crisis House should be able to find suitable space. “Because of COVID-19 there’s a lot of open space in East County. It doesn’t have to be in El Cajon…We’ve already got more social services than anyone else in East County.”
He notes that the city has given the East County Transitional Living Center approval to expand. That facility houses 98 single men and 23 single women as of today, with 246 men, women and children in a family program also living there. Kendrick says the ECTLC, which is an alcohol-free and drug-free facility, almost always has rooms available for singles for overnight housing but admits there is a waiting list for the family program. So the city approved construction of two new buildings to house another 120 people.
But Crisis House provides some walk-in services available to all homeless people that the ECTLC does not.
What’s most at risk of being lost due to losing their lease?
“The drop in homeless services,” says Case. That includes meals given out, mail service, places to plug in cell phones, use the bathroom, shower and access a mobile clinic. “The County has no walk-in services for the homeless and pretty soon, that’s going to be the way it will be in El Cajon,” Case predicts.
The rapid move will likely force her to drop those services and focus more on services for women and children who are victims of domestic violence. That’s because some areas would require a conditional use permit that can take months to apply for, plus paying rent long-term means less money available to fund services for people in need.
Nine letters from the public were read during the Council’s virtual meeting on Tuesday, all opposed to the plan. Case says even more letters were sent, but some were not read.
Anna Marie Piconi Snyder Consulting Project Director, East County Homeless Task Force argued for Crisis House to be given more time. "During this time of pandemic and its consequences, in consideration of the mission of Crisis House, how long they have operated in the current location, and knowing the benefit of $700,000 to a non-profit trying to purchase a property, it seems that a greater benefit would come from extending the first financial incentive out to December instead of September."
Several other advocates for the homeless praised the Crisis House programs and urged Council to allow Crisis House to remain or give the nonprofit more time to find a new location.
One person who sent in an anonymous comment had this to say. "The Crisis House is really the only resource organization where you don't have to be religious in order to get help. Crisis house has been a big help to our homeless Community for many years. People go there to get food resources, they can get you a discount on your getting your identification card and receiving mail. So my question is why? Why wouldn't the city want to keep supporting them when they do so much for our community? What is the city planning on doing with that property? It's obvious that the city will make more money by kicking out the crisis house then helping the crisis house and giving back to the community. It's not like the city isn't making money from that property with the telephone tower that sits on it right now. Really what is the city wanting to do with that property that they are so inclined to give incentives for the crisis house to move out early. Once again our local government officials show us money is more important than the citizens."
Another wrote, "I'm a resident of East County, have been since 2007. I'm also a graduate of crisis houses program of transitional living. I was a drug addict... Living on the street. Because of crisis house I had a place to live, to be able to get a job and to give back to East county. Please, whatever your decision, think of those of us that have no voice and just need that help up. Crisis house saved my life."
Case voiced dismay that on the same Tuesday agenda that the decision was made regarding Crisis House, the City Council was voting on hefty raises for the city manager and city attorney---even after she was told the city couldn’t afford to offer more help to Crisis House. She also voiced frustration at the lack of face-to-face contact during testimony at the meeting held online due to COVID-19.
According to its website, Crisis house offers “a continuum of emergency, social and housing services including but not limited to transitional housing, supportive housing services, case management, counseling, crisis intervention, food pantry (open daily) and acting as a community liaison to outside resources. We are the only Emergency Resource Center in East County serving the poor and homeless.”
The site lists an impressive success rate: “Crisis House continues to stabilize the lives of over 18,000 families and individuals and provides nearly 52, 000 critical case management and other social services to them annually. Over 85% of clients in our transitional housing programs acquire permanent housing and income and achieve self-sufficiency.”
Case believes the city acted hastily and hopes officials may reconsider and extend the time frame at least until year’s end for the $700,000 – or better yet, help the long-standing nonprofit find suitable space in El Cajon, which has by far the highest number of homeless people in East County.
“I don’t want to have an interruption of services. The clients’ services should be a critical consideration, with the timeframe,” she says.
Kendrick, however, wants to see other cities step up to the plate and do “their fair share,” noting that neither Santee, La Mesa, Lemon Grove, nor the County of San Diego currently have any homeless shelters or services like those provided by Crisis House.
Unless the situation changes, the director of the half-century-old nonprofit states, “I need to find a property right now. It would be nice it I could find the right property to have some breathing room for the next 50 years.”
Case hopes that if the city won’t reconsider, a philanthropist may come to the rescue. “Maybe there’s a donor who has a building they’re losing money on, and they want to donate it,” she suggests.
Individuals can donate money to help at http://www.CrisisHouse.org.
Amid a pandemic that has left more people than ever vulnerable economically due to job losses and many families facing added stresses from the quarantine, the nonprofits clients and staff are now at risk.
“I’m just trying to run an agency and tell everybody `Don’t worry, we’re going to have a home,’” Case reflects, “when I’m worried as hell.”
Miriam Raftery, editor and founder of East County Magazine, has over 35 years of journalism experience. She has won more than 350 journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Press Club, and the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Her honors include the Sol Price Award for responsible journalism and three James Julian awards for public interest reporting from SPJ’s San Diego chapter. She has received top honors for investigative journalism, multicultural reporting, coverage of immigrant and refugee issues, politics, breaking news and more. Thousands of her articles have appeared in national and regional publications.
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