North County Report: Oceanside Grapples With Definition of Success for Homeless Hotel Program

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North County Report: Oceanside Grapples With Definition of Success for Homeless Hotel Program

Cal State San Marcos professors demand action against one of their own, thousands of students still don’t have reliable access to high-speed internet at home and more in our biweekly roundup of North County news.

Homeless residents were cleared from a dirt footpath in Oceanside before the city placed boulders there. / Photo by Joe Orellana

Nearly two months after Oceanside officials covered the sites of two homeless encampments with rocks and moved the individuals living there into motel rooms, about half left the program and are sleeping on the streets, in creeks, and at other unsafe locations in Oceanside again.

Over the last several months, the Union-Tribune’s Gary Warth followed the story of Rodney McGough, a homeless man in Oceanside who wanted to work with the city on creating a safe camp site for himself and others. Instead, city staff shut down the camp site  and moved him into a motel room. But he was then told to leave the motel room for not following the program’s rules. The experience, he told Warth, left him “in a dark place for a little bit.”

“It wrecked me, the way the city dealt with it” he said. McGough called the voucher program a waste of the city’s money, Warth wrote.

A similar situation played out in Encinitas last year. At the start of the pandemic, Encinitas partnered with nonprofit Community Resource Center to place unhoused residents in motel rooms, but sent many of them back to the streets or into their cars when money ran out. At the time, Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear touted the city’s initiative to put unhoused residents in motel rooms, even if just for a short time. But some people who stayed in those motels said their experience had been frustrating and demoralizing as they struggled to access food and other resources.

Both coastal cities launched their own motel voucher programs, and both led to similar outcomes: Many people ended up back on the streets.

It begs the question: Who defines the success of a motel voucher program, and what is a program worth without the services in place to ensure the people who go there stay off the streets in the long term?

Oceanside officials are grading their success by how many people go through the program and move into any sort of housing. But homeless advocates like Vanessa Graziano, who runs Oceanside Homeless Resource, grade the successes of their city’s motel voucher programs on whether they end up on the road to permanent housing and long-term personal stability. For it to happen, unhoused residents need time and resources to get back on their feet, seek the health treatment they need, get trained on job and other life skills and develop a community for during and after transitions to permanent homes, Graziano told me.

Oceanside put a number of conditions on the people moving into motel rooms. To complete the program and get on the road to long-term housing, people must comply with strict rules and must proactively work with the service providers, accept referrals to services, or accept offers of housing,” Oceanside Assistant City Manager Michael Gossman told The Coast News.

But while the city is spending the money to run the program, homeless advocates have said the city should ensure the program works for as many unhoused people as possible.

Of the 48 people who participated in Oceanside’s motel voucher program, 24 people, including McGough, were either told by city staff to leave for not following the rules or let them go on their own without placing them in longer-term shelters or treatment facilities. Of the 24 exits the city considers successful, seven people moved into an emergency shelter, six moved into residential treatment programs, six moved into permanent housing, four moved into bridge housing and one moved into recuperative care. Three of the original 48 people have found employment while in the program.

In an email, Gossman wrote that the housing division’s goal is to get unhoused residents into permanent housing, but “not all clients will be ready for housing (and that’s ok).” He said the program “empowers the clients to define their goal and success,” whether getting them into a detox facility or assisting them with diversion and intervention services.

Over the last 16 months, Graziano and other homeless advocates across the region have launched online fundraising efforts to help put people living on the streets into motel rooms. Graziano, who used to be homeless, helps unhoused people in Oceanside get into motel rooms. Her goal is to help people find their purpose and self-worth after living on the streets, and on the road to long-term housing. It includes daily meals, mental health services, detox services, financial literacy classes and more. But money is tight, and she doesn’t have room for everyone. She’s relying on the city to help out with her client load, but said the city needs to also focus on what happens to people after they leave the motels.

“What I want to know is how successful are people after they get placed?” she said. “OK, you got them into shelter, but now are they OK?”

