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By Miriam Raftery

Photo credit:  Amikas

August 16, 2020 (El Cajon) – El Cajon’s City Council on Tuesday approved a pilot program to allow emergency sleeping cabins as temporary housing for the homeless. Homelessness is anticipated to rise amid the COVID-19 pandemic, after federal unemployment benefits ran out July 31, putting more people at risk of eviction in the future.

The first village of six cabins, similar to structures known as “tiny homes,”  will provide short-term shelter for homeless women, especially women veterans, and their children at Meridian Baptist Church on South Third Street. 

The vote was 5-0, including Councilman Bob McClellan who returned to the dais after recovering from brain surgery following an injury. The city received 25 comments in favor and none opposed. 

“This could be a model for other cities in California,” Councilman Gary Kendrick told East County Magazine. Kendrick introduced the proposal and indicates he has already received an inquiry from another East County city  “No one ever wants to be first to get things done. El Cajon has a reputation of being first to protect children from alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and now, homelessness.”

Kendrick says homeless women with children are often the hardest hit among the homeless population. They are vulnerable on the streets, yet often have trouble finding shelter, since some facilities don’t want the liability of accepting children, yet “They’re the ones that need the most protection right now, so this is a win-win,” says Kendrick.  

The emergency sleeping cabins at the Meridian site will be run by Amikas, a nonprofit that is raising funds to build the other five cabins at a cost of about $4,000 each. You can donate at http://amikas.org.

These 12 x 12 units  have 96 square feet of interior living space plus a porch, but do not have plumbing. Pastor Rolland Slade has indicated the church will make bathrooms available and possibly showers; mobile showers will be provided by an outside organization initially.  The church also provides meal service and gives food to the homeless. The  site will have security 24 hours a day, along with some services. Residents an stay up to 90 days as they work to transition into permanent housing.

The city’s new ordinance could allow similar villages on up to 13 properties.  The ordinance also allows tiny homes on wheels that can be towed with a trailer, and those could include toilets and cooking facilities, with at least 100 square feet of first-floor interior living space.

Any village of tiny homes or emergency sleeping cabins must be approved by the city  and be on at least a 1.5 acre site. The use must be compatible with neighboring property uses.  Each village must have a management plan including security, screening of residents, cleaning protocols, site rules and supportive services among other requirements.

Mayor Bill Wells told the San Diego Union-Tribune he was skeptical initially due to problems in some other cities where hotels housing homeless people had problems with crime and drugs.  But he indicated he changed his mind after learning that residents must follow rules, or leave.

Amikas President Shanna Welsh-Levin has said she hopes the success of El Cajon’s pilot program will “be replicated throughout the county of San Diego in conjunction with other nonprofits, property owners and housing providers.”

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.

East County Magazine gratefully acknowledges the Facebook Journalism Project for its COVID-19 Relief Fund grant to support our local news reporting including impacts on vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more: #FacebookJournalismProject and https://www.facebook.com/fbjournalismproject/.

You can donate to support our local journalism efforts during the pandemic at https://www.EastCountyMedia.org/donate.

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Watching how this goes in El Cajon with interest. jj