By Jakob McWhinney, Voice of San Diego
Photo: Gerald (Gerry) Kostiha eats a grapefruit while sitting on a chair outside his tent Tuesday, March 8, 2022, near El Cajon, CA. He has been living at the Magnolia encampment with his dog Lumpy for four months. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego
March 22, 2022 (San Diego) - For the past four months, Gerry Kostiha has lived with his dog Lumpy off North Magnolia Avenue on a plot of county land only a few feet from the border of El Cajon. The 62-year-old worked as a plumber until a fall down a flight of stairs left him immobile and required a series of major surgeries.
He’s watched as the number of unsheltered individuals in East County, and at the encampment where he stays, has grown.
“Three years ago I used to live underneath that bridge right there, and it was just me and three or four other people,” Kostiha said, pointing to the north end of the encampment. “Now it’s gotten crazy all over.”
Results from the most recent count of individuals experiencing homelessness, which took place in late February, still haven’t been released. But according to the results of the 2020 count, the East County region is home to the second-highest number of individuals experiencing homelessness, behind only the city of San Diego.
The 2020 count put the number at just over 1,000 individuals, and advocates and officials expect to see an increase when the most recent data is released.
But despite the high numbers, both the sprawling, rural nature of East County and the lack of shelters and services for individuals have made homelessness a less visible issue. Another obstacle has been the historical unwillingness of political leaders in the region to take coordinated, substantive action to address it.
Though that seems to be changing.
The County Gets Serious
Photo, right: Tommy Rodger, 63, has been fighting devastating illnesses for many years, and while he would prefer to be inside, he is just glad to be alive. He has been at the camp with his girlfriend for about a week. More than two dozen tents, large and small, line the side of Magnolia Avenue on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. / Photo by Peggy Peattie for Voice of San Diego
“If you go back, nobody gave a shit,” said San Diego County Supervisor Joel Anderson, who represents much of East County. “Hepatitis [A] was the tipping point where the city started taking it more seriously. County was asleep at the switch, people were dying, and then they decided they would start doing stuff with shelters.”
Anderson and Board Chair Nathan Fletcher are trying to bring a greater sense of urgency these days. Last April, the board unanimously approved Fletcher’s proposal to create the Department of Homeless Solutions and Equitable Communities, which was meant to improve collaboration with outside partners and to centralize homelessness services that had, up to that point, been spread across multiple county departments. To activists and advocates, it also seemed to signify the county was taking homelessness more seriously than it had in the past.
In November, the board also voted unanimously to adopt a new regional framework to address homelessness. It’s anchored in five basic concepts that include new emergency, interim and supportive housing services, and additional funds to treatment, outreach and prevention efforts.
The county also added 32 new homelessness services workers to its team of social workers and outreach staff, said county communications officer Sarah Sweeney.
The team now stands at 53 employees, with 10 human services specialists and street case managers who focus on immediate and long term engagement in partnership with East County cities. The proposals and new hires amount to around $1 billion annually, when CalFresh benefits paid for by the state but administered by the county are included.
At a February meeting, the board approved a motion to spend $1 million annually, with the first three years being paid for by American Rescue Plan funds, on emergency shelter options and other resources in unincorporated areas. The motion began with a board letter from Anderson requesting compassionate solutions for homelessness in East County, but was expanded countywide after a request from Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer.
“Downtown was first to notice the issue (of homelessness), first to sweep it under the rug, and then the first to start addressing it in a more meaningful way,” Anderson said during an interview with Voice of San Diego. “In the interim, they sucked up tax dollars from all over the county.”
And it was now time, he said, to redirect those funds to parts of the county that had long been neglected.
One of the options presented by county staff at the meeting — a proposal to create safe parking lots in which individuals living in their cars could sleep overnight — was estimated to take as long as one year to implement. But that wasn’t soon enough for Supervisors Anderson and Fletcher, who after the most recent redistricting process now represents the communities of La Mesa and Lemon Grove in addition to downtown San Diego.
