By J.W. August
May 12, 2022 (La Mesa) -- The Tuesday evening La Mesa City Council meeting was a study in contrasts as elected leaders tackled a discussion that has no doubt played out in other council chambers across the country — what to do about the homeless problem.
One option was a proposal to join forces with San Diego County and the cities of El Cajon, Lemon Grove and Santee.
An entirely different approach, offered up by Councilwoman Laura Lothian, was to move the homeless out of the area to a 16-acre site with existing facilities that is for sale at 431 Jeb Stuart in Campo. It would be a place where the homeless could live “kinda in the middle of nowhere” where perhaps the land could be farmed, said Lothian.
Listing link: https://cr.paragonrels.com/publink/default.aspx?GUID=7b4c5184-5036-4344-b57c-68ad39056a5f&Report=Yes
The Council opted to hold hands with other cities and the county, approving a memorandum of understanding, MOU, a handshake among all involved to communicate and collaborate to work towards a solution to a regional problem. Councilmembers voted unanimously to approve the MOU proposed by Supervisor Joel Anderson: https://pub-lamesa.escribemeetings.com/filestream.ashx?DocumentId=5077
Specifically, the proposed five-year MOU enables cooperation in identifying potential locations to site “low-barrier emergency housing” and on-site services as well as permanent supportive housing in each city to house unsheltered people.
The MOU would be a catch basin for any and all ideas, where the possibilities of collaboration on numerous projects would be weighed and considered. Should La Mesa find the MOU is not working, it can just walk away from the deal; it is not legally binding.
Assistant City Manager Carlo Fomaino explained that in 2009, the City of Boise lost a ruling passed down by the 9th District that found its ordinance targeting the homeless violated the 8th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Fomaino said that the city's "citations against the homeless individuals without access to shelter met the criteria for cruel and unusual punishment." For La Mesa and other cities without shelters, it means jailing or citing the homeless is not an option.
The city of El Cajon approved the MOU in April. The cities of Santee and Lemon Grove are anticipated to consider the MOU at upcoming meetings in May or June.
The La Mesa Citizens Task Force on Homelessness, created in 2019 by the Council, has been tasked with helping find programs designed to prevent homelessness and housing insecurity. And the Task Force was very much in favor of the council approving the agreement.
Lothian noted that no one is looking for a solution outside the community. She went on to describe how her job in real estate sales allows her to travel the city every day and she sees the homeless encampments, the vandalism, the human feces.
While she supports finding a solution, she questions the lack of input from the business community or neighborhoods in helping address the issue.
As an agent, she knows how costly land is in La Mesa and believes a “piecemeal approach will be too expensive” for finding a place for the homeless.
She suggested moving the population to Campo to a property “rich in history, adding ”there is nowhere else you can get a deal like this.”
Current tenants, she said, include the Border Patrol, a gas station, post office, a Baptist Church, a VFW Hall, a feedand grain store, plus 28 residential buildings.
The cost would be $5.45 million.
“All I want is to explore the possibility,” she said.
When the Council was asked for a second to her motion, the room grew silent. And stayed that way.
While no one spoke up to support her suggestion, when it came time for public response, it sounded like the town of Campo called in.
Julie Valsco pointed out she lives in a 200-home housing development near the location. There is a small Sheriff's station that closes at 5 p.m. “We don’t have resources to do this.” she said, then asked with the extreme fire danger in their area, how could people on the property be evacuated.
Jody Herbert, also of Campo, wondered where the homeless might find work and how they would get there, since there is no mass transit in Campo. She said the late Father Joe Carroll tried to do a similar project in the back country and it failed.
Besides, she said, “I moved from El Cajon because I want to live in a rural area.”
Another resident of the area, Tina Reyes, said she is a healthcare worker and pointed out there is only one medical facility in the area and no hospital. “Relocating is not solving the problem, you are just moving it from one area to another.” She added it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind."
As the discussion came to a close, Council member Lothian wanted everyone to know she was not part of any deal involving the property she had just promoted as a possible solution for the city's homeless problem.
J.W. August is an award-winning journalist and freelance producer who has served as investigative producer for NBC 7 San Diego and as managing editor and senior investigative producer at ABC 10 San Diego. His in-depth investigations have included a wide range of topics such as rising seas, hate groups, nuclear fuel storage, stem cell clinic claims, dolphin deaths, and massage parlors as fronts for organized crime.
His 40-year career includes many honors, notably 35 Emmy awards from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the National Press Club award for consumer reporting, the Freedom Foundation award for coverage of hate groups along the border, the National Society of Professional Journalists’ Sunshine Award for fostering open government in San Diego, and the Investigative Reporters and Editors award for outstanding investigative reporting on illegal waste dumping.
August is past president of the Society of Professional Journalists San Diego Chapter, as well as past president of Californians Aware, a public interest group devoted to helping the press and public hold public officials accountable for their actions. He is also an adjunct professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, teaching investigative skills and long-form storytelling to aspiring future journalists.