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View video of forum: (note: forum ran longer than anticipated, so some questions at end were not recorded.)

By Christianne McCormick

November 17, 2022 (El Cajon) -- A highly anticipated forum on homelessness in El Cajon was held on October 22 at Grossmont College with city and county leaders. The panel, convened by Supervisor Joel Anderson, also included El Cajon Councilmembers Steve Goble and Phil Ortiz, City Manager Graham Mitchell and Police Chief Michael Moulton. All weighed in on the public’s concern about the growing issue throughout East County and especially in the city of El Cajon.  

Supervisor Anderson explained that he helped to dissolve the encampment that was located on Magnolia in unincorporated El Cajon, after nine months of heavy outreach. The site has since been converted into a safe parking area and many of the camp’s former residents have been put into the county’s motel voucher program and placed in El Cajon motels.

“I was knocking on tents at three in the morning asking people how they got to be homeless and asked them what kind of services they need. I wanted to know firsthand so I could best serve them,” said Anderson.

Currently, El Cajon supports shelters, but there are no shelters on county land, so the hotel voucher program is the county’s main program offering immediate help to those experiencing homelessness.  It is a strong tool; Anderson said that 30% of the people helped through the voucher program are in permanent housing today, though 20% were kicked out of the program because they violated the rules.

“We took that Magnolia site and we made it safe. Now there’s a bathroom, there’s a shower, we’re meeting their needs,” said Anderson. He noted that some of those who are homeless and staying at the safe parking site have jobs, but just can’t rent. “They are trying to raise the money to find permanent housing. We are working with them with wrap around services,” Anderson told the audience.

Panelists from the city discussed what needs to be done to address homelessness and what barriers the city faces.

Councilman Steve Goble voiced frustration over other communities and the County not offering shelters. “The difficulties we find is other communities don’t want to adopt this because they say, ‘not in my backyard.’ That’s the reality,” he said, adding that many homeless wind up settling in El Cajon “because we do offer a place with compassion. We need all these communities to step up somehow and be part of the solution. We need more people to say that they will participate in the solution,” Goble implored.

Councilman Phil Ortiz revealed that he experienced homelessness while in college. “I’ve had family members who are homeless, I knew people who lived in storage facilities…I was couch surfing, living out of my truck, taking showers at the gym, burning bridges with my friends because I was sleeping too long on couches. So, I know what it’s like,” he shared.

Ortiz went on to describe how each category of people experiencing homelessness needs to be addressed differently. He explained that there are situationally homeless and chronically homeless people.

Examples of people who are situationally homeless include someone who has lost their job, is a college student struggling financially, a person who got kicked out of their apartment, or a single parent who had their provider leave. A person experiencing chronic homelessness is someone who’s been on the street for six months or more and often has some kind of addiction issue or mental health issue that’s hindering them from lifting themselves up out of distress.

The city of El Cajon has a lot of programs for those who are situationally homeless. Ortiz went on to explain that those programs have been successful because its relatively inexpensive to help people who are situationally homeless.

Since those experiencing chronic homelessness need mental health or drug rehabilitation services, which is very expensive for a small city like El Cajon to have to cover, many of those experiencing chronic homelessness remain homeless, or wind up back in the streets. “You’re not just dealing with their homelessness, their financial situation, or their housing situation. You’re dealing with the trauma of their life, you’re dealing with anxiety, depression. You’re dealing with addiction, that requires mental health professionals, that requires sometimes medication,” said Ortiz.  

The next factor they discussed in combating homelessness was funding from the state.

“Scaling is difficult because it involves money. It moves slow. I mean that’s just the reality it’s just so slow,” said City Manager Mitchell. Federal grants and other monies that are issued by the federal government follow a trickle-down system where first the state will get a portion, then the counties within the state, and whatever is leftover will be given to the cities within that county, he explained.

“If you look at a chart of homelessness across the United States per state, you’ll notice that in every large state, their homeless populations have either decreased or plateaued over the last six, seven, eight years except for one state. Guess what state?” To which the audience replied with “California.” Mitchell replied, “You’re exactly right.  It is interesting that you can see these spikes in homelessness as Proposition 47 which pushed people out onto streets as Prop 57 was passed by the voters which decriminalized a lot of felonies, and as counties because of COVID stopped intaking people who were breaking the law. It’s interesting that these spikes all correlated with those points in time,” said Mitchell.

Proposition 47 was passed in 2014 reducing some crime to misdemeanors in the State of California. Proposition 57 was the prison reform proposition which allowed parole consideration for nonviolent felons, changed policies on juvenile prosecution, and authorized sentence credits for rehabilitation, good behavior, and education. Prop 57 was passed in 2016.

Mitchell continued, “As a city we get calls all day long from people, ‘Why can’t the police chief get a backbone and go get rid of these people?’” But he added, “There’s no way to get rid of these people. It would be improper, unethical, and illegal to put them on a bus and ship them to Yuma although that is the number one request that we get. Until some of those laws change--and those laws will only change as we talk as a community--we’re going to be, like I said, working with both hands tied behind our back.”

Some City leaders have chafed at the fact that the County has been filling up El Cajon’s motels with homeless people on vouchers, yet according to a report ECM obtained from the County, as of October 10, only one of the approximately 100 homeless people in El Cajon motels using vouchers was from the city of El Cajon.  Most of the rest were from unincorporated areas under County control.

Councilman Goble voiced a different sentiment. “If they are all behaving themselves, let’s help ‘em out.”  But not if there’s crime happening as a result of the motel voucher residents, he added. “We were called to patrol the hallways; we were called to the properties from property operators and we had two three-day operations resulting in over 40 arrests. I’m okay if you’re behaving yourself. Come from a voucher from the city of San Diego, come from the city of La Mesa. We are ready to help but if you want to cause problems for the community and create an unsafe environment for the rest of the voucher recipients who are trying to better their lives or the community around that motel then we have a problem.”

Ortiz’s clarified, “We are not talking about all homeless. We are talking about the criminal element within the population,” emphasizing the fact that much of the criminal behavior found within the population is a result of the lack of proper mental health care. “If there can be a referral by a social worker or family member or a medical professional or a law enforcement professional, that puts a person who is not mentally well in front of a care court judge so to speak, to gauge a person’s mental capacity,” he said of the state’s new care court program rolling out in 2023. “If you have multiple 5150 calls (for mental health problems) in a six-month period, you need help and it should be forced.” There are testimonies from other states where people say that they would have died or they would have killed someone else unless they were forced to get help, according to Ortiz.

After each member in the forum spoke, audience members were eager to have their questions answered, with several audience members urging the mediator to read what they had submitted. One question that was submitted was, “How can I help?”

Mitchell took the microphone and immediately asked Bonnie Baranoff to stand up.  “Bonnie currently is our representative. She runs the East County Homeless Task Force and her goal is to come up with ideas and collaborate with the cities. We rely on her to collaborate. So, if you have ideas, talk to Bonnie; she desperately wants people to volunteer and help on the organization, so get in touch with her,” adding that Baranoff would stay afterwards. 

Baranoff then spoke to the crowd from her seat. “You have to educate and advocate. You have to educate yourselves and advocate for solutions. It’s that easy.”

Anderson then took his turn to respond and spoke about how difficult it is to find locations for shelters. “If you know of an area where people would fit, please forward it to our office. We would be happy to vet it to make sure it fits the criteria. I need shelter locations throughout my district,” he said.

Anderson also elaborated on his efforts to combat homelessness.  “I had a townhall in Lakeside to address getting a shelter there and the point in time count said there were 355 or 455 people living in the riverbeds, as the riverbeds are being cleaned out. When I was in Lakeside, we had a room about this size; 350 people were there; another 800 or so who were Facebooking live. They said all their homeless were from El Cajon. I said ‘Look, if they are living in the riverbed, they are your homeless. I don’t care where they were born and raised, they’re your homeless. I think that if we got or get so caught up in with whether a person is five feet outside of their city or five feet into the county or out of the county ,we are going to lose track.”

Anderson added, “This is regional problem. We need to be addressing it in a regional way. Remember when you say that we are dumping people, no one is forcing anyone. You can’t force homeless hotels to accept homeless. They say that we have these rooms available and we those rooms…”

An audience member interjected with the question, “Where do you send them?”

Then some attendees at the forum started calling out as Anderson was speaking. “You’re lying,” one man accused. “I bought my home here four years ago and I went to your Lakeside meeting. I talked to you and your little assistants. No enforcement, no one is in control… I have pictures I’ll show you right now,” the resident said. “You’re lying I talked to them and they tell me you’re dumping them.” At this point the crowd starts to get riled up, several in the audience said ‘yes’ in agreement to the statement the man had made. The panel cut the man off and attempted to ease the tension by assuring the crowd  that there would be time for questions at the end.

The El Cajon resident who spoke out during the forum spoke with ECM in an interview. The resident is a homeowner and father but asked that he remain anonymous. He said, “I started this conversation; everyone is here because of me. Joel Anderson, I saw him and I went to the Lakeside meeting. I talked to him he didn’t even know about the motel programs. He said, ‘I don’t deal with that you got to talk to somebody else.’”

The resident explained that he bought a house in El Cajon four years ago and that he deals with those experiencing homelessness daily. “I see these people, I deal with these people, I don’t want to call them “these people.” A lot of crime here, a lot of back and forth.” He described open drug use. “My kids can’t even go to the store; these people are shooting up.” He explained one of the flaws he finds in the hotel voucher program. “One person gets a voucher and they’ll bring 10 other people. I mean, it’s out of control. A lot of dope dealing all day long.”

What solution would the disgruntled El Cajon resident support? He’s not sure. But he told ECM, “I’m not saying shut them down. I don’t have a problem with homeless people. All I’m asking for is some security, some kind of background checks, and maybe some fencing.”  He compared El Cajon to Santee. “At these motels it’s easy to see.” By contrast, he noted that in Santee, the homeless are largely out of site, living in the riverbed.  “You can drive there and there isn’t homeless on every single corner.”

 He added that El Cajon’s homeless problem is worse than other area cities such as La Mesa, National City and Chula Vista.  Then the El Cajon resident lamented, “So what are we doing wrong?”


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