Anderson referred to safe parking as “low-level fruit” and said he hoped it would take only a few months to set up.
Fletcher acknowledged that new services require a lot of planning but said nine to 12 months for a safe parking lot was “excessive.”
He cited the speed with which the county had previously been able to convert a vacant courthouse downtown into a shelter for asylum seekers, and the county’s work moving over 1,000 individuals experiencing homelessness into the Convention Center in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He also acknowledged that the sites of most permanent supportive housing would inevitably face opposition, but when it came to temporary solutions like safe parking county staff needed to find ways to shorten the timetable. Even if that meant trying to reform laws to allow for more speed.
At that same meeting, the board approved plans to enact a shallow rent subsidy for older adults that would amount to around $300. It’s meant to help individuals at risk of homelessness stay in their homes.
It comes in response to warnings from officials and advocates who say more older adults are living on the streets, especially those on fixed incomes who have simply been priced out of the housing market. Earlier this year, the real estate firm Ojo released a report showing that housing prices in San Diego had risen 14 percent since last year, leading the region to surpass San Francisco as the least affordable metro in the country.
“When you think about grandma and grandpa, why in the hell would we want them to be out in the streets when we could protect them with $300,” Anderson said. “These are people [who] are functioning on their own, they have no additional needs, other than it’s just got too expensive where they live.”
Pursuing strategies that prevent individuals from losing their homes in the first place is not only a better outcome for individuals, Anderson said, but ultimately less costly for taxpayers than services that aim to get them off the streets.
While the county is looking for ways to address homelessness in East County, so are others.
Cities in East County are also beginning to take a larger role in addressing homelessness.
La Mesa launched a unique homeless outreach program called HOME in November 2020 and adopted a five-year homeless action plan last year. El Cajon officials said they’ve spent $2.8 million since 2020 on 11 separate homeless-related programs.
One ongoing challenge for individuals experiencing homelessness in East County is a lack of housing and shelter options. Bonnie Baranoff, a member of the East County Homeless Task Force’s steering committee, said even when someone living on the street is ready to move into a new place, they often find there’s no affordable or permanent supportive housing for them to move into.
El Cajon’s East County Transitional Living Center is the only permanent shelter in the region. But it’s also considered a high barrier shelter, because it requires individuals to maintain sobriety and take part in a year-long faith-based program to be housed long-term.
“It’s greatly successful for a lot of people but it’s not for everybody,” Baranoff said.
For Kostiha, not being able to bring his dog Lumpy with him makes going to the East County Transitional Living Center a nonstarter.
“Before Lumpy came into my life, I was living a life that didn’t have much care in it,“ he said. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t want to live right now.”
He said he feels he’s been offered plenty of handouts when what he needs is a hand-up in the form of job training.
“I’m not an idiot,” Kostiha said. “I’m very intelligent and I’m capable and there are things that I can do, I just don’t know how. But I’m capable of learning.”
One stumbling block for individuals living in the encampment is confusion about what resources they can access and when.
Kostiha said part of what’s discouraged him from seeking more services is his understanding that once you sign up, some programs like Home Start disallow you from accepting services from other organizations. But Laura Tancredi-Baese, CEO of Home Start, said that aside from certain forms of monetary rental assistance nothing precludes an individual from accessing the services of multiple programs.
“This is a crisis,” Tancredi-Baese said. “We don’t want to get in each other’s ways.”
Given the web of organizations involved in providing services the confusion is understandable and seems to be widespread.
“I think for some folks we make it way too complicated,” said Pastor Rolland Slade of El Cajon’s Meridian Baptist Church.
He co-chairs a committee set up to study and advise on factors that lead to disproportionate levels of homelessness among Black San Diegans and said his work has taught him how difficult it is to get people in the system in the first place. Slade attributes part of this difficulty to a lack of cultural fluency and sensitivity amongst some homelessness sector workers.
Despite the new push for services, the county hasn’t taken advantage of every opportunity. For example, in September 2020 the county withdrew a proposal to use state funds to purchase a La Mesa hotel and turn it into permanent housing after residents and city officials complained about a lack of local input.