McGough had been staying in a different motel with support from homeless advocate and activist Amie Zamudio, who organized an online GoFundMe fundraiser for him, the Union-Tribune reported. Graziano told me McGough is in her program and she’s helped connect him to housing.

Gossman contends that the motel voucher program is client-focused, works one-on-one with clients and provides trauma-informed case management to develop and assist people in finding housing. He said people eligible for the program receive a 21-day voucher “to stabilize” and develop a housing placement with an on-site case manager. The on-site service provider at the motel decides how long a person can stay at the motel on a case-by-case basis, he wrote.

City leaders have long touted that there is not one solution to ending homelessness, and their own motel voucher program makes clear that its strict rules do not work for everyone. Yet there are extremely few options for homeless people in Oceanside to get help. Oceanside has the second-highest number of homeless residents in North County, behind Escondido.

The city does not have a homeless shelter or city-funded day center where people who can get access to food, housing and job assistance, showers and other needs. A 50-bed homeless shelter could be coming to town, but it won’t be enough for all of the unhoused people in the city. (City staff are recommending that City Council approve the establishment of a 50-bed shelter at the Oceanside Shores property and let local nonprofit Interfaith Community Services open and operate the shelter. The City Council will hear the staff’s recommendation at its upcoming Council meeting on June 16.)

The money the city has allocated to its motel voucher program is enough to keep it going for six months, but Oceanside city staff are putting together a plan for maintaining a motel voucher shelter after the $602,000 it allocated for the motel voucher program runs out or until the emergency shelter is opened. The decision will require approval from the City Council.

Gossman said the program is constantly evolving “using feedback from clients and partnering service providers.”

Speaking of places to sleep …

Oceanside is not the only place where tent encampments are growing. There has been a large spike in homelessness in San Diego and National City. There are also people sleeping in their cars across the region. Encinitas granted Jewish Family Services a six-month extension of its homeless parking lot (which has garnered intense community backlash since its beginnings).

Cal State San Marcos Creates a Crisis for Itself

The president of the university announced that school officials are reassigning professor Chetan Kumar to another position in which he won’t work directly with students. As I reported last week, the university found that Kumar had harassed four students. Administrators tried to fire him, but let him keep his teacher job after his union intervened.

But as frustration over the decision to allow Kumar to continue teaching mounted last week, Kumar’s colleagues demanded action.

I’ve written about teacher harassment cases in K-12 schools for nearly three years now, and I’ve never seen a teacher’s own colleagues demand termination in the way it’s happening now at Cal State San Marcos.

On May 28, the school’s College of Business Administration community launched an online petition addressed to the university and the union urging school officials to fire Kumar.

I’m following the uproar at the university and will have updates in the coming weeks.

What We’re Working On

  • More than 22,000 students in the region still don’t have reliable access to high-speed internet at home, and county officials are scrambling to get them connected before schools reopen for full-time, in-person learning.
  • More high schoolers are opting for distance learning in the fall than any other age group, my colleague Will Huntsberry reported.

In Other News

  • Oceanside City Councilman Christopher Rodriguez, who represents District 2, is running for the 49th Congressional District seat in 2022. (Coast News)
  • The Oceanside City Council approved recreational cannabis businesses in a 4-1 vote. At a recent city council meeting, Vista City Council members said they’re open to considering allowing recreational cannabis shops, and agreed to lower dispensary fees.
  • Oceanside police requested $500,000 for surveillance cameras for streets, alleys and intersections west of the downtown Civic Center. (Coast News)
  • Vista officials shut down a community food pantry in a residential neighborhood. (Union-Tribune)
  • Homes in North County are selling well above the asking price, and first-time home-buyers are struggling to buy. (KPBS)
  • And finally, May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Month. KPBS reporter Tania Thorne highlighted the fourth generation of the Yasukochi family, which is now running Yasukochi Farms in Fallbrook.
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