“This is an emergency, as far as I’m concerned.” – El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells
By Miriam Raftery and Shiloh Ireland
Photos by Shiloh Ireland
September 16, 2022 (El Cajon) – El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells held a press conference Wednesday in front of the Travelodge Motel at 426 West Main Street, one of six El Cajon motels where the County of San Diego has placed homeless people temporarily under a voucher program.
“It’s very frustrating that the County never bothered to let us know about using of El Cajon’s motels as homeless shelters,” said Wells. The city learned of the program only noticing changes in calls for public safety around some of the motels. “This is an emergency situation,” Wells says.
City Manager Graham Mitchell states in a news release,“Not only did we notice an increase in crime and need for medical responses around some of these motels, our police officers started noticing new homeless individuals, along with drug dealers who prey on them, and open drug use.”
The vouchers, mostly supplied by Equus and Public Consulting Group, allows one to stay for 28 days and then they are transported by the county to another hotel for 28 days.
According to a survey conducted by the city last weekend, the Travelodge is at capacity with 100% homeless individuals as well as Relax Inn & Suites at 1220 W. Main Street. Five other motels had an increased voucher occupancy. Of 703 rooms occupied last Saturday night, 26% were occupied by homeless people using motel vouchers, primarily issued by Equus.
The City Manager visited the Travelodge Motel Tuesday morning to witness what was occurring. He says he saw a motel tenant with a rolled dollar bill to snort drugs and another man “coming off Fentanyl…As I was getting ready to call 911 because he was about to go unconscious, a drug dealer told me to mind my own business. I was told to ‘Get the f--- out of here or I'll beat the s--- out of you,” Mitchell recalls.
Mitchell asks, “Why is the County dropping off these community members without any protection? Sheriff Deputies drop off transients from around the County to El Cajon, but re not given instructions to keep them safe.”
He adds that a fire safety inspector earlier this week found that 60% of rooms in one motel being used as a shelter had no operating smoke detector. Some had unsafe propane stoves, as well as “many living in deplorable conditions.”
Wells said he supports assistance for those in need but added that the County action blind-sided him and his staff. “Why aren't they housed in Del Mar or La Jolla?”
El Cajon has expended substantial sums on helping homeless people in its community. Mayor Wells personally headlined a recent concert at The Magnolia theater to benefit people transitioning out of homelessness at the East County Transitional Living Center. That facility requires residents to be drug-free and sober. The city supports other programs to help the homeless, including most recently authorizing construction of tiny homes by a church that will house homeless women.
“My frustration is not with the voucher program. My frustration is that it’s not distributed throughout the County,” said Wells, who noted that neighboring cities of Lemon Grove and La Mesa don’t have any motels participating in the voucher program.
The County recently shut down a homeless encampment on Magnolia just outside the city limits and converted the site into a safe parking area for people living in vehicles. But the Mayor says those displaced from the Magnolia camp aren’t enough people to account for the surge in El Cajon motel vouchers, plus that camp was on unincorporated county .land. “Why bring all the homeless people to El Cajon?” he asks.
The County fired back in a press release issued jointly by Supervisors Joel Anderson and Nathan Fletcher shortly after the Mayor’s press conference.
“The Board of Supervisors is taking action in a bipartisan way to do the difficult work of getting people off the streets and into permanent housing. Mayor Bill Wells and the City of Ell Cajon want to push them back onto the streets…We stand ready to work with anyone who is willing to do the tough work to get people off the streets, but will not be deterred or distracted by those trying to drag us backwards,” Chair Fletcher said.
Anderson, whose district includes El Cajon, stated, “To say that the County is secretly using El Cajon as a dumping ground is misinformed. In the future, I believe our shared constituents would be better served if we worked together, rather than through press conferences.”
The County release indicates the housing vouchers come with services and case management, and that 30% of individuals exiting the program have been moved into permanent housing.
So where are the homeless people with vouchers in El Cajon motels from?
According to the County, roughly 63% of them are from El Cajon, though this includes the unincorporated parts of El Cajon under County control, and it’s unclear how many are actually from within the city limits. Approximately 94% are from East County.
The number of homeless people in El Cajon increased 69% from January 2020 to January 2022, rising from 775 to 1308 individuals, according to the Point-in-Time Count. The County claims that there has been only a slight increase in the number of voucher program participants recently, or around 10 people per week.
Motels opt to participate on a voluntary basis. Countywide, of the 18 participating hotels or motels, 8 are in El Cajon, which does have the largest share. There are 4 in the city of San Diego, 2 in Escondido, 1 in Santee, and 1 in Vista, according to the County.
Supervisors Anderson and Fletcher’s press release states, “So far, we think the County has done a great deal in helping clean up the City of El Cajon.” The release cites clearing of the Magnolia Camp’s 60 homeless people (a move which followed complaints by the city), rollout of the safe parking program with wrap-around services, clearing another camp on Graves Ave., and shutting down over 100 illegal pot shops in or near the city, as well as expanding the hotel voucher program to provide immediate shelter opportunities for East County’s homeless population while workin to move them into permanent housing.
But Mayor Wells contends that this is not enough. He objects to El Cajon, the East County community with the most homeless people, having homeless from other areas brought in, exacerbating problems in the city. “Why aren’t they housed in Del Mar or La Jolla?” he asks.
“The County gets all the money for treating the homeless,” he says, “then they’re bringing the problems here where our police have to deal with it, our firefighters have to deal with it….and our citizens have to deal with the problems.” He concludes, “At the very least, they should be sharing the money with us."
As for the city's concerns about public safety, the county release fired back, "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."
Asked what he would like his constituency to know, Mayor Wells replies, “I would tell people that we understand that your top priority is homelessness. Your biggest concern about raising your family is filth on the streets and homelessness that you see, and we’re going to do everything we can and hold people accountable –and not let our community be turned into a homeless encampment.”