WHY I VOTED FOR THE TEMPORARY BAN ON THE FREE DISTRIBUTION OF FOOD TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC IN PUBLIC SPACES

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By Steve Goble, Councilmember in the City of El Cajon



November 21, 2017(El Cajon) -- Some voices, especially from outside the City of El Cajon, have mischaracterized the City’s temporary prohibition on feeding the public in public spaces.  I thought I’d address here why I voted for the temporary ordinance and attempt to clear up any misunderstandings which have been distributed on social media and spoken in public forums.

“Why did you pass this ordinance?”

This is a temporary ordinance, in place as long as the County’s emergency declaration regarding the outbreak of Hepatitis A (“Hep-A”) is in place. According to the County’s Health Dept, El Cajon has had the second highest number of people diagnosed with Hep-A. 

Approximately two-thirds of those diagnosed are people who are homeless, use illicit drugs, or both.  Working with the County, the City has implemented a strategy of sanitation, immunization, and education.

To help prevent the spread of Hep-A, the City has temporarily suspended approval of the free distribution of food to the general public in public places, such as Wells Park, where people who are homeless are known to gather.

Once the County lifts its emergency declaration regarding Hep-A, the City will remove its temporary ordinance and consider a long-term policy developed in conjunction with our local community partners which currently serve the homeless community.

“Is this legal?”

Yes. The City has a right to enact ordinances, temporary and permanent, and especially those which protect the health and welfare of all its residents, both housed and unhoused.

“Can a family still hold an event with food in the park?”

Yes.  Private events, not for the purpose of distributing free food to the general public, may still take place.

“Won’t this temporary ordinance leave homeless people hungry?”

No. There are nearly 70 places in El Cajon where people who are homeless can get food 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. These include 24 restaurants, approximately 20 markets, and twelve 7-11 Stores in El Cajon where they can use EBT cards. In addition, there are 13 faith-based and secular organizations in town, which in total, serve meals every day of the week. As a result, people who are homeless have many choices for receiving food, both prepared and unprepared, whichever their preference.

EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) cards are available, among other sources, at the County’s Health and Human Services Agency office in downtown El Cajon or through selected social service agencies. EBT cards replaced the old Food Stamps program and provides funds in the form of a debit card for people with low- or no-income.

“What about churches and social services agencies? Can they serve food to people who are homeless or others in need of food?”

Yes.  They may provide meal services on their own property or other non-public places.

What is the City of El Cajon doing to help people who are homeless?”

More than nearly every city among the 18 in the County.  This year, the City funded a Housing Navigator who directly contacts people who are homeless and finds permanent housing followed up by supportive services; provided funds for emergency housing; worked with local businesses and volunteers on the East County Homeless Task Force; committed travel funds for those who desire to move back in with family or friends outside of the County; funded a text-based app for people who are homeless and looking for help, already resulting in placement in permanent housing; has made available spaces at the animal shelter to care for a pet short-term during a transition to housing; and more. 

In closing, the City’s temporary prohibition on the distribution of free food to the general public in public places in no way adversely affects the accessibility for people who are homeless to get food.  To the contrary, combined with those resources, the City’s efforts to find permanent and transitional housing for people who are homeless already is yielding positive results and has been praised by homeless advocates regionally.  Helping prevent the spread of the Hep-A virus, especially among those most vulnerable, through a temporary ordinance, while not adversely affecting the availability of food is a responsible, caring, and appropriate short-term course of action.

The views in this editorial reflect the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine. To submit an editorial for consideration, contact editor@eastcountymagazine.org.