- Voice of San Diego - https://www.voiceofsandiego.org -

North County Report: Encinitas Stands Behind Homeless Parking Lot

Diane, a homeless resident, parked at Jewish Family Service’s Safe Parking in San Diego in January. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Encinitas is pressing ahead with a highly contested safe parking program for homeless residents. The City Council voted unanimously to extend the city’s contract with the nonprofit Jewish Family Service, citing a potential increase in homelessness due to the coronavirus pandemic and after police found no evidence that program was increasing crime, as opponents predicted it would.

At a public meeting on May 20, Capt. Herb Taft, who leads the Sheriff’s Department’s North Coastal Station, said he concluded with “absolute confidence” that safe parking had zero impact on calls for service or crime in the area. Taft said deputies haven’t had any issues with the homeless who are taking part in the safe parking program. Instead, he suggested people in nearby communities are the real problem.

“There are individuals for whatever reason that have called in crimes that were unfounded,” he said. “There are individuals that have trespassed on the property. There are individuals who for some reason I feel are trying to antagonize the group there and so that’s where we’ve had the issues; it’s not with the people who are using the service.”

The Encinitas City Council first approved the safe parking program, which sits on property owned by the Leichtag Foundation, in January on the condition it would re-evaluate the program in four months. Opponents of the program aired numerous concerns with the plan [1]. They said it would pose a risk to nearby communities, attract more homeless people into their beach town and wasn’t the right solution to solving homelessness. At the same time, proponents said the program would connect people living in their cars with needed services and noted that the program was necessary because there was a lack of affordable housing in Encinitas.

City Council members have acknowledged similar sentiments from community members throughout the pandemic as well as a concern that the number of people taking advantage of the program was lower than anticipated. Jennifer Gates, a principal planner in Encinitas, said the program has serviced [2] 39 individuals so far and 14 of them were Encinitas residents.

Lea Bush, a senior director of family and community services at Jewish Family Service, said when the program started in early February, it experienced a ramp-up period and then in March it hit full enrollment. As the state began to shelter in place to deter the spread of the novel coronavirus, she said, a group of people exited the program — some were housed or went into a temporary hotel voucher program through the nonprofit Community Resource Center.

“It allowed for us to have people in a safe place when we didn’t quite know what was going to happen with the global pandemic,” she said. “And we’re grateful for that.”

But the nonprofit continued to reserve some of those spaces for people in hotels, which led to the relatively low count in April.

Michael Hopkins, CEO of Jewish Family Service, said the average number of participants who sleep at the lot each night is about 15, but he expects that to increase. He said the lot right now has room for another 10 vehicles and the nonprofit plans to book more cars to make better use of the space.

Hopkins said the program has been valuable during the pandemic because it allows individuals living in their cars to get connected to the world and to get food. “We know when folks become homeless, their car is the first step in the continuum of falling,” he said. “The county eventually will end up with more homeless people. People still owe money for rent.  We’re certainly expecting an increase.”

City Councilman Tony Kranz, who cast the sole vote against the parking lot in January, said while he had reservations and voted against it back in January, “to say things have changed is quite an understatement.”

“We’re now in the midst of a pandemic and public health crisis and such, and so the continuation of the program is a really important way to try and make life a little better for the people that find themselves in this terrible situation where they have no shelter, but they do have a car,” he said.

He said he previously voted against the program because he was worried about a lawsuit and wanted the City Council to work with the region to figure out how it was going to address homelessness. (A group calling itself the North County Citizens Coalition did file a lawsuit in early March against the city following the approval of the lot.) But the initial success of the program and the lack of crime showed him otherwise, he said.

He left open the possibility that if crime did increase as a result of the lot, he would revoke his support.

“Encinitas has always had homeless issues and whether they’re worse now it could be related to the pandemic and the 28 percent unemployment that we’re seeing,” Kranz said. “So again, I think it’s important to emphasize to everyone that spoke tonight that we are aware and it is going to be the focus of our attention here in the months ahead.”

What We’re Working On

In Other News