The county also missed a deadline to submit applications during the most recent submission period for homeless housing dollars through the state. But county officials told Voice of San Diego that they expected to submit a proposal during the next, more competitive submission period.
Meanwhile, the pushback from some residents has been growing louder.
On Jan. 26, the Grossmont-Mt. Helix Improvement Association hosted a Zoom meeting meant to act as a preliminary evaluation of a potential safe parking site in Rancho San Diego. Omar Passons, director of the county’s newly created Office of Homeless Solutions, opened what he said was his 19th public meeting on possible East County emergency shelter locations with a request that individuals, however impassioned, attempt to voice their opinions without insulting others.
“People have differing views, and that’s okay,” Passons said. “It feels like in our country we sometimes get caught [up] in finger-pointing and this kind of thing instead of just listening to each other.”
The dozens of attendees were largely critical of the proposed location, voicing concerns about an increase in crime and waste and the proximity of a nearby preschool and shopping center.
Sweeney said the evaluation process is still ongoing, but that there had been earnest collaboration with communities to determine alternative sites.
One thing everyone does agree on is the need for greater coordination.
“From the political point of view this is something that we all need to do and it crosses party lines,” Slade said. “It’s an issue that we need to all come to grips with.”
For more than two years, Slade in partnership with the nonprofit Amikas has been working through the permitting process to build six small emergency shelter cabins in a vacant lot attached to his church. He hopes the shelters, meant for female veterans with children, will be ready to house individuals by June.
He said he’s been impressed by the increased willingness of city and county leadership to work together on addressing homelessness, and cites the creation of the East County Task Force on the Homeless, which he co-chairs, as evidence of that vision.
“There now is political will to get it done,” Slade said.
Anderson himself advocated for increased and sustaining collaboration between cities and the county, and for approaching homelessness from a regional perspective rather than one that ends at a city’s border.
“Because if Lakeside pushes them to Alpine, and Alpine pushes them to Pine Valley, then it’s not solving the problem,” Anderson said. “And it’s not right to treat people that way.”
“The cops basically chased all of us here,” she said.
El Cajon seems to be open about this policy. In a recent op-ed for the Union-Tribune, El Cajon City Councilman Steve Goble wrote that citing individuals for setting up a tent or sleeping somewhere illegally was unproductive, but wondered aloud whether a “temporary loss of freedom to get clean, get sober, or even get set up with the [proper] medications and support” is needed.
For others, he said, the answer may be to simply keep them moving along, citing the health risks and cleanup costs of growing encampments.
On Mar. 7, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells spoke to news organizations at the Magnolia encampment to drive home the message that it was actually on county land. In an interview with KUSI, Wells said the juxtaposition of the encampment just over El Cajon’s city boundary was a demonstration of the difference between his city’s conservative style of government and the Democrat-led county.
Sweeney said the county’s Homeless Assistance Resource Team, which connects individuals to services, had increased visits to the encampment from once a week to once a day from Monday through Friday until at least the end of March. She also noted they’d made 14 trips to remove waste since the beginning of the year.
In another interview with CBS8, Wells again took pride in the distinction, saying, “If you notice, there are no tents on our side, but as soon as you cross over the county line, we get this massive, Bangladesh-style homeless encampment.”
But for Reeder, and the other individuals living at the Magnolia encampment, there are also costs to enforcement and displacement.
“Between Caltrans and the cops they’ve taken so much from these people,” Reeder said.
The California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, is responsible for maintaining state property such as land alongside freeways, or waterways. Last year the agency resumed clearing encampments after a pandemic-era policy that paused cleanups.
“Ask anybody here, they probably started over from losing all their shit more than five times. They’ve taken everything from them to the point that they don’t even have a blanket or a sweater,” Reeder said.
“I don’t even know if they’ve experienced how cold it is out here.”
Jakob McWhinney is an intern at Voice of San Diego. More by Jakob McWhinney
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El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells