By Elijah McKee
Photo, left: Rebecca Branstetter, East County Homeless Task Force, testifies to El Cajon City Council
December 18, 2021 (El Cajon) — The El Cajon City Council addressed several agenda items at its last meeting that had potential to either help or hurt those in the homeless community who rely on cars or RVs.
According to the East County Homeless Task Force (ECHTF), the Cajon Valley Union and Grossmont Union High School Districts serve a known homeless population of over 550 families, at least 30 of which are unsheltered and sometimes living in vehicles.
However, after lengthy discussion, the two pressing items — a Safe Parking Program proposal and a zoning code update on RVs — were pushed off to a future meeting so that City staff could look at them in greater detail. Many who spoke at the meeting hoped to see clear actionable steps and less policy mazes on these issues, but the City Council sought to strike a balance.
“I don’t want to get into a situation where it’s ready, fire, aim,” said Councilmember Phil Ortiz, who also spoke of his own experience being homeless while in school. “I do understand the urgency. But I think there’s a handful of topics we discussed tonight that are interrelated. I would be of the mindset that we think about this methodically.”
The Safe Parking Program, originally pitched and scheduled for a 90 day review by Councilmembers Steve Goble and Michelle Metschel, would set up approved lots around the city that could allow those experiencing homelessness to safely stay in their vehicles for the night and receive support.
A representative from the Good Shepherd Ministry Center offered its parking lot for consideration at the meeting, describing the ample room, access to bathrooms and wifi, and available meeting spaces inside. Dr. Teresa Smith, the CEO of the potential program provider, Dreams for Change, also spoke on the effectiveness of the program.
“What we do ask,” she said, “is that you don’t wait 90 days for this review to happen. We know what works — we’ve been doing it for eleven years.”
“We have the things that you’re looking for,” she continued. “That screening process, that case management services, those client supports.”
However, City Manager Graham Mitchell voiced the need for more patience. “I worry that starting to identify sites may be premature when we’re still unclear on what this could potentially look like and the city’s role.”
“They’re ready to go,” countered Councilmemeber Goble. “It seems like you have an experienced provider, and a willing location. I don’t think we need to go through this whole scope.”
In the end, the matter was pushed back for further discussion at the City Council’s Goal-Setting Workshop on January 20, 2022.
On the other item — the zoning code update — a similar trajectory took place. The snag was the addition of a clarifying clause that, referring to RVs and mobile homes on private property, stated, “In no case may such vehicles be used as habitation anywhere on property.”
While California State law allows these kinds of vehicles to be parked on streets, El Cajon’s municipal code does not currently address their occupation on private residential property — which means it is not allowed, since anything not outlined in this code is prohibited. The new clause would reinforce this law with stronger language that clearly states the prohibition, to make it easier to deal with the electrical and sewage infractions that come up.
Both council members and the public had concerns about the potential impacts of this clarification, and the law in general, on people who might want to occupy an RV for housing needs during home remodeling or while guests visit — or while experiencing homelessness.
“I would urge you to regulate, rather than prohibit, occupied RV parking,” said Rebecca Branstetter, the Shelter and Housing Lead for the ECHTF. She asked for the clause to be stricken so that the city’s hands were not tied when planning other initiatives, like the Safe Parking Program.
Councilmember Metschel, who also mentioned her own experience being homeless as a child, resonated with the public comments.
“Times have changed,” she said. “Times are hard. I mean no disrespect, but I think that we need to reevaluate this particular code. We’ve got too many people, too many kids, living in cars.”
Councilmember Goble proposed an amendment to the proposed clause that allowed for 30 days of occupation per year. He estimated this measure would cover the private property rights of those who remodel their house or have family visit, while also allowing flexibility for those in need of housing to still rely on temporary RV living, either in their own vehicle or that of a charitable owner.
“That 30 days could be just enough time to get into that apartment,” said Councilmember Metschel in agreement. “They could save that money.”
Yet others remained skeptical of such an amendment.
“I’m personally going to have trouble voting for a plan that allows homelessness in neighborhoods,” said Mayor Bill Wells, bringing up the sense of responsibility he feels towards homeowners in El Cajon. “I think we have an obligation to try and maintain law and order, and maintain the livability of El Cajon.”
“It makes everyone safer,” offered Councilmember Gary Kendrick in response to the mayor. “The people letting them park in their driveway are probably going to know the people they’re letting park in their driveway, so there’s more safety there.”
With the clock on this discussion approaching 30 minutes, the City Council agreed to temporarily set aside the problematic sections of the zoning code update and approve the rest. The RV code was then pencilled into the upcoming Goal-Setting Workshop for further discussion.
With El Cajon’s agenda for the new year coming into focus, Dreams for Change, the ECHTF, and those most impacted by the City Council’s decisions on parking and vehicle occupation expectantly await further action.