San Diego county District 2 Supervisor Joel Anderson, Under sheriff Kelly Martinez and county Department of Homeless Solutions and Equitable Communities Community Operations Officer Barbara Jiménez held a joint press conference April 29 on recent county homeless outreach efforts.
Speaking from nearby a homeless encampment along the 1200 block of Magnolia Avenue in unincorporated San Diego county just north of El Cajon, Anderson said a Memorandum of Understanding between the county of San Diego and the cities of El Cajon, La Mesa, Lemon Grove, and Santee is currently under review.
That MOU essentially calls on individual cities and the county to each identify and facilitate emergency and permanent housing along with supportive systems in an effort to reduce homelessness throughout East County, employing a shared approach to the situation.
Jiménez said partner agencies including the county’s office of homeless solutions, contracted outreach group People Assisting the Homeless, El Cajon’s Home Start program, the sheriff’s Homeless Assistance Resource Team and others have been at the Magnolia site three times per week since April 1. Ideally, regular agency presence means individuals staying in the area can seek out services in an accessible location.
“Having the Live Well on Wheels mobile office on site means a person can walk away with that Electronic Benefits Card” they can use immediately for food and grocery purchases, Jiménez said.
San Diego County Homeless Union Advocate and Activist Tim Schneider, who was at the press conference said he receives enough permanent disability income each month “to pay for everything but a roof” and has been homeless for nearly 27 years. The number one thing he said most homeless people need is affordable housing.
Since March 19, the department of Health and Human Services has connected 48 individuals with housing, although another 55 declined services.
Sergeant George Crysler, Jr., who heads the HART team, said the county needs more housing in different neighborhoods. Most people who stay at the Magnolia encampment are from Lakeside and El Cajon, he said and don’t want to be moved from familiar territory with known convenience stores and reliable bathrooms.
Schneider said he “can’t think of anyone” who is willing to leave their possessions behind without knowing what the future holds or where they’re going.
“Transporting someone from El Cajon to Fallbrook would not be a good choice,” Crysler, Jr. said.
At the same time, the constant presence of a homeless encampment draws community ire and some local home and business owners have demanded law enforcement step in although being homeless in itself is not a crime.
The balance of meeting unsheltered residents’ needs, answering homeowner calls for cleanups and honoring law enforcement agencies’ mission to protect the public can appear to produce conflicting efforts. Attempts to cite anyone under penal code 647e, which deals with illegal squatting, can result in ugly optics if a sworn officer appears to be harassing an individual who is essentially doing nothing besides existing in a public space, Crysler, Jr. said.
Additionally, a pc 647e conviction can carry a year of jail time or a $1,000 fine, both of which potentially make obtaining a job or housing harder in the long run.
“Often the things that got people here like mental health illnesses are exacerbated by narcotics use,” Crysler, Jr. said, but attempts to provide shelter and treatment are more effective when homeless individuals have developed trust with the HART team.
There are just eight deputies assigned to Crysler, Jr. to connect homeless county residents with food, housing, job programs, substance abuse counseling and mental health services.
Although one unnamed resident in Friday’s small crowd demanded Martinez address alleged sex trafficking at the Magnolia encampment, the undersheriff said she is not aware of any trafficking situation there.
“I’ve never seen a trafficking case in a homeless encampment, let alone this one,” Crysler, Jr. said.
Martinez said they typically deal with low misdemeanor-level crimes in the homeless community, which is challenging as an individual can be released and return to the same encampment where they were living before their arrest.
That provides some amount of reassurance the site is relatively free of major crime, but also demonstrates the unsolved endlessness of the situation.
“We’re hitting close to the limit of what we can do legally. When are state legislators going to step up?” Anderson asked, his voice rising.
Martinez said her observation has been that the longer people remain homeless, the more entrenched they become in the lifestyle.
El Cajon City Manager Graham Mitchell signed the MOU on April 26.
La Mesa Assistant City Manager Carlo Tomaino said the MOU is tentatively scheduled for discussion at their May 10 city council meeting. Santee Assistant to the City Manager Kathy Valverde said the MOU is tentatively scheduled for discussion at their May 25 city council meeting.
As of May 3, the city of Lemon Grove had not announced their plans for the MOU.